The waiter stood over me, pen at the ready. “Signorina?”
For lunch I ordered sardines on toast, pickled herring, a grilled mutton chop, buttered green beans, pommes lyonnaise and lemon sherbert.
I was 12, sitting with my family in the dining room of Lloyd Triestino’s S.S. Victoria as we sailed through the Straits of Malacca, en route from Singapore to Genoa. Once again, because my father was in the British Foreign Office, we had packed up and were moving on to his next post. Those were the days of the great ocean liners, and my first meals out were not in restaurants, but on ships.
A color reproduction of an 18th-century Italian Romantic painting decorated the cover of the menu. It told a story. A young woman with downcast eyes hastened across a balcony in Venice, a black veil artfully draped over her hair and shoulders to reveal her pale, comely face and low décolletage. She was holding a letter behind her as if it contained some news she couldn’t bear to read. The title of the picture was Vendetta, which a translator had rendered, insipidly, Requital.
The long menu was in Italian, with an English translation on the opposite page. The words had a dramatic poetry that made my imagination soar: “jellied goose liver froth … Moscovite canape … glazed veal muscle à la Milanese … savage orange duck … golden supreme of swallow fish in butter …” And darkly, “slice of liver English-style.” Because the ship docked in Bombay, Karachi and Colombo, there was also Indian food, a curry of the day described only by a town or region—Goa, Madras, Delhi—served with things I’d never heard of—papadum, chapatti, paratha, dal and biriani.
For the next three weeks, the menu changed every lunch and dinner, with a different Italian Romantic painting on its cover (always a portrait of a beautiful woman; this was an Italian ship, after all).
I ticked off the dishes I ate and pasted the menus into the blue scrapbook. I am looking at it now. …
Potatoes pont neuf were thick french fries. “Norcia pearls,” served with Strasbourg sausage, were lentils. Rollmops were fillets of marinated herring wrapped around a pickle. Hoppel poppel “in saucepan on toast” was a fry-up of onions, potatoes, pork and eggs. “Crusted pie Lucullus” turned out to be a pâté laced with chunks of foie gras; chicken quenelles were dumplings, flecked with black truffles; “golden reserve” pheasant “in volière” arrived in a sauce made with “fine” Champagne. Chicken cream soup “Agnés Sorel,” was named for the mistress of the French king Charles VII who’d died suddenly at the age of 28, thought to have been poisoned. A strange name for a soup.
I was allowed to order whatever I wanted as long as I had a “properly balanced meal.” The food arrived under a silver dome that was whisked off by the waiter with an operatic flourish (and not without a touch of irony) to reveal my choice du jour with its two requisite vegetables: potatoes always (available in over two dozen ways from “Hungarian cream” to “Castle-style,” roasted with rosemary), and often, curiously, stewed red cabbage. I was even permitted half a glass of wine.
I was tall for my age and rail thin. But I ate for two.
What were those meals really like? Would they impress me now, after years of dining out in restaurants, most often as a critic?
Those three weeks on the Victoria, eating whatever exotic dish struck my fancy, left a lifelong imprint. They were the first step to loving good food. …
MY FIRST CHANCE at reviewing restaurants came at the The Sunday Times in London where I lived for a year in the late ’70s. My editor, the late Michael Bateman (who was a pioneer in food writing in England, one of the first newspaper journalists to treat it a serious subject), suggested we write a piece together about lunch at the Post Office Tower. You could only go up this London landmark by dining at the revolving Top of the Tower restaurant, which was owned by the Butlins, who were famous for their holiday camps. The public gallery had been closed in 1971 after a bomb planted by the IRA exploded in the men’s room of the visiting gallery. Michael wanted to see if the restaurant was still up to par. It had been good when it first opened.
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.
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.