Thursday, August 19, 2010

Plus ça change...Rover's.

I first ate at Rover's in 1996. I had just turned 16. Nothing will ever equal that first, unforgettable meal. My next dinner there was some four months later, a dinner I had arranged for 12 people in the restaurant's private room. There are two things I remember about that night. One is that the only dish I recall is a terrine of foie gras, pale and cold and not nearly as lovely as the hot seared foie gras from my first visit. Two is that the next night my father told me that he had cancer, and I was the last person to know. Everyone else who had been at dinner the night before had already heard the news, and in my mind I went over the evening's conversation again and again, wondering what I had missed.

That year, every milestone was celebrated with dinner at Rover's. My father's recovery from a several-hour surgery to remove a fist-sized tumor that had wrapped itself around his thymus gland. The night before his radiation therapy began. The end of said radiation therapy. The first anniversary of his surgery, repeated each fall thereafter. In between there were birthdays and wedding anniversaries, and soon I knew the restaurant's phone number by heart. I'd make and confirm reservations from my high school attendance secretary's office, the phone reserved for students calling parents for rides home from soccer practice.

Eventually, our visits there were fewer and farther between (although I still knew the phone number by heart), especially after my parents moved back to Taipei. I went for brunch with my father early last year, but I have not had dinner there for four or five years now. We went with some friends the other night, and I wondered, would it be the same? No, it wasn't, it couldn't be. The dining room is still quiet and elegant. The service is as polite and polished as ever. The bottled water is now Fiji instead of Evian, but it is still presented in a silver holder, with flourish. There are three menus now, instead of two, with four, five, or nine courses instead of five or ten, and each course can be ordered à la carte. I confess I miss the old ways, with fewer choices.

The dishes I loved best this time were black cod with summer herb pistou, and the extra course of foie gras I had ordered, which was as good as I remembered it. We drank a cool, white wine to start, with a pale, clear Burgundy to follow. Now the cooking is a little less classically French - at least it was this time - a sign of changing times. The nages are gone, as are the smoothly piped rounds of pommes de terre purée speared with a finely waffle-cut shard of crisply fried potato. Still, my rabbit was a little overdone, its accompanying couscous a bit wet, the olives overwhelming the sweet carrots. But I loved the espresso crême brulée, and the chocolate-cherry-almond mignardise at the end of the meal. I was happy to be here again, with my parents, with some of their dearest friends, eating foie gras and laughing until it hurt.

What I love most about Rover's, aside from an enduring consistency of cuisine and ambiance, is the sense of preserving a moment in my life. Like a fly in amber. No, like an oeuf en gelée. That first year I came here was a terrible year, a sad, frightening time. Dining in that quiet restaurant with its ever-changing menus and floral adornments brought a measure of peace from the anxieties of our everyday lives.

I'll keep the phone number memorized, for next time.