I read Hound of the Baskervilles when I was young, probably for school. And I promptly gave up on reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Because this is the one (and, yes, I’m about to spoil the ending for you) where you are going right along trying to figure out how these fantastic things are going to end up with perfectly rational explanations, and then Sherlock Holmes whips a dissertation on ash out of his ass. Really – no way to see that coming.
And I pretty much threw the book down right then. Because I hadn’t realized that this whole story was getting explained inside Sherlock Holmes’ head – and that I hadn’t been invited to the party! I had been reading along thinking that if I needed further data, it would be provided in the nooks and corners of the prose. But, no – a dissertation. On ash. Well why am I even reading, if I don’t get to be a party to the fun part of the figuring things out process?
And then years later, there came Neil Gaiman. And he’s this weird rockstar literary figure, and people make noise about him transcending genre and crossing over audiences and whatnots. But you know what his trickery really is? He makes the audience feel smug about being smart and in on the joke.
He pulls in enough far reaching references to obscure folklore than no matter what your youthful obsession, you find one of the nifty things, which you’d been nurturing close to your breast, put out there and explained as the lovely thing you think it is. And you get to accumulate other, new, nifty things and banter them about as if you’d been treasuring them all along. There’s a wink and a nod and an offer of complicity.
And after I read a few of his things, I sought out others.
I was reading an article in Philadelphia Magazine about Georges Perrier, who is credited with premiering fine dining in Philadelphia and how he just had to close a restaurant, is having trouble filling seats despite great deals, and is being squeezed out by the younger chefs and their lack of respect for tradition.
So when I was little, my mother would talk about how we should some day eat a really fancy meal at Le Bec Fin, but we never did. And I was always fairly sure that it was a bit out of our price range.
But there was a sportier bistro opened up. And one day I had a friend from out of town visiting, and I figured it would be a good place near where she’d be to meet for dinner. So I called up to make a reservation for that evening. And I was told, quite plainly, that this was Brasserie Perrier, and one could not make a reservation any less than a week ahead.
So my friend had heard of another restaurant. It turned out to be right next door. And run by Stephen Starr, one of the older new chefs with too big britches. Alma de Cuba. And it turned out to be one of the more memorable dining experiences I’ve had (with tempura avocado salad!), so I had no complaints. It was expensive, but I’ve gone back a couple of times, with people, alone, and I even took my parents. They are still doing well, but Brasserie Perrier… well, it’s closed.
Stephen Starr, however, is a chef who gets a raised eyebrow from me, though, because his concepts don’t always impress me. On the other hand, let me talk about someone Georges Perrier cursed quite a bit in his interview – Jose Garces. This is the chef who championed tapas to the city. And in the article, Perrier compares the price of his prixe fixe with an incredibly expensive meal he had dining at on of these tapas restaurants. And you know what? Yes, I try not to ever go to a Garces restaurant starving. Because I can’t afford it. But I’m not committing to the starving person’s price. I only have to commit to a $9 plate. Or maybe 2 or 3 of them.
But what Garces really has going, at least at both of the initial two restaurants (not so much at the third, and I haven’t had time to get to the most recent two), is atmosphere. It’s just the right balance of dark and airy to be elegant without being overbearing. And it’s service. The first time I went to Amada (on a whim, before a movie), they were so full that there was only room for a single person at the bar. And I had the bartender come over and take the time to explain the menu and offer me a cocktail that would match what I was eating (and was this amazing pear thing with pear nectar she said she had infused herself, and I’ve never seen there since). The next time was restaurant week (a time when restaurants are crazy crowded) and I was sad that the whole week would go by without trying anything, and I’d called a couple of places to see if they had tables after I got out of work at 9pm (yeah!), and Amada not only was willing to seat me, but also had wonderful and attentive service, even late at night. And the food was every bit as tempting and delightful as the first time, even though it was the end of the night at the end of a grueling week.
I like being welcomed and encouraged to enjoy along with.