Cafe Society

Wedded Bliss

Laura staggers as we step through the double doors and into the Royal Peacock. She doesn't swoon, exactly, but there's not much in this world that can make her swoon. She misses her footing a little, and then a huge smile spreads across her face, and her eyes go wide as though she's just experienced a sudden and unexpected spiritual enlightenment. She inhales deeply, her nostrils flaring, and takes my hand.

"Can you smell that? Isn't that your favorite smell in the world?"

Back at the house, she'd been in a lather, skipping from the bed to the closet to the computer, where the Royal Peacock's menu was up on the screen. She'd been planning her assault for most of the afternoon, throwing around words that I didn't even know she could pronounce, translating for me a language that, for her, is pure sensuality: Jaipur masala, ghoste ka salun and Rajasthani rajput thali, describing not just a vegetarian combo plate, but the smooth sweetness of creamed spinach, the yellow stain of turmeric, the arcing burn of dry cumin and fresh coriander, the texture of mashed, baked raisins on her tongue.

"Look at this," she said, pointing to a special of caribou in a sauce of coconut and sweet potatoes that had been one of the Peacock's game specials for April. "I can't decide what to eat. I want everything."

She bounced up from the computer and went to the closet. I edged toward the bedroom door, trying to make a quiet escape. "You're going to change, right?" she asked. "And shave?"

I said no, that jeans and boots and a button-down Oxford would be just fine for a Sunday night in Boulder. She pulled clothes out for me, anyway. "I like this place, Jay," she said. "And they're so nice. You should respect that."

Apparently, respect would be shown by me wearing khakis and white linen and not my grungy work boots, by not spilling the saag or eating inappropriately with my fingers, by not mispronouncing "shajahani" or stepping out for a smoke between courses or doing any one of the myriad things I regularly do to embarrass myself while dining out.

Laura was back at the computer, silently mouthing the names of various dishes, tasting the words on her lips. I kissed the back of her neck, and she waved me off.

"Go brush your teeth," she said. "We have to go. Now."

In the warm, dim, tattered dining room of the Peacock, Laura takes my hand. She comments on the smell. It is Nag Champa incense and curry. It is old carpets and fresh cinnamon. It is twenty-year-old tandoor smoke. It is warm and cloying and sweet, and, as in those old cartoons where the hungry dog is hooked in the nose and lifted by the tendrils of smoke coming from a fat T-bone cooking somewhere off-screen, it has a potent and undeniably attractive force. Laura floats to our table behind Laxmi Lalchandani, the niece of Shanti Awatramani, the man who runs the Royal Peacock, wrote the menu that's stood unchanged since the '80s and still cooks some nights. I swear Laura's feet aren't even touching the ground. She glows like she's swallowed a string of Christmas lights, and before she sits, she runs her fingertips across the scratchy, industrial poly-blend tablecloth. The menus are faded, printed on loose paper folded inside covers upholstered in threadbare purple cloth with beaded peacocks on the front. We order bottles of Kingfisher lager, and Laura looks at the pictures of elephant-riding warriors hung above the windows, the scenes from the Bhagavad Gita, princes and princesses locked in permanent embrace, Shiva with arms outstretched, one foot forever descending.

"It's just like I remember," she says. "Nothing has changed."

Everything has changed.

I first heard of the Royal Peacock almost ten years ago. I was in the Southwest only by dint of powerful drugs, poor life choices and my legendarily bad sense of direction. Leaving Buffalo and headed for Rochester one night, I'd somehow found myself in Santa Fe. There was a New Year's Eve party going on around me, and I was on the phone with Laura, in Colorado, whom I hadn't seen since being thrown out of college (for the first time) years before. We made plans to get together, and did. It was a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-ends-up-staying-in-girl's-new-boyfriend's-basement-for-a-week-and-stealing-her-away-while-boyfriend- is-at-work kind of story. Pure American romance. And though we never made it to the Royal Peacock then, I remember Laura telling me about her favorite Indian restaurant in Boulder. We talked of biryani and saag, but mostly ate takeout Chinese food and made long drives to Johnson's Corner for coffee, cigarettes and pie. Back in Santa Fe, regrouping, we ate eggs and chile. Staying at her parent's house outside Philadelphia, we ate roti canai and bastilla and she made me herbed chicken and pasta. In our tiny apartment in Rochester with the hardwood floors and the cockroaches, we would lie tangled in blankets beneath the cracked windows, and I would ask what I could do to make her happy.

"Go to the Royal Peacock in Boulder and get me saag paneer," she would say, and I would get up, get dressed.

"Anything else?"

"Bombay paratha. And make sure they don't forget the raita."

She would talk with her eyes closed, lying on her side, half-dreaming, and the strength of my love for her could be gauged by how far I got before she called me back. When we fought (and we fought a lot, still do), we would make amends with promises of food. Lutece, La Tour d'Argent, the Spring Mill Cafe, croquettes from the Gateway Diner, samosa with tamarind chutney from the Royal Peacock.

Living in Albuquerque, we played the same game. Sometimes we would drive to Boulder -- six hours booming across the desert and up into the mountains in a series of highly undependable vehicles -- meaning to go to the Royal Peacock but never making it, always ending up at Juanita's or somewhere else. The Peacock became part of the mythology of our relationship, a story we told each other, a make-believe perfect destination. It had everything to do with love and sex and food and mileage -- the four cardinal points of our eventual marriage.

