How it all began. Restaurants.
I have been eating in restaurants for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory of eating out is a plate of smoked salmon on brown bread at the Russian Tea Room in New York City when I was four or five. The salty coolness of the smoked salmon, the bright sourness of capers, the biting crunch of onion, the earthy brown taste of dark bread. We sat in a booth near the back of the room, against the wall. On another trip there I made such a mess that before the waiter served me my Creme Russe, which we always had for dessert, he unfurled another napkin across the tablecloth in front of me. The Russian Tea Room is what I remember from my childhood, when my grandfather lived in New York City and we visited him frequently. It is where memory begins.
But the meal I remember most, above all others, comes over a decade later. I was sixteen. A former student of my father's was in town, visiting from his native Sweden with his girlfriend. We went to Rover's Restaurant, a French restaurant in Seattle. The restaurant is small, in a little house tucked away in the heart of Madison Valley. The chef/owner is a charming, witty, fedora-wearing Frenchman who comes and chats with you before dinner if he has time. He always remembers my father. Everyone does. It was my first meal there, and I remember everything I ate. Everything. A white burgundy to start, a red one to follow. A bottle of Evian on the table. Crusty loaves of bread, sweet butter.
The first course was a tian of tuna sashimi, tiny, jewel-like squares of fish, molded on top of a layer of cucumber, precisely cut into cubes, pale green flesh against jade skin. The dish was cool and sweet and tasted faintly of sesame oil. It was a sign of good things to come, delicate, simple, refined. I am a little confused about the order of the next two dishes, but one of them was a perfectly seared scallop, just caramelized around the edges, smooth and tender, on a bed of fava beans cooked with little shreds of foie gras. Fava beans and liver. I felt like Hannibal Lecter, but it was excellent. Then came a piece of sea bass, cooked so gently it softly fell apart on the tongue, in a lobster nage. A creamy, lobster-infused sauce that I practically wanted to bathe in. Then came the palate cleanser, wine flavored with herbs, fennel, I think. Refreshing and slightly dizzying all at once. At last came the main course, duck breast roasted and sliced, a wine-reduction sauce, smooth and intense, a puree of potatoes. The chef had come out to talk with us a little before the meal began, and my father mentioned how much he liked foie gras. So another little dish came out, perfectly seared foie gras, a slightly crackling crust that gave away to the melting interior. I was in heaven. And then came dessert. Mine was a passionfruit bavarian, creamy and not too sweet, fragrant and tart, floating in a pool of vanilla-scented sauce. I had never eaten a meal like this before, course after course, and it was a revelation. It was incredible. We were there for over four hours. In time I would eat many such meals, in different restaurants all over the world. A year later I would pace myself through ten courses at Lespinasse in New York. But this was the first.
I have eaten many meals at Rover's in the past ten years now. Every one has been excellent, sometimes extraordinary. When I eat there I know everything will be perfect. Sometimes we are lucky and the chef creates something different, just for us. (One time, I gave him a challenge. We will eat any part of any animal you can imagine, I told him. The results were mind-blowing. I will tell that story another time). But the first meal stands out the most clearly in my mind. I think it was the first time that I realized food could be like this. And I had never had so many courses. It was a night that I'll never forget.