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.
"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.
I'll remember the butcher's paper covering the table, because that's where the plates all sat; the blue-striped kitchen towels used as napkins; the tile floor that's only been there four months but already looks as though it's seen twenty years' scraping by the hard soles of the foodie faithful and local boulevardiers. When an American christens a place Brasserie Anything, the temptation is to crank up the Continental ostentation. But Brasserie Rouge -- opened in a long-vacant space in the Ice House by not one, but two Americans, Robert and Leigh Thompson, who also brought us B-52 Billiards -- has the vibe of a comfortable neighborhood spot, of a bistro along the Seine where everyone happens to speak English and you can pay for your coq au vin with American money. It's crowded with bustling servers in short-sleeved white dishwasher's jackets who know their jobs well and the menus better; filled with the good smells of everyone else's dinner, beery breath and cigarette smoke from the bar; punctuated by high, wild, one-cocktail-too-many laughter and the clatter of pots, pans and spoons -- the batterie de cuisine -- being worked over by the dozen white-coats on the open line. And if they made a little extra noise slapping sautés in and out of the salamander or added a longer-than-necessary shot of wine to their pans to achieve that great blasting fireball effect of a flash de-glaze, it was fine with me. Good cooks like to show off, and none of it got in the way of the service ballet -- not even when I messed up the timing of their fire orders by vacating the table briefly between courses to get a quick look at the bar and settle my head with a short whiskey.
The floor staff at Brasserie Rouge does a lot of little things right. At a side table at the end of the bar, they had the day's newspaper broken into individually folded sections; after I disordered the neatly fanned pages by pulling out the sports section to see if CU was playing the next day, a passing busboy rearranged it as soon as I left. And while I was away from the table, my silverware had been replaced, my napkin refolded, my water topped off and our entrees held up at the pass rail. When I sat down again, I saw the chef nod his head, check temps with the back of his hand, and only then allow the plates to be taken. They were delivered before I'd even gotten the napkin back in my lap.
My mother-in-law had ordered the bouillabaisse, a huge bowl filled with a heady orange saffron broth, skin-on red potatoes and all the fruits de mer, including big chunks of sole, curls of tender calamari, scallops the size of jumbo marshmallows and fat black mussels. When it was put in front of her, she said she couldn't possibly...but she did, with our help, and whenever we offered her a bite from another plate, she'd refuse, insisting the bouillabaisse was so good that she didn't want to ruin it with the taste of anything else.
And she was right: The bouillabaisse was fantastic -- artistic and rustic at the same time, generous but well-balanced. The sole (such an improperly maligned fish) had soaked up the flavors of the simple broth (stock, brandy, saffron and nothing else, unless I miss my guess) like a sponge, then released them along with its own mild essence to stain the mussels, butch up the delicate calamari and infuse the scallops and potatoes with a steamy taste of pure seashore sans fines. This fisherman's stew was served, properly, with a sharp and spicy rouille on the side, but I don't think any of us touched it. Like the white ceramic salt and pepper shakers on the table, it was offered as a polite but unnecessary affectation.
While Kathy spooned up her bouillabaisse, the rest of us shared a huge croque monsieur piled with layers of French ham and Gruyère, then topped with a Gruyère béchamel, with pickled onions (which I love), shredded cornichons (which I love even more) and a massive pile of hand-cut pommes frites on the side. We also passed around a plate of duck breast and confit leg, stripping crisp, crunchy skin and tender dark meat from the bone. A sweet demiglace had been drizzled beneath the fanned slices of pink breast, the leg propped against a thin, gruelish fennel purée and a sugary pile of quartered black figs. Brasserie Rouge does its confit the traditional way -- the way I prefer, because I spent years learning that preparation. The kitchen had preserved the meat (which is, after all, is what the confit style was meant for in the days before refrigeration), salting the hell out of it and slow-braising the leg in rendered duck fat, then searing the skin under a zillion-degree top broiler to warm it for service. True, the cheater's method -- a quick, hot bath in duck fat to seal the skin and meat, with no time for salting or curing -- is probably more appetizing to most diners, but not to me. And if the final product tasted a little like crunchy duck jerky on the outside and blood-rich heart meat within, that was fine, because that's how confit is supposed to taste.
While so much was good, there were a few disappointments. The spiced butternut squash ravioli looked like rubbery, floppy jellyfish and tasted like a big pile of Christmas, with too much nutmeg and sage and not enough life to lift them out of their heavy brown-butter-and-bacon sauce. And the desserts -- all of them -- were by far the weakest part of the meal.
But what I'll remember about our dinner is the smoke and the noise and the energy of a crowded, well-lit spot. I'll remember that the good dishes provided an excuse for lingering, for one more conversation, one more strong drink, one more laugh. I'll remember that Brasserie Rouge not only seemed to get most of the food right without even trying, but also provided all the other necessaries that facilitate everything besides the eating.
What matters most about a great meal is what we take with us after the bill is paid, all the little things we'll never forget. What we pay for isn't food, but the memory of food -- and sometimes it's only by checking what we stocked away in the larder that we truly realize its value.
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