Saturday, February 12, 2011

Saturday Throwback: On Splurging

Every week, we post a piece from the CHG archives (located in our nation's capitol, right next to the Ark of the Covenant). This comes from February 2009.

My Pa is my idol. He’s a funny guy, with the patience of Gandhi and the work ethic of an Iditarod sled dog. Even on bad days, he makes Atticus Finch look like an angry slacker. And last week, he turned 60. This is significant for many reasons:
  1. Senior discounts galore. (Hello, IHOP!)
  2. He’s halfway through his quest to become the world’s oldest man.
  3. Sandals! Over black socks! No one gives a damn anymore!
  4. He’s the same age as Sean Connery in Hunt for Red October, Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and, er, Harrison Ford in K-19: The Widowmaker. Barring that last one, that’s pretty cool.
  5. I wasn’t around to celebrate. Instead (with his blessing, but still), I was oogling mountains in the Pacific Northwest.
To make up for my absence, I needed an extraordinarily special gift: something better than anything he’d ever received, or could even dream up. For obvious reasons, gold-plated golf clubs were out of the question, as was a warm, fuzzy hug from Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, who once sparked this conversation between the two of us:

PA: Did you see Jeter's catch last night? It was just like Willie Mays. He ran 50 feet into the outfield and caught it with his back turned. And THEN he nails the guy at second. It was great. Great catch.

ME: If you ever left Mom for a man, I'm pretty sure it would be Jeter.

PA: (thoughtful pause) … You think he'd have me?

That left one other option: Le Bernardin.

You need to know: Pa is a seafood fanatic. He inhales shrimp, and once, I witnessed him down two-dozen Maryland blue crabs in a single sitting. (To compare, I had four. Ma had eight.) Le Bernardin seemed like a good choice.

LB is Eric Ripert’s phenomenal seafood restaurant on the north end of Midtown Manhattan. It’s has four stars from the New York Times since 1986, and is one of only a trio of Big Apple eateries to boast three Michelin stars. Calling it a good place for fish is like saying the Pope only kind of digs Jesus. It’s a TEMPLE to fish, and Pa and I were eager to pay our respects. So, we chose a random Wednesday (coincidentally, the same night Ripert appeared on Top Chef), donned our best snow boots, and got subway-ing.

(SIDE NOTE #1: I worked in Midtown for nine years, on the SAME EXACT STREET as the restaurant, and never knew it was there. This is partially because the whole gorgeous, warm, wooden room is tucked modestly away in the first floor of a ginormous skyscraper. There’s a sign outside, but it’s easy to miss among Times Square’s shiny bustle. Also, I’m not very observant.)

Once we arrived and our coats were checked, the host ushered us to a neat, crisp table with more silverware than I've ever seen for two people. We settled in, and the meal began with an amuse-bouche, a tiny pre-appetizer that psyches your palette up for the rest of dinner. In this case, it was lobster cappuccino. Lobster. Cappuccino. Oh, it sounds bizarre and gross, but understand this: if God had come down from heaven and offered to rub my mouth with diamonds, I still would have opted for the shellfish coffee.

Next up was a choice between 14,000 different types of bread, served to us by one of our 17,000 suited waiters. On the side: butter, presumably churned from a cow they kept behind the bar. I’d never had fresher dairy, and Pa practically spread it on his tongue. So far, so good.

(SIDE NOTE #2: It was around this time we spilled a drop of … something [I forget what] … on the tablecloth. Like quicksilver, a waiter was over to brush it away, smooth the offending wrinkles, and hide the faint remaining stain with a snow-white linen napkin. Pa and I looked wide-eyed at each other: “Well, this beats the crap out of Olive Garden.”)

Soon enough, our sommelier (a lady!) visited the table, bearing our half-bottle of German white wine. She taste-tested the vino before pouring it, and finding it unpoisoned, gave us generous sloshes for the meals to come.

Which? Holla!

What followed were three courses of fish prepared in a variety of heart-stopping, face-melting ways. Organic raw salmon with green apple? Check. White tuna lightly poached in olive oil with dime-sized potato chips adorning each piece? Check. Crispy bass that dismantled our taste buds, rearranged them, and then built them back up into newer, better taste buds? Oh god, check.

And to top everything off, dessert. I had an architecturally stunning dark chocolate ganache with sweet potato sorbet. Pa had a hazelnut and banana combination that … I just openly drooled on my chest. Who discovered the hazelnut, and how can I give him my life’s savings? If anyone can answer this, please call me. Collect.

(SIDE NOTE #3: In the bathroom? Free tampons. Pa was not as impressed at this as me.)

In the end, we walked out full, dazzled, and with the understanding that this was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Calories didn’t matter. Time didn’t matter. Money didn’t matter.

Oh, and about that bill.

Woof. It was big. A good portion of my monthly rent.

But it was also for Pa, and that made every cent worth it. Yeah, I save and scrimp and regularly frugalize my pants off, but I’d do Le Bernardin again tomorrow if I could. We value good food. We love trying new restaurants. We both knew we probably wouldn’t have that kind of opportunity again. And hell, you only turn 60 once.

And that’s when splurging is okay.

(Photos courtesy of Confessions of a She-Fan.)

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Kim Winson said...

Great story! The restaurant sounds like the seafood version of The French Laundry in SF.

Dee Seiffer said...

Great story! Lucking Pa.
Eric Ripert is one of my heroes. Plus, he is dreamy. I DVR "Avec Eric" on PBS. The accent. The blue eyes.
Anthony Bourdain (Eric Ripert's best friend) did a chapter in his book and an episode on Top Chef about the guy who cleans the fish at Le Bernidan.

The Chubee Chick Diaries... said...

Sweet story! Thanks for sharing! :)

tt in nyc said...

Its a looonnng story, but my ex was a cook in a fancy pants 4star nyc restaurant and those guys take care of each other!! I had a chance to eat at le bernadin, le cirque, gramercy tavern, daniel, jean george- u name it, and my #1 tie was le bernardin and daniel- its not a meal as much as an experience you will never forget.

Jules said...

You. Rock. So does your dad. Lucky youse guys.