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Memorable Meals – The Art of Waiting Tables

One of my English professors maintained that “art is the fulfillment of expectation.” A line of poetry, a musical phrase, an early visual in a movie all give us a sense of something about to happen. When it does, and when it surprises, delights or shocks, we are satisfied.

In a few notable restaurants, the same definition can be applied to waiting tables. And when the waiters are trained for service in a great French restaurant, it is art indeed. Waiters at Taillevent in Paris in 2002 were, I assure you, artists at the height of their powers.

My son and I enjoyed a meal there on a culinary tour of France that included Paris, Lyon and several towns in Provence. The main course, a lamb dish, was superb and the cheese plate a gastronomic adventure, but what I remember most was the service. Considerate, efficient, virtually invisible and performed by a team as impeccably prepared and practiced as the ballerinas we had watched earlier at Opera Garnier. When the thought began to first enter your mind that a bit more wine would be just the thing, it was there at your hand. When you were finished with a plate, truly finished, it disappeared somehow. When your palate had sufficiently recovered from one taste sensation, washed down with a perfect sip of perfectly matched wine, the next would appear just at the very instant when you were beginning to think that a little something else might be lovely.

We didn’t wait for our table. We didn’t wait for our first glass of wine. We weren’t introduced to the waiters. No one asked if we were still working on our plates.

When we wanted advice, as in what to choose from a cellar with over 3,000 choices, they were expert guides. When we asked for a glass of champagne without specifying which one, their choice was outstanding.

But they did more. My son, at the time still a smoker and feeling the need at mid-meal for a Marlboro, asked a waiter who was escorting him to the suite of restrooms (you were always escorted), if it was possible to  have a private smoke. I was not to be told that he still had the habit. Here’s what the staff did. They procured a pack of the right brand. They set up a table in the salon, with table cloth, chair, ashtray, lighter and a small glass of wine to sustain him while he smoked. Then, a waiter stood guard in the hall in case I decided to walk in that direction. He relaxed, enjoying his cigarette at his leisure in a beautiful room in a beautiful restaurant, then returned satisfied and ready to tackle the cheese plate and dessert.

A restaurant that has served the rich and famous, from Nicolas Sarkozy to Vladimir Horowitz, practiced its art for us, giving both of us a memorable meal.

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Memorable Meals – A Wine Experience

Most wine lovers remember the time when they really understood just how outstanding a great wine can be. Here’s mine. I was living a poor graduate student’s life in Chapel Hill, working in Durham for a stereo store. Our most expensive audio equipment was made by Macintosh, a venerable component manufacturer in New York that was famous for their quality and prices. A Macintosh sales rep visited and invited us all to a meal after work at the Angus Barn in Durham, a famous steak house still noted for its Chateaubriand and its wine list.

Understand that at the time, I was a casual wine drinker who thought Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy (about $4.50 the half gallon) was pretty good stuff.

Our host, who wouldn’t have poured Gallo for his worst enemy, ordered several bottles of a 1959 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Knowing he was dealing with very young men with no palette or experience, he explained that we should smell the wine first, drink it carefully and let it remain in the mouth while we savored its multiple flavors, and then drink. We, of course, just threw it down.

I’ll never forget the experience. When the wine passed my throat, a great warmth spread out from my shoulders and down my chest, following the Lafite to my stomach. I could feel my heart enlarging, a great affection spreading out from me to my table mates, to the host, to the waiter and, indeed, to all mankind. I had no idea, no inkling that such nectar could exist and could taste that good, make me feel that fine. We drank more, and in fact, drank it till drunk since our host, on a generous expense account, kept ordering bottle after bottle.

I’ve had Lafite Rothschild a few times since and enjoyed it every time. But I understand that that first experience can never be repeated. Just remembered and treasured. 

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Memorable Meals – Soup

Here’s an onion soup memory. I was in Washington, DC many years ago on a cold, windy, rainy February evening. I came in wet from the streets to a downtown hotel restaurant, hungry and chilled. I ordered French onion soup and did not expect much more than something hot and filling.

It was lovely. I didn’t know bread could be immersed and cooked in broth and still retain a crispy texture. I didn’t know broth could be so rich, so strong with beef character and depth. (It could, of course, because the saucier made it from roasted bones, browned vegetables and lots of slow cooking). The cheese on top was, properly, drizzling down the side, crusty on top and runny when pierced with my spoon. Yet it didn’t stick and come to the mouth in a large, single mass. It was wedded to the bread, imparting its complex, earthy taste and complementing the onions, the slow-cooked, caramelized, soothing onions.

I returned to the wet and cold of Washington a happier man, warmed from the inside, ready for whatever the city and the weather had in store. Good soup. Really good soup.

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Memorable Meals – The Salad

Like most cooks, I suppose, I have a good memory for meals. Today, I remember a salad. This was over 20 years ago on my first trip to Europe. My company, bless their generous hearts, sent me to a sales meeting outside Amsterdam. After a brief performance at the meeting, my wife and I drove down to Brussels and to la Grand-Place, the old square in the center  of town. It was February, cold, snowing lightly and the plaza was beautiful in the late afternoon. We drank a Trappist beer (maybe a Chimay) in a warm pub, explored a bit, found a cheap hotel and started looking for a restaurant. We found one on the Petite rue de Bouchers just off the Grand-Place.

I was primarily interested in a fish stew and the salad was incidental, or so I thought, to the main course. Only this one was special. It was an extremely fresh mix of very tiny leaves of greens topped with gorgeous white pink sliced figs and a sweet, delicious and complex blue cheese. The chef had prepared an amazingly light vinaigrette that did the subtle work of improving and setting off the sweet of the figs and cheese, lifting the flavors of the greens while never really existing as a separate taste. You didn’t taste it – you tasted the result. It was absolutely stunning.

The photo, by the way, is an approximation. I didn’t have my camera for the real salad.

The rest of the meal? I don’t remember. The fish stew, the wine, a dessert, I don’t know. But the salad. Perfection, a peak moment and a wonderful memory.