Monday, February 18, 2008

Food Poisoning

(This is a story I wrote a while back after a trip to New Hope, PA. It's one of my all-time favorites)

As we make dinner reservations for four at The Raven in New Hope, Larry calls B on his cell phone to invite him, along with his vegetarian boyfriend D.

The host at the podium reassures us that the chef can make anything that D would like, throwing out the word risotto, which clinches the decision for me, because I can never find good risotto, even back in New York City.

I secretly hope that B and D won’t be able to make it tonight. I don’t want to hear about B’s soon-to-be adopted third-world boys. It will be a cozy dinner with just Larry's sister Patty and her husband Andy. Sounds pretty cut and dry, no?

If you suspect there's more to this story, click read more.

The next day at dinner, the four of us sit down in the middle of the restaurant, with B and D now in tow. When the conversation starts, I realize that I have nothing in common with anyone here. I sit there, silent, wishing for a change in topic that I can relate to, like shopping or coffee addiction.

After a while, I give up, knowing that whatever comes out of my mouth would most likely be met with awkward silence and blank stares, or a dirty look from Larry, followed by a terse, “It’s not all about you.”

The almighty breadbasket lands in the middle of the table, giving me something to do—complain.

“Crap,” I say to Larry out of the corner of my mouth. “It’s not cut.”

This is pet peeve #45,875—when restaurants serve whole uncut loaves of bread at the table. Somehow, this is saving the restaurant time and money because they just drop it into a basket and aim it for the table—a table full of people thinking the exact same thing: I hope everyone here washed their hands.

I decide that I’ll just go for it, and be the first to get some bread. I tear off a piece for me and for Larry, and drop the rest back in the basket while I take the butter.

“Pass it to D,” urges Larry, in that slightly condescending tone he uses when he tries to teach me table manners.

Patty asks D about his road to vegetarianism, now it its 20th year. Platinum, I believe.

“So, what made you decide to become a vegetarian? Was it for health issues?”

“No, it was more philosophical, actually,” he says, now sounding like an actor being interviewed by the foreign press. He admits that he did it because of his favorite band’s interest in it.

I sit there, silent, waiting for scoffs or laughter, but there is nothing but curious silence.

Had I admitted that I once had a passing interest in the macrobiotic diet because of Madonna, Larry would have snapped my neck, right there at the table. My limp body would have been shoved under the table while dinner continued uninterrupted.

Patty presses on. “Did you notice any change in your health?”
“Um, well, I…” he stalls. “I don’t remember, actually. It was a long time ago.”

I guess you might as well order the steak then. What’s the point in continuing to deprive yourself when you don’t feel any better than you did before? Shouldn’t there be some tangible benefit to this? Do you have perfect vision? A healthy head of hair? Do you run faster? Are you as healthy as a horse? Are you hung like one now?

I turn my attention to the menu, looking for the risotto. “Larry, they lied. There is no risotto here.” There is panic in my voice.

He points to the menu item that lists risotto as the last ingredient. I’m not falling for that one. If the first ingredient is the main one, then what is the last? Exactly—a garnish. Asparagus with a sprig of rice.

When the waiter takes our orders, he spends a while catering to D’s “special needs.” A vegetable medley will work just fine! There is a strange sense of relief at the table, as if the fate of the planet depended on whether or not D could somehow be satisfied by the chef tonight. I don’t know about you, but I’d be embarrassed to be singled out like that in front of other people for such a fussy eating defect. I had a hard enough time when I tried Atkins.

Oh, you can bring it on a bun, I’ll just take it off.

As I skim the menu, I read the description for Chicken Roulade: stuffed chicken wrapped in bacon. How can you go wrong? I can't wait.

In watching meals get delivered to other tables, I assume that the large chicken breast on one of the plates was what I ordered, so I sit back, confident in my choice—and eat some more bread.

For my appetizer, I order the salad with bacon, apples and blue cheese on top. I love it; things are going well. I see that B is now a salad eater, despite previous dinner arrangements skewed to avoid his irrational phobia of anything green. I would like to demand similarly inconvenient arrangements in the future and see how that goes.

