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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The King of à la Carte by John von Daler

                 When I was a kid in Oklahoma, we traveled a lot: Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Florida. At some point on these vacations I got a reputation for never getting sick and for always getting the best food. My family had a vacation rule: after a few minutes of eating we passed our plates on to the right. This was our way of tasting more than one local specialty. But if you had ordered something really good, it was a pain. The best place to sit at our vacation dinner table was to the right of me.

                I would be sitting there with a fresh-boiled lobster dipped in drawn butter, nipping away at the tail, when one of my parents would say, o.k., now, and my plate with shellfish would circulate into somebody else's tummy. Or I would be in the middle of a special guacamole with sun-ripened avocados, garden-fresh coriander and lime just off the tree and oops I'd be eating a dry, fried hamburger with a mealy tomato on top.
               We moved to Connecticut when I was fourteen and this gave us the chance to get to Europe in the summertime. One summer we drove around France. I had had a few hits in Paris already, a great little baked cod casserole with melted and browned cheese on top, some mussels in white wine with fennel, some lamb couscous with cinnamon, turmeric and cumin. The rest of the family kept me under surveillance and they jostled each other when we entered restaurants.
                Then we came to Reims. We visited the cathedral in the late afternoon and went directly to dinner in one of the small, cozy bistro restaurants that lined the broad boulevard in front of the church.
                I looked through the menu and found something called "Les Crudités".  I have ordered this many times since then and have often been disappointed by receiving more or less what the name implies: raw vegetables, an onion, a carrot, a piece of celery. But this particular day the waiter came first with the orders for the rest of the family. Then there was a kind of a quiet moment as they started eating happily and I sat with an empty plate and played with my knife and fork.
                Suddenly from behind a curtain close to our table our waiter appeared pushing a four-wheeled cart with three levels of food. Each level contained small dishes, cups, plates, all with homemade pickled delicacies, smoked artichokes, stuffed olives, small rolls of tomato and cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, beans in vinaigrette sauce, and even more things I did not know the name of. The waiter pushed the cart over to me and I selected what I thought was the most appetizing dish and put some of it on my plate. The waiter did not move away. I gave him a quizzical glance and he nodded emphatically. I took one more thing and turned away but he just kept standing there. He waited in fact until I had chosen ten or twelve delicacies.
                Now the best thing about the whole process was that by now everyone in the rest of the family had gotten through their small dishes, so there would be no passing on this day. I ate slowly and carefully and described out loud the various aspects of each beautiful little dish. Everybody else sat in silence.
                I've been back to Reims three or four times since then. The cathedral is still there, but I can't find the restaurant, the waiter, the cart or the food. And my metabolism isn't the effective grocery grinder that it used to be. So I'll just have to live with the memory of a mythical restaurant in Reims where I earned the respect of the rest of my family, at least as far as eating was concerned: King of à la Carte.

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