I have this dream of going to France. Paris, sure, but also (and mostly) Lyon. In my dream, I have a small, upper-story room in one of those old hotels, and every morning, invisible elves deliver café au lait, piping hot, the Times international edition and magical crepes that cure hangovers. I eat on my small balcony overlooking a charming square and greenmarket, go downstairs at my leisure and then spend the rest of the day wandering the cobbled streets, eating anything that strikes my fancy and smoking those awful French cigarettes that taste like burning hair. At night I'll eat at anonymous family bistros and neighborhood joints where the chefs catch their own pike for quenelles and all the chickens are true, blue-footed Bresse. And on my birthday, I'll go to Latour and buy a bottle from the year I was born (a '73 — pretty fucking pricey), then drink it and start picking fights with the fat American tourists dining at McDonald's.
I've never actually been to France and am resigned to the fact that I may never go — or at least, I won't be able to go and live it up the way the dream-me imagines. For starters, there's the money, and I don't have any. Also, it's a long way from DIA to Charles de Gaulle — something like ten hours, not counting layovers, and that's a long time to go without a cigarette. Even heavily sedated, I'd be up before we were halfway across the ocean, trying to light and smoke a flight attendant. Further, my French is abysmal. Also, I'm not exactly sure where Lyon is.
I have another dream, of traveling back in time to the age of the dinosaurs to eat pterodactyl eggs and brontosaurus steaks. I know this one's never going to happen, either, because not only has no one invented a working time machine yet, but if I ever did get my hands on one, I'd just go back to sixth grade and talk myself out of getting a truly unfortunate haircut that made my head look exactly like a 60-watt Sylvania lightbulb, then use it to spy on all my ex-girlfriends in the shower.
And then there's the dream in which I chuck it all, sell the cars and the cats and turn that dough into two one-way tickets for the wife and me so that we can escape to some blue-water island in the Caribbean where we will lie on the beach, eat barbecued chicken, drink Red Stripes all day and otherwise do absolutely nothing. We will become beach trash, all leathery and loose, living from one languid happy hour to the next until the money runs out and the two of us are forced to come up with some fast-money scheme for bilking rich, vacationing heiresses out of their inheritance. Something involving high-minimum blackjack and speedboats, no doubt. Something destined to end very badly.
Oddly, this last dream is the one most likely to come true — probably because its primary motivators are barbecue and a deep, profound laziness. But also because Laura plays a good game of blackjack and I know a thing or two about boats (if not heiresses, necessarily). Still, these are all just dreams, fantasies in which I indulge knowing full well that Paris, the Pleistocene and Montego Bay are probably not in the cards. And that saddens me, but I get past it the best way I know how: by eating. By pulling the common hearts out of all my strangest flights of fancy — this love of food as food and love of food as connection to place — and living them out close to home. When I regret the last-minute ticket I never bought for Paris, I wait until dark, then park just down the hill from Z Cuisine, walk up through the darkness and into the warm yellow light, sit by the window, order cassoulet and am gone. The time-machine glitch I haven't figured out yet, but when I start aching for white sand and islands named after French saints, I now know where to go. To Highland, to bustling 32nd Avenue, to Scott Durrah's anachronistic piece of Jamaica-in-the-mountains: 8 Rivers Cafe.
"Just outside of Port Antonio, Jamaica, high in the hills, overlooking the most beautiful water in the world, you will discover Boston Bay," Durrah writes on his menu, on his restaurant's website. "It is in a small house [where], each morning, the Pit is prepared for the day's feast. Jerk chicken, jerk pork and smoked fish. Fourteen different spices and pimento wood are used for flavor and Scotch Bonnet peppers add the fire...Before 11am the line of locals and tourists alike exceeds thirty minutes."
Unlike me, Durrah isn't talking daydreams. A working chef from Boston's North End, he's actually been to that place — to the little house with the long line, the view over the water, the secret jerk recipe. He fell in love there. He opened his first and best-known restaurant, the Jamaica Cafe in Santa Monica, based on the experiences he had there and the things he learned in that kitchen. And though in every snap I've seen of the guy, he looks pissed off — like he's about to reach out and strangle the photographer taking his picture — Durrah has a lot of love in him, a lot of cool, a lot of dirty lust for the particular spice architecture of the Caribbean Sea, and all of it comes through at 8 Rivers.