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We were saying our goodbyes. Laura was inside with her mother, doing the last-minute traveler's waltz of checking tickets and departure times, making sure everyone had their jackets, collecting books that had been shoved up on shelves, fussing with the cats -- doing any and every little thing that could be done to stall, even for a moment, the inevitable trudge down to the car, the slamming doors, the receding taillights. I was outside on the stairs with Ellis, my father-in-law, both of us sneaking a last smoke away from the ladies. Looking out over the dark parking lot, we were bargaining thank-yous like two Arab traders arguing over a camel. Thanks for coming. Thanks for having us. Filling those awful last moments with politeness, the way people do.
1801 Wynkoop St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
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Pommes frites: $3
Smoked salmon: $10
Charcuterie plate: $12
Goat-cheese salad: $9
Squash ravioli: $13
Duck breast and confit leg: $17
Croque monsieur: $9
Crème brûlée: $6
"And that dinner," Ellis said. "Now, I don't have to tell you, we don't usually..."
"Well, you know," I added. "That's the thing about vacations."
"With the appetizers and entrees and desserts..."
"It's the job. Yeah. One of the benefits of..."
"Yeah, but still."
We spoke in the verbal shorthand of people revisiting an old conversation that must be gotten through in order to reach a certain point, our breath steaming in the cold, our wives' muted voices getting closer and closer, the moment drawing to a close.
"Anyway, it was a great dinner," he continued. "And I just want to say thank you again."
He was right. We'd had a great dinner at Brasserie Rouge and had been talking about it all weekend.
"That stuff?" he said, taking a last drag from his cigarette, field-stripping it between his fingers, pocketing the butt.
"The steak tartare, yeah."
"Yeah. I'd never had that before. That was...that was something. And you know, I'm going to remember that for a long time."
Which was his way of saying more than thank you. The steak tartare -- that had been something special. Something extra, like the secret decoder ring at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks. The steak tartare had been new and wonderful in the best, most surprising way, and the way he talked about it reminded me of something very important I wanted to say, but I never got the chance, because the door opened and the women came out. Laura yelled at me for being a bad influence on her father, who's always trying to quit smoking except when he's around me. Kathy, my mother-in-law, yelled at both of us because we hadn't told her we were going out for a smoke. She's quitting, too, but wanted a couple of puffs anyway.
There were more goodbyes then, more thank-yous, hugs and, eventually, the taillights. When Laura and I went back upstairs, the little apartment seemed big and empty without them.
Now, banging away on the keyboard, I remember that important thing I'd meant to say -- that the best meals are merely vehicles for encoding memories in the long-term vaults, and that I was glad Ellis would be taking something good back home with him. Great meals, I'd wanted to say, give memories context, a hook for recalling and setting apart one special night from the long chain of nights before and after. They work like a preservative, keeping everything in the mental larder fresh and shiny-new.
I'll remember the remarkable steak tartare we shared at Brasserie Rouge, sure -- the silky, salty, beautiful mound of pink raw beef studded with capers, posted 'round with long triangles of thin-sliced black bread -- but I'll also remember the heavy, cheap silver in Ellis's hand as he took the smallest, barest, most tentative bit off the edge of the pile, spread it carefully on a piece of toast and then tasted, for the first time, something I've loved with unhealthy abandon since I was introduced to it in the dining room of a big New York hotel almost fifteen years ago.
I'll remember Laura making a face, disgusted and happy at the same time, as she watched the two of us going back again and again to the tartare, piling increasing amounts of the raw beef onto our forks, slathering it on anything near at hand after the black bread ran out, then doing the same with an assiettes de charcuterie platter ordered when, finally, the tartare ran out, too. The four of us shared the fragrant, cold lamb sausage spiced with fennel on rounds of baguette spread with spicy Dijon mustard out of a little pot; smeared duck-liver pâté beaten into a smooth, airy mousse onto chunks of French bread torn from a loaf made by the in-house bakery; cut tiny bites of gamy rabbit pâté from a chilled slab half-buried under a fall of greens, balancing sweet apple compote on top and eating it off the blade of a knife.
Okay, only I did that last one, because Laura and her parents are rather polite, and I don't think the dinner table is any place for manners. So when the smoked salmon arrived -- brought to the table by a server with a lilting, French-as-a-second-language accent that she used at every opportunity -- I ate it with my fingers. The salmon was slick, stiff and only smoked if you count it being walked by Brasserie Rouge's wood-fired finishing oven on its way to us, and had been mounted on triangles of knotty potato cake with a dollop of crème fraiche and a sprinkling of black caviar that burst on the tongue like exclamation points. With the salmon also came an argument over smoked fish -- how to do it, which wood is best -- and my own tabletop vivisection, which allowed a closer examination of the pink flesh absent all the fluffery and garnish, interrupted only by distracting bites of Laura's pistachio-crusted baked-goat-cheese salad with pickled onions, pears and sour cherries.
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