Cafe Society

A Lobster Tale

I'm not going to order lobster anymore.

Or perhaps I'll just limit myself to lobster once a year. Twice, tops.

One of the quirks of this very strange job is that every food-related luxury, every delicacy, every rare and wonderful thing is now available to me pretty much all the time. I sometimes worry that this overwhelming access to everything good and delicious in the world is ruining me -- or at the very least, blunting the edge of my enjoyment of certain foods for which rarity constitutes most of their charm. And it's not just the proliferation of black truffles or o-toro or lobster, or my wanton, sluttish (and requisite) overindulgence in them that concerns me, but the frequency with which such dainties are used badly by kitchens as awash in high-end ingredients as I am.

There was a time when people -- even serious foodies -- only got to taste truffles maybe once in their lives, and doubtless at the hands of a master who knew exactly what he was doing with them. And even today, most normal people eat lobster maybe once a year, and then only on special occasions. On not-so-special occasions over the past month, I've had lobster spring rolls, lobster corndogs and puff pastry topped with a fall of cool lobster meat -- all at restaurants that don't specialize in seafood. Last week alone, I had lobster twice -- three times, if you count (and I don't) the shrimp-and-lobster sauce from the cheap Chinese takeout place down the street from my house.

But in the future, I will eat lobster only at a place where I know the kitchen will treat it with a little respect and prepare it with some skill. Not that a lot is required, mind you. Some quick knife work, a pot of boiling water, the ability to quarter a lemon without lopping off your own fingers. The only reason cooking a lobster is tricky is that it doesn't suffer fools or inattention very well. As with an expensive steak, a slip of foie gras or a soufflé, there's only one brief moment when a lobster is perfect -- blushing a burnished ruby red and steaming, tender inside its armor. Miss that moment by just a little on either side, and the resulting mess isn't just bad, tasteless, ugly and wrong, it's an insult. It's the waste of a thing that might have been divine, which is bad enough. Worse is the fact that some diner ordered the lobster, paid serious money for it, and waited in excited anticipation of its arrival -- only to be rewarded with bitter disappointment.

That diner will eat it, of course, because it's lobster, and lobster is supposed to be special -- but that hurts. I know, because my meals at Del Mar Crab House still sting. I could have forgiven one ruined plate, maybe even one botched dinner. But never a wasted lobster.

I'd come with a gang -- five of us, feigning special-occasion jocularity and slipping unnoticed among the tourists stumbling in off Larimer Square woozy from the altitude and now getting cheap-drunk on bad house wine. The dining room was half empty, which allowed easy viewing of the stereotypical model-sailboat-and-happy-crap-trap decor and dirty walls. After five years in this spot (owner/operator Michael Rios opened his restaurant in the old home of the Mexicali Cafe in 2000, when Larimer Square was far from the serious restaurant destination it is today), Del Mar is looking a little tired. But it still has legions of fans, both out of state and here at home -- people who seem to think that eating fish in a basement in Colorado is a good idea.

We'd come looking for nothing more than a good time, which we were having when I spotted the lobster tail, mounted proudly and regally on the surf-and-turf platter, making its way across the dining room toward our table. One woman in our group had never had lobster. She wanted to taste it, did, and said that it was all she'd ever imagined it would be. Which just means that she's either a liar or she has a very bad imagination, because the lobster was overdone, leathery, dry and desiccated from its boil and broil, and final death under the heat lamp while it sat on the pass rail. I've had krab-with-a-k that had more flavor, eaten leftovers with more life.

The chef who let this calamity out of his kitchen should be flogged, the cook who prepared it sent off to abuse the fucking clam strips at a HoJo's. Better yet, the hack should go sell used Volvos and never be allowed to see the inside of a kitchen again. Not just for the lobster -- although that was certainly bad enough -- but for everything else that came after.