Cafe Society

Wedded Bliss

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"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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan