Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Whole Beast Supper. part two. (scroll down for part one).

By now, we are halfway through dinner, but none of us shows signs of flagging. The third wave brings tender pork cheeks in a spicy broth with ramps and cubes of pineapple, which are sweet and hot at the same time. Slices of lamb tongue are tossed with finely shaved cauliflower - a technique I remember from the asparagus salad that came with a rabbit loin last spring - and crunchy sliced almonds. This method of preparing cauliflower, as with the asparagus, gives it a different dimension, changing its flavor and texture into something unexpected; its sweetness is intensified with the sharp acidity of capers. We each have a crepinette - a round, flat sausage of lamb and pine nuts wrapped in caul fat. There are slices of kidneys - which kind, I am not sure - laid across a bed of basmati rice with tender green asparagus. A ten-minute recess is called, and people get up to walk around a little. Strangely, I am satisfied but not stuffed. But there is one more wave to go.

First, there are tiny espresso cups with a grapefruit-Campari ice to cleanse the palate. It it an electric deep orange, and goes to my head like a jolt of espresso, settling my stomach like a good digestif. It reminds me of my first meal at Rover's, more than a decade ago, where they served a red wine sorbet flavored with herbs, and what a revelation that had been. I resolve to buy a bottle of Campari and experimenting with different juices, to start my own tradition of a cocktail hour at the end of the day. (It will probably never happen). There are only three more dishes, and then a dessert. People who were complete strangers three hours ago seem like old friends; one thing alone has brought us here together - a love of food - but we are finding all sorts of other interests in common, besides a sense of adventure and a profound trust in the chef. We eat at the same restaurants, but come here most often. At Lark, there is a sense of warmth and friendliness, of inventiveness grounded by consistency in a way that I haven't seen anywhere else. It isn't enough that the food is good, or even that it is consistently fantastic; part of the pleasure of being here is the relaxed ambiance, the complete lack of pretension, the obvious passion for food carried by everyone here. It's why I come back again and again; I always find something new, but it's always the best version I've ever had, whether it be a rabbit shepherd's pie or osso buco or a simply grilled fish.

The final wave begins with lamb kofta, tiny meatballs with carrots of all colors floating on a cloud of couscous. The couscous is as light and delicate as it was the last time I had it here, soaking up all the juices on my plate. The lamb sweetbread ravioli are basically much bigger versions of the agnolotti I had a couple of dinners ago, but with sweetbreads instead of ground veal. Somehow, miraculously, the sweetbreads are crisp-chewy inside the pasta dough; the fat green peas and pinky-nail-sized fava beans tell us that despite the cold weather, it is spring. The last dish is pork tongue dolce forte, pork braised in wine with prunes and goodness knows what else. The sauce is rich and dark and tangy with something I can't figure out, and I want more. The fact that I am now full is completely immaterial.

Before dessert the chef and his staff come out to rapturous applause. Everyone has worked on the menu together, and you can see influences from all over the world, which gives the whole meal a certain unpredictability; there was a certain lightness to it, but each element was tied to the next by the consistent precision of a group of chefs who really know what they're doing. A plate of crackling chocolate cookies comes around, chewy and dark and dusted lightly with powdered sugar. Warm lemon madeleines arrive wrapped in a napkin, with a creamy custard sauce on the side, and they are perfect, sweet and golden with molten centers. Having been severely traumatized by a plate of very stale madeleines some years ago, I have not been able to eat lemon madeleines since. Until now.

I pay my bill - it is the most expensive dinner I have ever eaten without someone else paying, and I am glad my parents are not here to witness my gluttony; after all, they taught me to enjoy food, so it is mostly because of them I am here tonight - and say goodbye to my new friends. We'll see each other again.

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