It is a bar in the shape of a yoo, plated in burnished silver metal. The room is just large enough for the bar, which seats eighteen. Actually it is a bar in the shape of a dee, the spine forms the counter for the kitchen which is that counter and the other counter behind it; this is the space where the chef works and maybe two others, maybe three. Dozens of copper pots and saucepans hanging above. We are sitting at the bar which is also the counter, a table that is both work-space and exhibition-space, a play-space in between both.
In the centre of the dee there is one person; she is the captain, she serves and clears and sees everything as it happens, sometimes even slightly before. There is a precision here a cut above, a necessity to each movement, the whole spare dance laid out before everyone else. You can see across from you the other person in the other seating, split as it is between two overlapping ones, nine on each, and they are elsewhere, you can see what will come or what has come before, and where you are is only in terms of everything else, which is to say itself.
Here the idea of the course is challenged, gently prodded, encouraged to stay here and there for a bit maybe but for the most part given a pat and invited to wait outside.
There are nineteen ‘canapés’, followed by seven ‘courses’. A canapé is a perfectly constructed single bite. A course is a perfectly constructed set of four or five. It is all you ever want.
At the time of dining last August 5th, it is still byob. This enhances an already very specific dining experience. Everyone keeps their bottles on a shelf near the window, whites and sparklings in a long, narrow bed of ice, the few bottles of red on the countertop. It is a menagerie of tastes, pairing principles, and aesthetic values. Diners choose what to pour themselves when; the captain is ahead of you, provides the appropriate glass, it is waiting for you when you return.
The kitchen recommends whites and sparklings as the menu is mostly seafood-focused. Kathleen and I each bring a bottle to share: she a Chablis Premier Cru Les Vaillons 2008 Domaine Billaud-Simon, I a Puligny-Montrachet 2008. They are both exceptional, especially the stony minerality of the Chablis with the clean and briny ocean flavours. A meal like this demands superb wines; and a sup-bar one can vociferously detract, as an ill-fated experiment with a cheap demi of Gruet proved unequivocally. We quickly forget it.
I know that they do not allow cameras: “We welcome you to enjoy our food free of distractions. We request no pictures or notes are [sic] taken and cell phones be used outside.” The first and last are all very well. I am resigned to have no external images of this meal. But notes… this is harder for me. At least I need to write, just two, three words for each, to know exactly what was that flavour, that ingredient, that combination. I resolve, boyishly, to tear out a single page, fold it, keep it on my chair. Nothing a few seconds here and there can’t fix. I will not distract anyone. I will not be a nuisance. I promise I will not.
Everyone arrives promptly, within the span of four minutes. By 7:15pm we are all seated, bound, expectant. The high threshold to secure a reservation means that everyone here is serious – relaxed, playful certainly, receptive and open, but fundamentally intent, focused, in this moment, here. It is thrilling to me. It is a new category of social experience.
There is a menu.
What it lists are seven courses. What it does not list are nineteen canapés.
The flight begins. This is what happens:
‘SOUP’ – celery, apple
a glass cylinder, a shot of foam and mousse. the perfect sign establishing before and after, outside and in, dispersal and sudden unity, drawing the nine of us together in that one sublime cascading moment of collective taste. The serving and clearing of the plate echoes this, each time.
FLUKE – daikon, yuzu
MADAI – snapper, ponzu, scales
OYSTER – lime gelée, crème fraîche
This is my first oyster. It is a moment I will not forget. The delicacy, the bodaciousness coated in a film of minerality, a chiffon of stone; and the burst of citric essence, the green coolness; and the all-encompassing smoothness, coating, tart and rich. Ever.
TROUT – Tasmanian, ramp, raw shallot
YUBA – soy, wasabi
SUZUKI – sea bass, chive oil dressing
KING CRAB – citrus marmelade
SCALLOP – finger lime
Another indelible move. I already have a powerful relationship with finger limes, and this only added to the psychic richness. A playful and impeccably crafted response to the common pairing of scallops with tropical fruits.
URCHIN – black truffle, brioche
If there is a single moment I will carry with me forever, this one is it. A perfect circle of brioche, five millimetres thick or six, toasted at the edges; a perfectly even shaving of black truffle laid across it, mirroring its form; a perfect specimen of sea urchin draped across the pedestal, a gleaming apricot orange, lobes plump, falling away from each other parabolically, symmetrical. This is ‘perfection’ in its necessity. Each piece could not be any other way than it is. This, I think, is the impression that a good dish aspires to – the impression of ontological necessity, the quality of being that confounds the infinite potential of the universe and condenses it into one singular event. Perhaps this is what makes this style of menu so compelling. That moment, that feeling of utter completeness? Here is another.
KANPACHI – garlic, crispy leeks
SARDINE – potato chip weave, fried sage
I am a sucker for whole fish, and anything smaller than a new herring. So this is an automatic winner. Plus, the fried sage is fried into the potato chip. Like, it is inside it. How do they do that? There is no time to contemplate it. That is the point.
SHIMA AJI – ginger, jalapeño
‘CRAB CAKE’ – shredded phyllo, tzatziki
Chef César Ramirez cleverly uses tropes from around the Mediterranean, always, it seems, with some sort of Spanish bent. In his hands it is a successful, versatile, and satisfying strategy.
LANGO[USTINE] – basil gelée, Iranian saffron
Cannot not be a fan of this.