After we moved to Denver, we could finally go there whenever we wanted -- but still didn't. We talked about it all the time. We scheduled it, then bumped it, then rescheduled it and bumped it again. Frankly, I was flat-out fucking terrified that after eight years of anticipation, we would go to the Peacock and it would be terrible. Nothing like Laura remembered, like nothing I had imagined. And then where would we be?

Now, sitting at our table wreathed in good smells, we order. Carefully. We drink our beers and tell Peacock stories to each other all over again, and then the food begins to arrive. Laura takes a samosa. I spoon out a bit of murgh chaat -- sliced yellow tomatoes, cold chicken and cubes of cucumber in a cool yogurt sauce spiked with mango powder. After eight years of talking about it, together we finally taste.

And together we are gone. The chaat isn't just good -- it's beyond fantastic and actually stuns me for a second, freezing me in a pantomime of bliss with my eyes closed and my jaw locked and my lips pursed as though waiting for an invisible kiss. The yogurt is milk-thin, savory, fruity and deeply sweet, the tomatoes crisp and juicy, the cucumbers astringent and refreshing like spring rain. And the chicken, impossibly, has kept both its flavor and its texture in the face of a dozen competing sensations.

Across the table, Laura groans quietly, opens her eyes and looks at me.

"Is it good?" she asks.

"You have no idea."

When she smiles, it's so wide that I'm afraid the top of her head is going to fall off.

The rest of the night is a blur of singular impressions. We trade plates. The samosa are almost too hot to eat, but I pull one in half, and the smell of cumin and fennel rising from the potatoes and peas inside the pastry shell hits me like a slap. Laura laughs when she tastes the chaat. When Laxmi returns, she's carrying salvers piled with dal and saag and golden saffron rice, ajmer murgh and rogan josh with cilantro and delicate vegetables in cream sauce, and kheer and raita, of course, all in lovely tin and copper bowls. She also has a tray of naan and Bombay paratha -- unleavened wheat bread filled with a thin layer of potatoes and spices. Approaching, she looks like a Balinese dancer, arms raised, hips cocked to swivel around an empty chair, nose stud winking.

We eat quickly and shamelessly, stuffing ourselves while everything is hot, scooping up pinches of saag paneer with pieces of naan torn from the puffy round, as well as bits of lamb in a fiery sauce the color of old brick that comes on like lightning, burns and then vanishes, leaving behind just the essence of smoke and a tingle of barely remembered pain. The creamed, spiced sweet potatoes taste of Thanksgiving in strange latitudes, the sabji kari like an exotic vegetarian heaven. The dal is thick and starchy, its lentils perfectly cooked. The saag is incredible, packed with so much heavy cream and clarified butter that each bite melts away to nothing. The ajmer murgh -- tandoori chicken breasts swimming in a spinach and cream sauce -- is less complicated than the saag, but with a depth of smooth sweetness that seems to go on forever. It's one of the best things I've ever tasted, worth an eight-year wait. The first bite compresses the time between my lying on the old boyfriend's floor and just now to an instant, a blink.

Laura and I have been eating Indian food together for a long time, but I finally understand what she was asking for in Rochester, dreaming of in Albuquerque, trying to explain to me from Boulder to Philadelphia and back again. It wasn't food she was after, it was this sensation of perfect, timeless bliss, of tasting something that comes as close to perfection as any human endeavor can.

I flag down Laxmi and ask for chai. It's a family recipe, passed down from her aunt through all the female blood relatives. She claims it is the best chai in the country, the best that can be had without going to Bombay -- where the family comes from and where she grew up, among the hotels and resorts that Shanti Awatramani's family ran. When she sets the cup down in front of me, the steam seems to have a weight. It's so heavy with spice it can barely rise.

Laura is beaming, pop-eyed, lost in reverie, home again among flavors whose memories were all she had to live on for far too long. With a fork in her hand, a spot of spinach on her lip and a blush of heat and spice in her cheeks, she is more beautiful than I have seen her in a long time. She digs through her rice pudding looking for raisins and shares them with me.

In the parking lot outside, she dances to the car, spinning in circles like a six-year-old who's had too much candy. Laura is a woman more likely to punch a nun in the face than to dance. At our wedding, I had to bribe her just to get her up for one song. But here, she dances. And I lumber, stuffed and half drunk on spice and memories, carrying a heavy bag of takeout.

Late that night, long after Laura has collapsed, stunned into sleep, I go down to the kitchen and assemble a second feast of dirty, spicy rice and cold tandoori chicken stained a pale red, and murgh and sweet potatoes and blazing hot biryani and naan smeared with honey. The first time, I waited eight years before trying this food; now I barely wait four hours before having it again. I eat by the light of the TV, lying on our couch in our house, amazed all over again, sucker-punched by a cuisine I thought I knew. In the morning, Laura will likely kill me for eating all the leftovers -- but then, this relationship has always been based on food. Food started it, food sustained it, food kept us together through some very strange years. No doubt, food will be the end of it as well.

But not until morning, at least.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan