Cafe Society

Same Old, Same Old

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And that was a goddamn shame, because when you took away half of a great salad, you replaced it with a deeply and profoundly abysmal lasagna I wouldn't feed to an enemy. A few layers of limp pasta swimming in an acid bath of red sauce that would've embarrassed Chef Boyardee, stuffed with rank ricotta and topped with some desiccated parsley dandruff -- are you kidding me? And I'm not being flowery when I say that ricotta was bad. It was turned. Curdled. It tasted like vomit -- like sour milk and eggs left in the sun too long. And if whoever sent it out of the kitchen couldn't smell the evil vapors coming off this plate, then he must have had a head cold or his fists up his nose or something, because I sure could. From two feet away.

I actually ate two bites of this nightmare -- the second only because I couldn't believe the first was as bad as I thought. But it was. If anything, it was worse. Hot curdled cheese is nasty enough. But lukewarm curdled cheese?

I've eaten some awful things in my life. This lasagna was worse than almost all of them. I've had better Italian food made by homeless people warming cans of Spaghetti-Os on the engine block of a truck, and seen more care given to a plate of noodles by wasted truck-stop hash-slingers at the bad end of a triple shift.

Out of politeness, I pushed the mess around a little on my plate, then asked to have it boxed up to go, telling the waiter I just wasn't as hungry as I'd thought I was. But after walking through the dining room -- and trying not to hold the box at arm's length, like uranium -- the minute I got outside, it went straight into the garbage. I seriously considered lighting the trash can on fire, too. The only reason I didn't was because I didn't have any matches handy. More's the pity: With the oil slick that had formed on top of the sauce by the time the lasagna had started to cool, it would have gone up like a tomato-flavored neutron bomb, and that would have been something to see.

But did I give up? No, I didn't. I came back because I am a glutton for culinary punishment and because any place -- no matter how egregious its sins -- deserves a second shot. Maybe I'd just rolled in on a phenomenally bad night. Maybe West Nile had taken down your entire kitchen staff, and you'd been trying to get by with dishwashers and busboys manning the hot line. It could've been anything, so I waited two weeks before returning.

And sonofabitch if you didn't do it to me again. Although things weren't as flat-out dangerous this time around, it still takes more than chicken broth and a can of chopped clams to make a white clam sauce. It takes heart. It takes skill. If nothing else, it takes an understanding that you can't use oiled-down linguine with a broth sauce, because nothing will stick to oiled-down linguine. You need fresh pasta -- fresh, dry pasta -- to make it work. You need to know that fresh herbs are good, dried herbs aren't, and you need to at least pretend to care about the final product. What I got was a big white bowl of clam scraps and some noodles wadded up in a weak puddle of broth. Eating it was like sucking down a tangle of wet rubber bands with a side of watery clam soup, and I know you've probably made this same dish 10,000 times over the last fifty years, but you know what? This was the first time I'd tasted it, and rather than tasting the experience and refinement that comes from 10,000 attempts at the same dish, I tasted only boredom. This was shoemaking -- assembly-line cooking -- and shoemakers have no business in a good kitchen.

The fra diavolo sauce was better: spicy, light and filled with big chunks of tomato pulp. It clung tight to the noodles and matched well with the big, tender shrimp that curled around the edge of the bowl, but it rose only to the level of good enough -- as in "Well, at least no one's actively trying to poison me this time, so that's good enough." It certainly wasn't great, but it was dinner. I can say that. No one (excepting maybe shut-ins) would remember this as one of those meals that fired their passions or made them swoon, but it filled my belly and stayed there, and I guess sometimes that's the best I can hope for.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan