Suburban Soliloquy

132. The Opposite
of Dying

I have said it before, eating is the opposite of dying.

In 1975, I discovered I liked vegetables. I had grown up with a mother who served frozen vegetables or vegetables from cans. They came to the table overcooked; my mother never steamed vegetables. Even to this day, she doesn’t entirely grasp why I’m willing to eat vegetables at restaurants, yet show reluctance when I visit her. “I don’t understand,” she’ll say, “they were fresh when I bought them last week.”

I was twenty-four, living in Brookline, Massachusetts and within a five minute walk of my apartment was a French restaurant at Coolidge Corner. I have forgotten its name and it is no longer there. That year I began teaching myself an appreciation for wine and fine food, inspired by the books I had read, the declarations of their authors. Prior to that time, I was a picky eater with an aversion to most vegetables, particularly the green ones. French fries or corn on the cob I could manage. I took courage and delivered myself to that French restaurant to see what made the French cuisine so special.

All I remember of the meal is that with the main course they brought out vegetables, asparagus I think. I corrected the waiter, telling him I hadn’t ordered any vegetables. But this wasn’t a choice of sides, this was what the chef deemed good that day and felt appropriate. I ate them and they were delicious. A threshold had been crossed. While living in Brookline, I began dining out at fine restaurants whenever I had the money saved. It became the biggest demand on my discretionary income.

Canard à l'orange flambé at Lechners in Boston became an epiphany. Fine dining became theater. It wasn’t just the quality of the food, but the ambience and, very important, the conversation with friends.

When my friend, Eileen, came to visit, I took her to the Hound’s Tooth. It’s no longer there. I think the entire block has been erased and redeveloped. Before redevelopment, it was an alarming approach to the Hound’s Tooth. I led Eileen down a dark alley halfway between the bus station and the Combat Zone. At the midway point was an arched access with a shingle hanging out over the alley. It was barely visible, showing a dachshund, but I don’t remember it displaying a name. Into the arched access I brought Eileen. Ten or fifteen feet in were found two doors facing each other and one just had to know it was the door on the left.

Once in the restaurant we had entered another world. It was a tight place, dark and cozy, well-appointed with a fire in the hearth. This comfy interior existed in sharp contrast to its rough exterior. We sat against the wall, the waiter having the pull the table out so we could gain access to our seats. We ate medallions Rossini.

It was also while living in Brookline that I met Matsui-san, my first wife. She shared my passion for fine dining. We were learning together and to this day some of my finest memories with Matsui-san were the dinners we shared, such as at Dodin-Bouffant in Boston.

At Dodin-Bouffant I had started with the mussels. They had placed beside me a finger bowl, which I first mistook to be used as a dip for my mollusks. I laughed aloud when I realized my error and confessed to the waiter I was still naïve at fine dining. He took me under his wing. He showed me how to eat mussels as they did in his hometown of Le Havre. You extract the first mussel with the small fork provided, but then used that first shell as pinchers to remove the rest. So it was I learned the best waiters make you feel comfortable regardless of faux pas. Dodin-Bouffant presented us with one of the finest meals I can remember, the canard Marco Polo. We had remained after everyone else had left and the two chefs, a husband and wife team, sent out every dessert for us to sample.

There are far too many memories of fine restaurants for me to include most of them here, especially after Matsui-san and I married and moved to New York City. The best of these epicurean experiences each deserve their own essay. They have been some of the most special moments in my life, continue to be, although they are less frequent. When living in New York, one can be compelled by the number and proximity of great restaurants. I no longer live there.

Many of those dinners had been double-dates with Eileen and Alan. Alan is among my oldest friends, going back to the fifth grade. When Alan was doing his graduate work at the university, I would visit his dorm room and he would cook something special – oh, that wonderful chocolate mousse! In those long ago days he was a novice, working from opened cookbooks and measuring everything with scientific exactitude. Today, he and Eileen approach cooking as an art. For that matter, Matsui-san had always practiced cooking as high art. I’m probably the only one among my friends who can’t cook. But I can eat!

I have mentioned the Cellar in the Sky before, in an earlier essay, but just as we return to our fondest memories, so I want to now fill out that memory for my readers. The chance to eat there came as a surprise and very short notice for Matsui-san and me. The Cellar in the Sky served a prix fixe dinner, an eight course meal with a different wine selected for nearly every course. Reservations were required and you couldn’t get in because the waiting list was months long. That night, 3rd March 1978, Manhattan was hit by a late winter storm, nearly four inches of the white stuff. Alan and Eileen, anticipating a cancellation, called Cellar in the Sky and sure enough….

It was my first time in the World Trade Center, my first experience riding up elevators to reach the 107th floor. We entered the Windows on the World restaurant with its many tables sprawling across a wide expanse. The windows all around should have provided an outstanding view of the great city had it not been snowing. Snow falling “up” was all one could see. Walled off within this restaurant was the Cellar in the Sky, a much smaller eatery.

The night began with eggplant caviar on toasted pita. This was served with a 1908 Wisdom & Warter Fino Sherry. It was followed by oxtail soup with beef quenelles. Then came the fish course, salmon with sorrel in cream accompanied by a 1975 Robert Vocoret Chablis Premier Cru, “La Forêt”. We ate to the accompaniment of romantic melodies from Spain performed by a lone guitarist.

Every time we began a new wine, the bottle was first brought to us so we could examine the label. They kept our glasses filled. As we were on our fourth course, saddle of lamb en croûte with braised minted mushrooms, I was also thoroughly engaged with an old friend from Saint-Julien, the 1966 Château Léoville-Poyferré. Inebriated, I called over the headwaiter and asked him to request the guitarist play Villa-Lobos. Alan said, “Wouldn’t you be embarrassed if he is already playing Villa-Lobos?” I told him that it wasn’t likely. Of course it was Villa-Lobos. Oh, yes, well, I meant I would like to hear the Prelude No. 5 and sent the headwaiter back to the guitarist. And, of course, it was the Prelude No. 5 he had just played.

But I haven’t finished enumerating the courses. We moved on to a small salad of romaine leaves with walnut oil dressing. Then arrived a selection of international cheeses, accompanied by a 1967 Vino Spanna Cantina Cinque Castelli di Antonio Vallana e Figlio. It was followed by dessert, bombe of strawberry sorbet with pistachio mousse. With it we drank a sweet 1976 Niersteiner Spiegelberg Auslese from the Rheinhessen.

The dinner concluded with Colombian coffee joined by chocolate truffles, the best chocolate truffle I ever had. They only gave us one each, yet it was so good, I begged for one more. They were kind and another was brought. But at a moment when I turned my head, it disappeared. In utter disbelief at her audacity, I realized as her face broke into a grin she could not contain, that Eileen had stolen and eaten it.

It was many years before I could forgive Eileen. Eventually she made amends. On one of the occasions when I and my present wife, Ms Keogh, visited her, Eileen served me Cognac in tiny dark chocolate chalices.

Friends, conversations, and food - life is good. I have been served dishes exotic and rare, have tasted foods and sauces that have elicited a heightened enthusiasm for existence. It has been a privilege that at another time or in another place these joys would have been unimaginable for someone of my status. I’ve experienced recipes and ingredients that simply would not have been available to my ancestors in their shtetl.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions,
the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"