OCTOPUS – hearts of palm, spanish paprika
And they start to gear up towards the courses, if not in portion than in robustness
SOFT SHELL [CRAB] – garlic and parsley sauce
EGG/CAVIAR – fried, truffle
Come on. That’s just cheating.
FOIE GRAS – sea urchin, crab, dashi
Ok no that’s cheating. Too many good things at once. It’s just too good. Gotta save the best for last.
Except it is only the last of the first. Now there are the courses.
King Salmon | roe, caviar, basil gelée
Yes, there is both salmon roe and sturgeon caviar here. It sounds excessive, and it is not. It is necessary.
Turbot | scallop, truffle, chick pea foam
Rouget | crab bouillabaisse, saffron
Duck | chantrelle, broccoli raab, miso
For some reason I remember this exceptionally well. I think it is the combination of duck and miso. Also perhaps because it is the first fowl/land flesh (aside from foie gras, but that’s it’s own category really) of the menu, and it hits the palate like a pulsar. There is strategy here.
Andante Dairy’s Cheese | Danté, blueberry, beet, anise microgreen
Cheese courses that are more than just cheese can be hit or less than, in my experience. This sunk a battleship.
Sorbet | Fromage Blanc, sour cherry
Dessert | strawberry, almond sorbet, hazelnut crisps
Somewhere between the cheese and the sorbet, one of our dining partners pulls out a bottle of ’65 Tawny Port. He passes around a taste. This is not the first time people talk, interact, swap wine tastes and recommendations and ecstasy. It is an oscillation, a wave function of plunges into a reaffirming, exultant solitude followed by lifts back into the world of the other; every crossing of that threshold is a small thrill, one you know will come but never quite when, how abruptly or how intense.
It was at the urchin that I think I drew attention to myself, for staying in that trough longer than those around me. César throws a little jibe from behind the counter. By this point he’s established a sort of exchange, for it’s he who introduces each dish as it is served in twos. I resurface, casting something back just in time, a little late I’m sure, I can’t remember but that’s the point right and I’m sure it was funny at my expense. This is nice – who doesn’t like that contact – but it means there are eyes now, and my notes are far from surreptitious. In fact I’m certain now they never were, and how could I have ever thought otherwise. We’ve been chatting with the captain too, oh god, the cost of friends and good humanness. It is so sweet and causes me a soft trouble, one that I know is nothing, but nonetheless.
When I freak out over the sage in the potato chip, César (he insists on the first name) responds in kind, in jest. Repartée ensues over the Crab Cake, Langoustine, Egg/Caviar, and Foie Gras. I think he gets a kick out of how much of a huge geek I am. Can’t blame him, really.
In the transition between canapés and courses he disappears around the corner to bring food to the dishwasher. When he comes back, he laughs over my shoulder.
“I see you’re keeping notes.”
Well yes I need to remember everything and I then I launch into questions, rapturous responses to the canapés, that oyster, that was my first one and thank you for that, you have begun a beautiful life-long relationship, and that urchin, you don’t even know, I cannot say how much, I mean, it was just perfect, it was, you have, it was
And he responds with sparkling eyes, flashing teeth, always a smile playing about the lips, each question answered and I am a bright-eyed child in his eyes and I don’t mind.
After dessert, there is a lull in the kitchen action on our side, and he comes around to thank and to bid goodbyes. About half the parties leave; a few stay to linger over the last sips of wine, empty glasses and the beautiful detritus of this particular austere space. He presents me with a menu.
“Don’t worry Josh, I kept notes for you.” A sly wink and a half-mouth smile.
What can I but accept, thrilled and demure. He is back around the counter, working on the courses for the next seating around the bar. I want him to stay and to talk, I want to get up and plate things, to let him show me how to spoon and slice and cut away all that is unnecessary.
I sit and wonder, fingers on the metal. This surface is my witness; it is cool to the touch of many hands a night, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and Tuesday.
I leave once I can’t stay; thank the captain with a smile and quietly slide from my chair; open the glass door to the warm air of the Brooklyn night; mutter a silent note of gratitude; and in that final look there are eyes, flashing glasses, and something, a wink, but it tumbles back into the solemn fray and all there is is copper and glass and the supple post-dusk.
Walking back to the subway, my feet absorb thought to move themselves forward, a deliberate casting of the die. On the train, the rattling car takes me north, the steel takes me north, the dripping from the past rain takes me north. And the menu, with all the courses written, in order, in block majuscule to the right of the centerline. Opposite, a note:
ALL THE BEST!!
“RECIPES ARE MEANT TO
The recipe of the no-notes request? The recipe of the menu? The recipe of advice?
Or perhaps, the recipe of ‘recipe’?
I reconstruct the pairings as best I can. Never more than three or four. The document iterates and multiplies.
My second-last thought as I slide into bed is to Ash, Kathleen’s boyfriend, without whose generous lending of his pants (however large for me) I would not have been admitted. In my excitement I had forgot that short pants, no matter how well cut, aren’t actually considered business casual. Lifesaver, that man. Thank god he had just come from the gym when we met up outside.
My last thought is to the cascade of plates descending and rescending, the sinusoidal dreamscape of moments at once personal and shared, and those hands that crafted each in turn, toiled the day from even before the morning, pitted and churned and draped, to translate from mind to mind an idea, a puff, a possibility; from hand to hand, a menu.