Friday Lark. dinner for four.
It is quiet in the restaurant when I run in for dinner on a Friday night instead of my usual Saturday, asking for a table for four instead of just myself. I slide into one of the booths that line the south wall of the restaurant, and settle in to study the menu. My mother and her friends are late, which leaves me plenty of time to think about what we should order. I look up and see my mother go past the window - she has forgotten where the restaurant is - and then come back as I call her (thank goodness for cell phones, saving me a mad dash out the door). Usually when I am here I just order whatever special is on that night, and perhaps a soup or some sort of vegetable, but since there are four of us tonight I can try all sorts of things from the menu.
There is just one special tonight, the softshell crab, and the choice of dishes is left to me, a tricky task. I have to weigh the tastes and desires of our guests, Dr. and Mrs. Q, against my own choices. No chicken, no foie gras, no pork belly. (I am shattered when Dr. Q tells me I should only eat foie gras twice a year, and never pork belly, and I refrain from mentioning all the pork belly baguettes I have been eating at the Baguette Box lately). Eating with other people, like eating alone, has its pleasures and drawbacks together. You can order all sorts of things, but then, you have to order all sorts of things. We choose vegetable dishes and seafood dishes and the confit duck leg (deciding against steak and sweetbreads and the beef tartare) and ignore the charcuterie and save the cheese list for later.
The softshell crab comes with a smear of saffron aïoli and a watercress salad, the shell crisp and melting like the sugar crust on a crême brulée. We order the yellowtail carpaccio, drizzled with a little olive oil and lemon juice and scattered with a salad of fennel and olives; it reminds me of the sea bass carpaccio I once ate on the outdoor patio of a seaside restaurant somewhere in the Cinque Terre, under giant canvas umbrellas and twinkling lights, and the dark evening sky far above. There are sautéed wild mushrooms, morels and perhaps fresh porcini or oyster mushrooms, mushrooms I can't identify mingling with the tiny morels. The asparagus comes with a poached duck egg on the side, the asparagus fat and tender, the stem carefully peeled to reveal the pale green stalk within.
The broccoli rabe is tossed with crunchy little bits of coppa and dusted with some finely grated cheese that melts like newly fallen snow. We have a crisp-skinned confit duck leg served with fresh peas, and it is, well, confit duck leg. The dourade is more interesting, a piece of white fish, sweet and melting into the puree of leeks that serves as its resting place. We take a breath, look around at the empty plates scattered around the table, and order two bowls of white asparagus and almond soup, which is strangely light and creamy without being too rich or too thick. It is smooth, but with a slightly grainy texture, warm in the black Staub soup plates in which they serve chilled soups in the summer and hot soups in the winter.
Dr. Q likes cheese, so we order three cheeses, one blue, one softer and slight creamy, and one firm cheese that tastes slightly sheepish (pun very much intended). Our server says their names very quickly, and so I have no idea what they are, but they are all good, served with bread and a dish of pale honey. It has the same graininess as the Italian honey I tried a few dinners ago, but has a lighter taste, cool morning sunlight rather than warm afternoon light. We share two desserts, the lemon parfait, a round of frozen lemon mousse floating in a creamy lemon sauce and topped with whipped cream and the lightest, thinnest tuile I have ever eaten, and the apricot tarte tatin, dried apricots nestled in caramel sauce, on a bed of buttery golden pastry.
Eating here with other people, ordering all sorts of things and sharing them together, is very different from coming alone and just having one or two things. It is more fun, but at the same time it is a little overwhelming. I like seeing how different elements from past meals have appeared on the table tonight, like the saffron aïoli that I once had served with simply boiled shrimp, or the duck with peas that had been tossed with a creamy pasta instead of served on its own. Walking home I turned the tastes of the evening over and over in my mind, comparing them to other meals past, and imagining what might be in store the next time.