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One more night at Black Cat

It's rare for a restaurant to have a night go the way of our first meal at Black Cat. I'd watched (in weird, mimed silence, thanks to the panels of glass set between most of the line and the floor) as the night dissolved — the scramble through spiked checks, the hastily convened conferences between front and back of the house, the cooks taken aside by chef Eric Skokan as he tried to pull his line out of the hole they'd fallen into. As far as I could tell, the line had simply misplaced one or more checks during the 7-to-8-p.m. pop — either dropping them, accidentally spiking them or mis-calling them — and then started cooking courses out of order. Mistakes like this can have a domino effect; small troubles quickly blow up into epic ones. But even though we had to wait...and wait, our entrees were worth waiting for.

In my time on the line, I was witness to plenty of disasters — and was even the cause of a few. There was the night (one of several, actually) when we lost power and had to cook for everyone by candlelight. Another when an accident with the Ansel system caused us to lose half the line (solved by locking the doors, going out onto the floor to explain the problem, and announcing to everyone that they were now our guests at a private party — booze and what food we could still cook all on us). And I vividly recall a night when one table — a group of bone-dumb and shit-hammered Richie Riches who apparently thought it funny to send every plate back to the kitchen for refire two or three times — caused a complete meltdown of the entire floor, which was solved by a portioning of the line: having one cook do nothing but cook and re-cook and re-re-cook this table's dinner while the rest of us flooded the front with multiple amuses and tried to limp through the rest of the night short-handed.

What I learned from all this was that when something bad happens — no matter what it is — you have to admit to it fast, apologize quietly to the affected tables and then immediately start pouring the free liquor. Also, you can pray fervently that there's no one in the house who might carry the story of your shame forward and make a big thing of it — like an owner's brother, a competing chef, a loudmouth socialite or a restaurant critic. That's really what made this one night at Black Cat outstanding: I was there to witness it. But even unaware of my identity, the embarrassed staff had done everything they could to make it up to us, knocking that never-arriving first course off the check, as well as the mysterious salmon and our desserts. And apologies were proffered, if not quickly, at least profusely.

When I dropped in two nights later, my meal was very different. The floor was relaxed, the courses were delivered on time, and the food was just as good — assembled with the same focus, planned with the same ingredientary obsessiveness. This was important, because it showed that, even in the bad moments, Skokan and his crew remained on top of the grub. They were clear-headed enough that the food never suffered, and they didn't take out their frustrations on their ingredients (something that happens a lot and was one of my large weaknesses back in the day).

And on a third, post-everything visit, I got to see the kitchen under the best possible circumstances. It was a quiet night, but not slow — the floor about three-quarters committed and turning over nicely, the restaurant running multi-course dinners for neighbors and tasting menus (five- or seven-course, with or without wine, and chef's choice across the board) for the adventurous. I got a lot of the same "Eric's garden..." spiel I'd heard the first night, but this time around (since I wasn't slowly starving) could actually taste the raw excellence of the produce — unbelievably flavorful arugula, beautiful and lovingly washed radicchio. I ate a crab soufflé and crab salad with mint aioli, and a plate of perfectly cooked scallops and a single grilled prawn; they were both lovely — a paradigm of Skokan's fingers-in-the-dirt philosophy extended to those kinds of supplies that he can't grow in his own garden or get from his trusted cadre of local suppliers.

For years, I've been struggling with the question of whether you get the best meal out of a restaurant by eating there on a Saturday night, when the kitchen is doing the most trade and has (supposedly) prepared for it by putting its best staff on duty and prepping like it's anticipating a siege — or on a Monday or Tuesday, when things are quieter and the galley knows it's cooking primarily for locals, neighbors and friends of the house. I've gone back and forth on this, and after years of field study have finally determined that, setting aside the fact that it shouldn't matter what night you visit a restaurant, dining with the neighbors is best. Rookies, tourists and people on dates are the ones who eat out on the weekends — the folks who don't eat out on school nights, but save their nickels for quote-unquote special occasions. This overflow crowd can sometimes overwhelm a kitchen like Black Cat's, which invests so much energy and passion into the careful construction of every single plate that crosses the pass.

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