Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The cookbook dinner. Lark.

I arrived back in Seattle on Sunday night, blurred with sleep and the disorienting feeling you get when you have traveled across an ocean and many time zones, as if someone had dragged you backwards through the time-space continuum by your hair. There were packages and piles of mail waiting for me, but nothing in the kitchen except cereal and vacuum-packed shelf-stable soy milk. It would have to do. Besides, there was something to look forward to the next night. Dinner at Lark. Weeks ago I had read about Cooks & Books on someone's blog, a series of events bringing restaurants and recently published cookbooks together. I would miss Marcella Hazan's dinner (for Amarcord) at the Château St. Michelle winery, but I would arrive home just in time for the David Tanis (for A Platter of Figs) dinner at Lark. It was fate. I had to go.

David Tanis is the part-time head chef at Chez Panisse. He spends half the year in Paris, and the other half of the year in Berkeley, switching off with the other head chef (whose name I forget, but who also lives in France when not in Berkeley). I had read an article about his new cookbook in the New York Times Magazine, and was intrigued. The price of dinner included a five-course meal, a copy of the book, and the chance to meet Tanis (and other new people, as with the Whole Beast dinner, seated as you are at communal tables). This thought sustained me through a long, jet-lag fogged day at work, the walk home, and off the couch again just before dinnertime. I found myself telling everyone I met as I walked in the door that I was nearly comatose, and not to mind if I fell asleep in the soup.

At my table I was delighted to see a couple I had met at the Whole Beast dinner last April (and whose blog has guided me through several excellent culinary adventures in the months since). We had not been able to converse much then, seated at the opposite ends of the table; this was a good chance to catch up. More people joined us; it was time to begin, with a glass of sparkling wine and platters of salumi with olives, crostini with fresh ricotta and cherry tomatoes, slices of a jellied chicken terrine adorned with tiny quail eggs. (Tonight's meal is composed of recipes from the book). David talks to the room, telling us that, despite being the head chef at one of the most reknowned restaurants in the world, that what he really cares about is home cooking, and his book is about home cooking, for the home cook. (I wonder how I can get on his guest list for the dinners he hosts when he is Paris, but I am too shy to ask).

Our first course is a fried egg and red garlic soup, the egg floating in a clear broth with some greens and, apparently, slices of garlic. I discover the latter when I bite into a piece, and the sharp shock of it goes to my head like the first shot of espresso I ever drank, gulped down in some bar on the side of the autostrada in my first hour in Italy when I was fourteen years old. The jetlag disappears. Suddenly I am excited to be home, excited to be reconnecting with people I met months ago and meeting new people. Among my dining companions tonight are a man and a woman who own a café and a bar, respectively, and another couple who, as I find later, live in my old neighborhood and know the owners of Lark because their children are friends. We are of all ages and occupations and yet what we all have in common is a love for food. This is why I come to these dinners.

The second course is wild salmon with Vietnamese cucumbers and jasmine-scented rice, and it reminds me of Hanoi, a clean and modern interpretation of that beautiful old colonial city. It is followed by a third course, duck breast with poached quince, served over black kale, with a duck liver toast on the side. I hand my toast to E., because that unfortunate incident with the foie gras in Luang Prabang has not yet left me and I feel that I am still not quite up to duck liver. The duck breast is good, though now room temperature instead of being hot or at least warm. Considering the dining room is completely full and each dish has to be ready and served more or less at the same time, this does not surprise me. It is lovely all the same.

Before the last course, I work up the nerve to take my copy of the book over to David for an autograph, which he readily gives. (Earlier, one of my dining companions insisted that I should have my picture taken with him, which he kindly allows). I come back triumphant, and eat the last course in a happy daze. A white slice of chêvre is sweetened with acacia honey and served with roasted nuts and homemade crackers. They are all delicious. I resolve to eat cheese and honey with nuts more often, which probably won't happen unless I have them here. Dinner is at an end, and little waxed-paper envelopes in which Lark hands out their checks appear all over the room. I pay my bill, and say my goodnights. Best cure for jetlag ever! I tell everyone. It is cold outside after the heat and humidity of Laos and Vietnam, the slightly cooler and yet still rather warm days in Taipei and Shanghai, but I am glad to be home at last.

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