Eating out. Sitka & Spruce.
I have a deep and profound fear of restaurants that do not take reservations, and yet are so popular that there is always a line and a long wait, unless you eat dinner at 5:30. Which frankly I find a barbaric hour to dine. But I have always wanted to try Sitka & Spruce, and tonight I am off work early enough to make it there and grab one of the first open tables. Traffic is light, a good omen, and I find a parking spot in the tiny strip-mall parking lot, another good omen. It is almost exactly 5:30, but there are already several people standing outside Sitka and Spruce, which occupies a small store-front squeezed in between a Subway and a Teriyaki place. I panic a little until I realize that the restaurant isn't quite open yet, and that there will be plenty of room for us as well as the diners in front of me. Finally three or four bandana-and-plaid-wearing guys come trooping by bearing coffee cups. The kitchen staff. The door opens, and we are all ushered in. Time to begin.
I am given the end of a long table - it seats six - to share with another couple as I wait for my mother and her friend. No matter, there's plenty of room. The chartreuse-painted dining room feels open and spacious, even though there are only twenty-two seats at five tables. A narrow bar juts across the far end of the room, open to the kitchen beyond, but I am too busy reading the menu - handwritten on a large chalkboard that dominates one wall - to watch the action. The other diners seem to be familiar with the restaurant and its menu; they order quickly, discussing the different selections available. I try to imagine what my mother might choose, how to combine our different tastes and desires into a meal to share. They are late, and I ask for the chicken liver pâté, which comes in a smooth pink slab sprinkled with coarse grains of sea salt. There are slices of toast, a handful of sticky-sweet-sour prunes, some pickled fiddleheads and red onions that contrast sharply with the creamy smoothness of the pâté with their acidity. I've also ordered some grilled asparagus, which arrives at the same time as my mother. The slightly charred green stalks are topped with a fried egg, with some creamy dollops of sheep's-milk (or perhaps it was goat's-milk) ricotta, and we munch on these first dishes while trying to decide on the next one.
A salad of wild greens - and by wild I mean they looked like they were picked at the side of the road, and the only resemblance to any sort of lettuce I can imagine is that they are green - floats on top of some grilled oyster mushrooms, which like the asparagus that preceded them are faintly striped and charred from the grill. A confit duck leg looks less like a leg of duck and more like a leg of a duck who had eaten several other ducks. The flesh falls apart at a touch; the skin has been crisped before serving, and there is nothing I like better than crispy duck skin, unless it's duck fat, which, by the way, is melting gently into the rich meat. The confit comes with Corona beans, the biggest beans I have ever seen, the kind of beans Jack-the-Giant-Killer must have planted in his garden, and the entire dish is faintly perfumed with fresh oranges. Slowly-simmered beef cheeks arrive with some kind of braised green - they look like watercress stems - and polenta, the kind that is formed into a cake and fried until crispy around the edges.
I cannot possibly eat any more, but then, as they say, I have another stomach for dessert, which is rhubarb shortcake. I love shortcake. The biscuits are sweet and buttery and scattered with coarse sugar crystals, the soft, glowing red rhubarb is topped with Angelica-flavored gelato, which tastes a little like licorice. There are people standing at the bar waiting for tables. Every now and then, some hopeful diner will peek in the door, and walk away, saddened. Yet I want to stay forever, and eat more, even though one more bite would probably leave me comatose on the floor. I can only promise myself that I will come back, and hope that I can keep this promise. Even though they don't take reservations.