Originally I had planned to scrap my usual Saturday after-work dinner at Lark and headed instead to Boom Noodle. It was bright and sunny, still warm and summer-like, and I thought perhaps a bowl of chilled Japanese noodles would be a good dinner. I was foiled by the hostess, who left me standing and unacknowledged for longer than necessary, and then swept me past the dining room into the bar, where I perched uncomfortable on a stool at one of those counter-height tables near the window. A bartender would be right with me, she said. The minutes ticked by, and no one appeared. The bartenders were assiduously avoiding eye contact, so finally I said to hell with it and stomped out. So back to Lark it is. I know the food will be good, the service welcoming, and with a lighter spring in my step I continue a few blocks south along 12th.
Tonight the dining room is completely empty. Even the staff is still slowly trickling in as I pore over the menu, rushing in with wet hair and street clothes and disappearing into the wine cellar to return neatly coiffed and wrapped in a long black apron. But when I am here alone reading the menu is always a fruitless (although interesting) exercise, particularly tonight as the specials include some sort of chicken (I'm not sure exactly how it is prepared, but I think tangerines and pine nuts are involved) and grilled sardines. (There is also gnudi with duck confit, but I pass on that). Sardines and chicken it is, then. I eat my bread and butter and eavesdrop on the conversation by the bar, where the staff have gathered to fold napkins and taste the night's specials (or so I assume, shielded as I am by a gossamer curtain that hangs from the ceiling).
The three sardines are stacked on a bed of halved baby tomatoes (grape, cherry, whatever) and tiny cream-colored beans, firm to the bite. Well, two of them are stacked. The third has made an attempt at escape, and appears to be trying to swim off the edge of the plate. The fish are crisp-skinned and soft-fleshed and I have the unnerving feeling that I have swallowed a fine-needled porcupine. As I pull the meat away from the skeleton with my fork and knife a delicate sort of rib-cage of hair-thin bones springs out, but I fear I have swallowed at least a quarter of them. Still, the soft sweetness of fresh sardines is worth that momentarily prickly sensation.
My chicken is served in a tagine, which the servers ceremoniously bring to my table and unveil before me, boned and arranged over a bed of couscous. There are some spears of carrots to one side (both brilliant orange and deep plum) with a few deeply glowing tangerine slices, a pool of curry-yellow sauce on another, and a scattering of green olives. The meat is tender under still-crisp skin, the couscous soft and fluffy and very finely grained. It is so good that I am grateful that I have it all to myself, that I am not sharing it with four other people and fighting over the last bite of chicken, the last mouthful of couscous. I love the word couscous. I bring it up in conversation whenever I can.
Thinking of that meal a few weeks ago I order the summer pudding. The tarte tatin is for a cool, gray day, when all you want to do is bathe in warm caramel. But it is a bright, sunny day, the last of summer, and I want that sweet mélange of crispy bits of buttered brioche and juicy berries, all dolloped with a drift of whipped cream. No cherries this time; that season has passed. Summer is almost gone. But fall brings its own pleasures, and I look forward to what is to come.