What I Ate On Mars

A host led us upstairs into a hushed, brightly lit dining room and seated us at a polished mahogany table that was the size of a senior partner’s office desk in a law firm. It was bare but for two beige napkins folded in neat, perfect rectangles. A waiter silently set down a silver bar that looked like a pen holder on the table and stuck a sprig of rosemary into it. That was our place setting.

Alexander darted me a look worthy of Raskolnikov.

Moments later, another waiter appeared with a tray bearing a miniature pedestal made of white porcelain. Instead of a Greek bust, it held a golden ball decked with pearls of smoked steelhead roe. “Our liquid croquette,” he said. “Raise it to your lips, throw it straight back and eat it in one!”

We obeyed and at once an astonishing succession of tastes and textures—among them sour cream, cucumber, radish, lime, candied endive—flew by, like a landscape seen from a racing train.

We were guided through dinner by a staff of reverential waiters dressed in black suits from Ermenegildo Zegna who acted like tutors, explaining each course and instructing us how to eat it.  Everything about the meal was designed to catch the diner off balance, from the hot potato and truffle served on a pin over a bowl of chilled soup, to the skate with brown butter, lemon and capers that were powdered and heaped on the plate like doll-size sand dunes. The food was served on sticks and pins and metal racks, on forks balanced over bowls, and on plates that acted like canvasses, displaying magnificent, brightly colored works of edible art, and even on a white linen pillow that deflated under the plate, filling the air with a scent of lavender so powerful the people at the next table looked up in astonishment.

“This reminds me of Jacques Tati,” whispered Alexander.

At last the waiter took the rosemary out of the silver bar, which became a rest for chopsticks. He brought over a stainless steel stand containing a hot terra cotta brick upon which sat three cubes of lamb, and proceeded to poke the rosemary into a hole in the hot brick, releasing its potent scent. You could feel the heat rising as you picked up the lamb pieces, which were rare and juicy, the best lamb we’d ever eaten.

Our last dessert in the Grand Tour arrived on a gadget that looked like the prongs of a miniature upside-down umbrella. “It’s called ‘the Squid,’” explained the waiter. “It serves a function of keeping fried food from getting soggy.”

Nestled inside the prongs was a caramel-coated Meyer lemon in a tempura batter, speared on a cinnamon stick.

On our way back to the hotel, I asked Alexander what he’d thought. “Would you rather have gone out for a steak?”

“Certainly not,” he replied. “But I felt I was eating on Mars.”

 

NORMALLY, FOOD BRINGS with it associations and memories, recollections of childhood, a sense of place. But this was something entirely new. After that meal, I wondered what people would be eating in fancy restaurants 30 years from now. Was this the cuisine of the future? Food that feeds not just the body but the mind (and requires a team of instructors telling you how to eat it)? Will the properly equipped kitchen in a top restaurant boast an induction cooker, a laser torch, a dehydrator, an immersion circulator for poaching sous vide and an “anti griddle” to freeze food within seconds? And what kind of utensils will we be using? Will the dishes of today seem as old-fashioned as those I had on the ship when I was 12: the chauds-froids of shrimp, veal marsalas and truffled chicken quenelles?

Now when I read those menus from the S.S. Victoria, I remember the shy, awkward, skinny, too-tall girl I was, traveling from one country to another, determined to hold on to the memory of every experience by pasting it into an album. Half a century later, I’m still on that ship.

mhodgson@observer.com