The room was dark as a speakeasy, with maroon walls, leather banquettes, a pressed-tin ceiling and bare tabletops. Framed on the wall leading up to the kitchen and a small bar upstairs was a cover of John O’Hara’s novel Butterfield Eight .
“Uh-oh, somebody had a highball,” she said when she came through the front door and saw him.
He was already at the table and the glass in front of him was empty.
“Somebody needed a highball,” he replied. “Somebody has a hangover. Cocktail?”
She looked around. The restaurant was crowded and noisy and the booths were all taken, so they were squeezed in at a table for two along the banquette. They had to shout to make themselves heard, only it seemed the people sitting next to them had a better chance of hearing what they were saying than they themselves. The owner wasn’t there. He’d had a little run-in over the matter of some Cuban cigars.
But she figured there were no cops here tonight. It was too early in the summer for a cop to get the kind of tan these men had. At one table was a party of six. One of the men wore a white suit and a blonde was stroking the back of his head. He was much older than the girl, who was very pretty but had a laugh like a hyena. The chef, tall and balding with a ginger beard, had come out of the kitchen and was grinning around at the customers.
“This is a friendly place,” she said.
He watched her busying herself with her hands, unfolding her napkin and touching the silverware without moving it. She was beautiful, she was healthy, she was passionate, and she had wanted him from the moment she first met him. And he? Rich, handsome, definitely a Yale athlete. But a Mick. A Mick in Brooks clothes who knew not to eat his salad with a spoon. She was the kind of girl who knew wine.
“Have some more cocktails, shall we? You know I like to drink. I never knew I did–gosh, I never even knew about drinking–till I married.”
She was hungry, too. “I want everything on this menu.”
So she ordered agnolotti with peas and shiitake mushrooms, in a light clear broth made with herbs and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. She had a plate of mussels tossed with marinated artichokes, haricots verts and mâche, and a strudel that was filled with portobello mushrooms and goat cheese and served with beets and dandelion greens. He watched her lift up a layer of smoked sturgeon with her fork and poke the prongs into a poached egg that was concealed underneath.
The yolk spread over the frisée salad and she dipped bacon croutons into it. No one could ever call her the average American girl.
“How’s your salmon?” she asked. It tasted great, goddamn it, from its chickpea pancake to the fancy Park Avenue dollop of caviar on top. What was the use of kidding yourself? By the time the lamb shank arrived, he knew where he stood. When he saw her eat it, he knew that it had gone beyond love; for the first time he understood how you could betray your country for a woman, even knowing there had been others before you and there would be others after. The sauce was burnished a dark deep brown, and she spooned it over the soft pillows of polenta and mushrooms before she put them in her mouth. There was half a head of garlic on that plate. A tender look came over her face.
“I used to go to the other end of town for that lamb shank when the chef was cooking downtown at Cascabel,” he said.
She watched him put away a roast leg and grilled loin of rabbit served with a heap of mashed root vegetables and asparagus. Then he had grilled Amish chicken and mashed potatoes. The sea bass was also just his sort of thing, with red lentil mash and bacon. Hell, anything with bacon was his sort of thing. “Jesus, this is good.”
That man likes to eat, she thought. The lobster risotto was perfect, surrounded by bright green fava beans, the rice creamy and the lobster sweet.
For dessert they had one of the best fruit tarts she’d ever tasted, made with fresh figs and pistachios, and a crème brûlée flavored with maple syrup. She’d seen too much of “life” to ever leave food on her plate, so she finished up the lemon cake, which came with lemon curd cream and a compote of blueberries that was nice spooned over the cake. The only thing they didn’t like was the chocolate pot de crème with espresso mousse. “It tastes burned,” she said, pushing the plate away.
She was sailing in September. “I don’t care if I die now, do you? For the rest of our lives, whenever we see each other, if I look into your eyes and you look into mine, and we see the thing we see now–nothing can stop us, can it?”
A man with a loose tie was sitting alone with a drink at a table nearby, staring at her.
“Who’s that guy?” she asked. “Do you know him?”
“That’s Johnny O’Hara,” he said. “He writes stories.”
They drank coffee out of small cups. A woman who was sitting next to her on the banquette began patting her face with sheets of Papier Poudré and outlining her lips with a pencil.
He paid the bill and they got up to go. They turned left out of the restaurant, heading toward Park Avenue. From the street you could see the cooks working in the kitchen. They were young and good-looking. She walked past as though each hip were a fist, clenching and unclenching, the rhythm locked like a metronome. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. It was a hot night and they walked in silence.
* * 1/2
168-170 East 81st Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues
Dress: White suits, tans, chunky gold jewelry
Noise Level: High
Wine List: Interesting but high-priced
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Main courses $21 To $27
Dinner: Monday to Friday 5:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., Saturday to 11 P.M., Sunday to 9:30 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor