Friday, August 18, 2006

Memory. Prague.

I don't know if I've ever loved a city as much as I loved Prague. I love the cobblestone streets winding around old buildings, the bridges guarded by statues of angels. The cool green shade of tree-lined avenues. It was an entirely different world that I knew nothing about until I found myself there one beautiful summer. I was just shy of eighteen. In a few months I would be off to college; it would be the last trip of my childhood. (There have been other family trips since, but this one seemed to mark the end of something I could not quite define). The restaurants had mysterious names that seemed out of fairy tales; they were housed in cellars or centuries-old former pubs or carriage-houses or theaters upholstered in red velvet that seemed barely changed from their original guises. It was like traveling back in time.

My parents drank pale golden Pilsner as we ate rather stodgy meals of roast meat and potatoes and slightly drooping vegetables. (It drove my mother crazy. Traveling through Eastern Europe is very hard on people who eat little or no meat). Every meal came with pickled red cabbage, bright magenta against the white plates, and I could not get enough of it. It was sweet and sour and completely addictive. There are places you love because of the food, and there are places you love despite the food. And there are places where you love the food because you love the place, because it is part of the entire experience. Prague is one of those places.

And then we came home. I turned eighteen, and for my birthday three girlfriends and I (along with my parents, who sat at another table) went to Labuznik for dinner. That restaurant is now gone, but for some twenty years it was one of the best restaurants in Seattle. In the eighties or early nineties Jeffrey Steingarten referred to the food of the Pacific Northwest as "ingredients in search of a cuisine." Labuznik was different. The chef-owner was Czech, and he served things like roast duck or lamb or beef (the menu was a carnivore's delight) with side dishes of tender spinach and glazed carrots and pickled cabbage. (I went to school with the chef's son, who came up to me after class one day and said "Your dad didn't eat his carrots!" It took my father years to convince me that he didn't actually hate carrots).

That night I had Tournedos Rossini, tender rounds of filet mignon topped with slices of pâté. P., the chef, came by the table as we were eating to chat with us. He explained that Rossini liked to top his steaks with foie gras, but he used pâté because it would melt from the heat of the meat and become like a luxurious sauce. (The Italian composer Giacomo Rossini was a famed gourmand; I read that he told one of the legendary sopranos of his day that he had only cried twice in his life. Once, when he heard her sing, and again, when he dropped a truffled wing of chicken into Lake Como. I can relate, because when my cousin ate all the chocolate eclairs I sobbed for what seemed like hours, and was inconsolable until my grandfather drove out to the Pike Place Market to buy more). There were little plates of spinach and sweet-sour glazed carrots, and that pickled red cabbage that had so seduced me in that magical city halfway around the world. Yet it was an altogether more refined, delicate kind of cooking compared to the vast, earthy platters that we faced in Prague. P. had breathed life and light and air and elegance into the food from the country of his birth.

Labuznik was housed in a beautiful old building near the Pike Place Market. Glass doors opened onto the street; in the summer tables and chairs were placed outside. It was a long room of comfortable chairs and white-clothed tables, all presided over by the chef's wife. S. was tall and beautiful and blond and because I was friends with their son I had once made spaghetti out of blue play-doh, using a garlic press, in their kitchen. (We were five). At dinner the night of my eighteenth birthday S. walked down the length of the room bearing a fruit-filled pavlova lit with a sparkling candle. (I remember how it flickered as she came towards me, and after my friends sang to me I could hear my parents applauding from several tables away). A pavlova is a crisp meringue shell filled with fruit (in this case, berries) and whipped cream, and it is light and crunchy and creamy and tart and sweet, all at the same time. Perfect.

Not long after that night the restaurant closed. P. was fortunate enough to own the building that was anchored on the ground floor by his restaurant; it allowed him the freedom to retire (another chef whose restaurant we frequented used to sigh with envy, as he rented the space that was his restaurant). At that time people were becoming more and more health-conscious and eating less meat; some years would pass before the Atkins craze would swing the pendulum back again. Now Seattle has its own distinct cuisine, and it is no longer the city Steingarten described all those years ago. My favorite restaurants are mostly informal, wood-lined, table-cloth-less places that serve locally grown produce and free-roaming meats and line-caught fish; things like sweetbreads and pork belly have become commonplace. A trail of fava beans snakes around the city like the path of a ravenous garden snail. Labuznik is only a memory, like the view of Prague from the highest point in the city, the tower atop the cathedral that guards the immortal stones below, burned in my brain for all time.

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