"Yeah, I’ll have the lasagna, but can you substitute the noodles for radicchio, the mozzarella for soy cheese and replace the meat with tofu? Thanks so much."

Finally, the dinner plates start arriving. D’s vaunted veggie dish arrives, looking quite tasty, actually, with a nice center of potatoes au gratin. Then B’s New York steak comes. Instantly, I regret not ordering that. It’s a huge cut of meat with a generous helping of potatoes. Damn. But not to worry, my delicious chicken is on its way.

As the waiter rounds the table, I notice that one of the dishes he is carrying seems to have dessert on it: three small sushi-sized portions of food on a white rectangular platter. Oh, that must be for the table next to us, I think, until it crash-lands in front of me among a dust cloud of comments.

Andy: “Oooh, look at that!”
Larry: “Wow!”
Patty: “Well, you win for presentation!”

Oh, shut up—all of you. These comments cannot distract me from the shocking disappointment that comes with such a shitty menu choice.

“I get one and-a-half of those,” says Larry, reminding me of our arrangement.

Really? Would you like the whole plate? I’m feeling generous tonight. I’ll just eat what’s left of rest of the bread.

I look down at my plate. It might as well be an entire cow head, or a box of tissues coated in motor oil with a side of paper clips. It’s not fair! Everyone else has been served a round plate, with full, overflowing portions of easily recognizable food. My rectangular platter has more empty space on it than anything else. I fake a smile, pretending to admire the Japanese–inspired minimalist bullshit presentation.

In lieu of potatoes, I have what seem like a teaspoon of applesauce under each of the three two-inch wide, by one-inch high rolls of chicken. This essence seems to be oozing out from under the miniature chicken pucks. The entire dish sits in a thin pool of useless and mysterious brown sauce. Is it Teriyaki sauce? I’m afraid to find out.

As I glance over at Larry, cutting into his juicy steak, I declare an end to the splitting system. Our arrangement had been that if Larry ordered a meat dish, then I’d order chicken or vice versa. We would then split the dishes, especially if one isn’t so great. But tonight, so horrifically shitty is mine, that it renders the system useless. The bad dish will henceforth be sent hurtling back to the kitchen.

I also declare war on restaurants with vague descriptions of food. If no photo is available, I’d like to request dimensions or maybe weight. If McDonalds can do this, so can The Raven.

I cut into one of the tiny chicken rolls, hoping that at least it will taste good. It turns out to taste just as bad as it looks, with an unexpected seed-filled stuffing that hurts the palate. They’re little seeds, like those of a strawberry. I try in vain to recall what it could be from the menu. It’s fruit-like, but it’s too dark to tell.

Then it hits me. Figs. I hate figs.

I happily switch plates with Larry, practically sliding my plate off the end of the table. Of course, the steak is perfect tonight and the potatoes au gratin are mouth watering. I inhale what he gives me, like a starving child at a Russian orphanage.

“This is good!” he declares, singing the praises of my dish. He says this loud enough as to unintentionally embarrass me, as I’d been sitting there silent, brooding over my little tragedy.

This is bad karma as a direct result of my secret mocking of D and his vegetarianism.
D barely ate his dinner, leaving half of it on the plate. I assume this is how he stays stick thin. I’m hungry enough to take it from him.

While D goes to the bathroom, we hit up the waiter for a piece of birthday cake for him.

“Damn, you found your way back,” I joke. Finally, I say something that lightens the somber mood of the dinner.

A minute or so later, the pudgy, flamboyant waiter appears and yells to the crowded restaurant. “Okay everyone, it is D’s birthday tonight! Now I know I don’t have the best voice, so you’re all going to have to help me sing, okay?”

D is so humiliated by the experience that he blows the candle out mid-way though the song. This irks the waiter, who uses one hand to block D’s mouth, and the other to re-light the candle.

As we get up to leave, I see a man sitting alone at his table, menu in hand. I whisper to him as I pass. “Don’t order the chicken.”


Steven said...

I order a pasta dish b/c it's always a safe(r) bet. said...

I wouldnt even eat the au gratin because of the cheese. *sigh*