What I Ate On Mars

During lunch the dining room slowly made its disorienting way from drenching sunlight into shade and round again. We had Dover sole. It was leathery and prepared beyond recognition, stuffed with prawns and crabmeat, bread-crumbed, deep-fried and coated with a lobster sauce. Suprême de volaille van Put (named after the chef) was a boned chicken breast stuffed with pâté de foie gras and mushrooms. It came with a Madeira sauce, mushrooms, shallots and artichoke hearts filled with chicken liver mousse and coated with a cheese sauce—all ingredients blending into a brown wet carpet. Lunch cost as much as it would have at the Connaught.

As we ate, I dissected the components of our meal. I told Michael that it was one of the worst I’d ever had. He didn’t seem to take in what I was saying.

“I’m really enjoying this!” he said as we went round and round. He didn’t appear to be paying much attention to the food at all. After a while I began to have doubts about his ability as a critic. He liked everything! What was I going to do the next day when I had to sit down at a desk with him to write the piece?

He ordered another bottle of wine. By the time we got to the dessert, which I don’t remember, I wasn’t sure if it was the tower or my head that was spinning. Befuddled we staggered back to the office.

The next morning we sat down to work on the article.

“We’ll call it ‘A Pity You Can’t Eat the View,’” Michael said.

Then he began to type: “The Post Office Tower is a good place for foreigners to have their prejudices about British cooking soundly reinforced.”

“Why didn’t you say that yesterday?” I asked.

“We were having a lovely time.”

“I know. But I thought you were enjoying the food.”

“The food was awful! Why spoil our lunch by saying so?”

It was a lesson. Ever since then, I’ve tried to keep my opinions to myself when I’m eating in a restaurant.     

 

IN THE ’80s, when I began to review New York restaurants, American cuisine was just getting into its stride. Alice Waters was becoming a household name; the chefs were often American. The wines would be American, too, and the names—such as Stags’ Leap, Dry Creek, Grgich Hills, Zaca Mesa, BV, ZD—seemed to belong less in the vineyard than on the open range. The ingredients were exotic and served in novel ways. Silver domes would be whisked away to reveal tiny portions marooned in the middle of oversize dinner plates (to be eaten by women with oversize shoulder pads). The sauce was no longer served on top of the food but underneath, sometimes in a yin-yang pattern, forming a pool upon which the fish or meat serenely floated, cut in an unrecognizable shape. Dishes were garnished not with a parsley sprig but with tiny vegetables cut in ovals or julienned and tied together with a chive string like a miniature bundle of firewood.

But there were more changes to come. In 1981, Odeon opened with a wild party that included just about everyone in the art world. Tables were pushed back against the walls and dancing went on through the night. Few people in those days knew where Thomas Street was, and taxis drove frantically around dark streets littered with dumpsters and cardboard boxes, trying to find the restaurant, which was a former working men’s cafeteria on a desolate block. It had large windows hung with Venetian blinds, a long, Art Deco bar, a pink-and-green neon clock, chrome and plastic chairs, paper cloths on the tables, and a small frieze of the New York skyline from a 1930s Woolworths. It was owned by Keith McNally and Lynn Wagenknecht. The chef was the late Patrick Clark, a young African-American who had studied with Michel Guérard. Odeon was more than just a scene: It was a real restaurant, and that’s why it has lasted so long. It was a hangout not only for artists but for the new breed of workers that was moving into the neighborhood: bankers and stockbrokers. Odeon set a trend, and it also helped to open up Tribeca, a role that Keith’s bistro Pastis was to play in the meatpacking district some years later. And Odeon made restaurants so cool that it often seemed to be cooler to work in one than to be a customer.

 

THE MEALS I ATE at Per Se, which I wrote about for this newspaper in 2005, were the most groundbreaking I’d ever experienced as a reviewer. But that was before I’d been to Alinea, a Chicago restaurant opened by a Keller protégé, Grant Achatz. Achatz had been Thomas Keller’s sous chef at the French Laundry, but his food sounded nothing at all like the classically based new American cooking of his former boss and mentor. His inspiration, was the radical new cuisine pioneered by the molecular gastronomist Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Spain. Achatz had spent several days in Adrià’s kitchen and upon his return entered into the spirit by creating a shrimp cocktail that you spritzed into your mouth, a “virtual” pizza made from edible paper, and bubbles of mozzarella that had tomato trapped inside them. (Last year Achatz recovered from a horrendous bout of mouth cancer that, among other things, temporarily affected his taste buds).

My son Alexander was in his first year as a student at the University of Chicago. So I decided to test his mettle with Alinea’s marathon 24-course, five-hour dinner known as the “Grand Tour.” The restaurant is in a small gray townhouse in Lincoln Park, a quiet residential neighborhood in the northern part of the city. On our way in, we caught a glimpse of the kitchen, where we could see a team of young cooks with close-cropped hair and spotless whites hunched over two lines of steel tables. They looked like chemists in a science lab.