Served: The Last (and First) Meal
At many of the restaurants where I've worked, I've been a loyal patron. My corporate steakhouse lured potential managers with plenty of steak dinners that often concluded with face-sized pieces of apple pie. I loved bringing friends to my cheese and wine bar for pieces of unctuous Grayson, glasses of sparkling Shiraz, and little pots of truffled mushroom spaetzle.
It saddened me that I couldn't be a customer at my Philadelphia restaurant. We are open only five days a week and only for dinner, and each of those days I could be found chatting with guests, assembling plates of cheese, and...working!
Micky shared tastes and bites with me every once in a while. An airy wisp of hamachi collar. Fresh spring peas and favas. Wheatberries that became emerald with spinach puree. The flakiest phyllo layered with almond cream and caramelized peaches.
What delicious moments! But I knew the experience of seeing the dishes after they've come together—those nutty wheatberries topped with many-day-brined short rib and carrot confetti and mustardy turnips—was something altogether different. One brushstroke does not a painting make.
I also wanted to see the front of the house from the vantage of a table, to see my staff in action. The corporate steakhouse people had emphasized dining as the best way to see what was really going on at your restaurant. Were you waiting for that martini, and still waiting? Was your rare burger on the fire a few minutes too many? Was your server cracking her knuckles repeatedly and rhythmically? (I've seen it!)
My dad's birthday coincided with my last day at work, and I felt like it was time for dinner at my restaurant. My parents had dined there a few times, with friends and family and with each other. I wanted to join them.
My dad does not eat red meat, and my whole family loves seafood. Micky knew this, and I felt something was up his sleeve when he started to quiz me about what my parents liked. Duck? octopus? He was ordering ingredients especially for us. This dinner was going to be a big deal.
Dinner Is Served
Just how big a deal, I didn't know until I arrived at my restaurant to see the private dining room set up with sunflowers (my favorite) and the nice wooden table they had to drag over from the room nextdoor. The private dining room is in the hotel, a separate building from the restaurant. It is unfairly charming, a 1786 living room with book-lined walls and a fireplace. It's a small pain in the ass for the staff, who have to bring dishes outside through the garden, and run back to the restaurant to get another glass of ice.
But it's a perfect place to enjoy a meal. "I didn't want you to feel like you're at work," Micky explained. In the colonial oasis where I had so many times set up buffets and cleared wine glass-littered tables, I did and I didn't.
He had made us menus, scrolls wrapped with roses. I knew there would be no overcooked burgers or knuckle-cracking waiters.
It was a little weird to be served by my staff. My dad talked history with our history PhD candidate waiter. He poured us rose champagne, the pinpoint small bubbles sliding down my throat, and incredible Burgundy. But it wasn't weird at all to see, eat, experience Micky's food. It was wonderfully fun.
The meal began with a honeydew and tapioca gazpacho. On the plate beside it, leaf thin potato rolled into a cone and filled with tagiasca olive oil powder. It was a delicate, transporting experience—mellow sweetness of honeydew, snappy crunch of the potato, nutty depth of the powdered oil, which entered a more liquidy state upon contact with the tongue.
Next up: a seemingly never-ending cascade of truly realized dishes, the theater of a perfect dinner. Falafel made with fresh chickpea, smoked eggplant, yogurty tahini. Oat cavatelli with toy box tomatoes and crispy parmesan. Eggplant agniolotti turned puckery sweet by fire truck red pepper coulis. A giant hazelnutty, brown buttery, scallop. A riff on paella: fresh farro with many veggies, bright green pea puree, octopus and lobster confited until freakishly tender.
Watermelon cooked under pressure with yuzu and ponzu. Celery sorbet. Then tempura'd sea bass in a gingery, lemongrassy broth with crunchy candied fennel. We all sat there, smelling the broth and smiling. Duck sausage, little gels of foie gras and cherry. Sheep's milk cheese from Corsica with medjool date and our own brioche. Pastry layers with frangipane and wineberries for dessert.
There was an aspect of weirdness, for sure, dining in the restaurant I helped bring to life. But I made an effort to push aside the sadness, and enjoy the hell out of it.
I felt so lucky to be sitting in this room. Micky made menus for each of us with sweet, personal notes. He bought us the best champagne he could find, and ordered the fattest scallops, and peeled chickpeas, and rolled out pasta dough. He brought his beautiful glassware from home.
I left feeling full and high and happy and sad. I would miss this place. I was proud of Micky—he is an extraordinary chef. He was also an extraordinary boyfriend. And me, I'm extraordinarily lucky.