Saturday, July 12, 2008

Saturday Lark.

It is a routine, every time I have to work on a Saturday, beginning with the whisper of anticipation that wraps around me an hour before I leave in the late afternoon. I get things ready for tomorrow; I shuffle papers together and clean up my desk. T. is still hard at work when I say my goodbyes, sling my bag over my shoulder. There is time to kill, so I stop by Retrofit and pick up some greeting cards and chat with K. for a while. And then five o'clock comes and goes, so I head down to Lark. In the winter the dining room veiled with sheer curtains seems warm and cosy against the winter chill; in the summer it feels like a cool oasis. I am earlier than usual, so early that the chef has not yet donned his white jacket; the servers are all clustered around him at the bar, tasting the night's specials, going over the menu. Some of them are busily folding napkins, each movement swift and precise, the sharp-cornered white parcels rising in stacks along the counter. All the servers who remember my face wave or say hi as they walk by, and I am glad that my mother is not here to raise an eyebrow at this familiarity.

As usual I order something off the menu (a chilled soup) and one of the specials of the evening (sautéed squid). As always, there are two kinds of bread and sweet fresh butter, better, it seems, than any other I could buy. At home I rarely butter my bread, so I will feel less guilty when I do at restaurants. The soup arrives, a deep rosy red, strawberry-and-tomato, topped with a blob of fresh ricotta, "bruléed," as the menu called it. The cheese is still warm, startling against the cold soup, as startling as the contrast between creamy and the clear brightness of the fruit. (For the tomato is a fruit as well, is it not?). The flavors of tomato and strawberry meld so completely that I cannot tell where one begins and the other ends, or which dominates, because they are perfectly balanced. And yet I can taste them both, the way I can hear the separate strands of melody in a Bach prelude intertwining together and apart.

The squid is scented with lemongrass and ginger and garlic, spiked with hot chili pepper and tossed with green garlic scapes and some kind of mushroom. The mushrooms are, I think, superfluous, but otherwise it is absolutely perfect. Each bite of squid is tender and heady with the aromatics, warmed by the bite of chili peppers. It is Asian-inflected without being too "fusion," and it is exciting (as I have said before) to watch the chef - and the kitchen - move in this direction without losing any of the precision and mastery that they have consistently shown in the two and a half years that I have been dining here. (The exception is the confit duck leg, which has just never impressed me, but no one seems to know what to do with a confit duck leg, although that time they added shredded duck leg to a creamy pile of gigli pasta tossed with fat green peas was pretty fantastic). I think about whether I want something sweet or not, but I see the the servers tasting something that seems to involve a fair amount of whipped cream, and when I hear the words "bread pudding," well, what else could I do except give in?

The bread pudding is made with what tastes like banana bread (although I could be, and probably am, wrong), studded with nuts and resting on a pool of caramel sauce, holding a drift of whipped cream aloft and sprinkled with raspberries. All thoughts of moderation go out of my head. It is dense and rich and really too much for one person, but of course I eat it all and scrape my plate and seriously consider licking it, but another couple has just sat down next to me, and my server comes by to take away my bare plate before I can disgrace myself. As I walk home in the bright warmth of early evening I can still taste the warm caramel.

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