"Where would you like to go for your birthday?" asked my best beloved. I wasn't sure it mattered too much; I just wanted to be with him. We had some pretty fancy meals coming up anyway -- a soirée this weekend; a dinner invitation next month to a rather special venue. But I gave his question some thought.
A friend of a friend made a superhuman effort and got us a reservation at Babbo. The best she could do was six days *before* my birthday. Apparently all the days around Valentine's Day (my birthday is three days after) were booked up at Babbo; consolation prizes for the sweeties who couldn't get in on the lovers' day itself, I suppose. I decided that we'd put the Babbo plans on hold, and see if we couldn't call this marker in for another occasion. We go out pretty rarely, and I thought I'd rather have a rest from kitchen duty on the actual birthday, as it were. So I settled on having the celebratory meal at Telepan.
I've wanted to try this restaurant for a while, but a couple of factors were the deciding ones. First, it wasn't so over the top that we were going to a) break the bank or b) have to dress up, which I don't mind but which G equates with various sorts of torture. Secondly, it has a tasting menu -- but one you put together yourself from their various courses. Now me, I'm an intrepid eater that loves a tasting menu -- lots of new treats to savor. G, on the other hand, is the sort of eater who, when faced with various arty constructions on his plate, is wont to say things like, "Are there mushrooms in this?" It's hard to let the chef cook for you when you're with dining companions who have a lot of uh-ohs on their list of acceptable food substances. So a four-course tasting menu where you choose all your courses satisfies us both.
We went to an early showing of Persepolis (a bit disappointing, but I won't spoil it for you). Then we walked up Columbus in a misty, romantic rain. Telepan is a pretty space, with friendly service. Despite a bit of crowding at the entrance, we were seated promptly for our reservation. Shortly thereafter a server offered us a choice of warm breads (we both chose the semolina raisin fennel). Then another server showed up with a pretty wooden trencher of amuses bouches for each of us. Lined up in a row was a little gougère, a porcelain spoon of salad, and the obligatory demitasse cup of soup (although I did bring my camera to this meal, we were in a very low-lit part of the room, and not a single one is unblurred -- which is sad, since the food was very pretty. The composition of souvenirs above was, of course, taken after the fact).
The cheese puff was a surprise -- it was filled with a sharp, molten hot cheese sauce. The salad was finely shredded brussels sprouts in a citrus vinaigrette with ricotta salata cheese, which turned out to be a very fine combination. The soup was parsnip with pineapple -- again, nothing I'd ever think of throwing together, necessarily, but quite lovely as it turned out. These preliminary tastes boded well for the meal to come, I thought.
I loved my first course -- tiny grilled quail on a salad of fresh greens, roast duck meat, oranges and chunks of toasted almond. Tasting menu portions are smaller than ala carte, of course, but the little half quail was sufficient for me, since I always have to pace myself with a multi-course meal. G was not as happy with his starter. He had chosen a salad with a dry jack cheese dressing, which turned out to be composed of very tall reddish salad leaves. I tasted it, and could see why he was unimpressed. The salad dressing was not balanced -- it was very vinegar-forward, to the point of concealing the flavor of the cheese -- the very thing designed to tick off my cheese-loving husband.
Both of our mid-courses, however, were exceptional. We both had pastas -- I the lobster bolognese, and he the veal ravioli. The bolognese was a gorgeous big chunk of lobster tail in the shell, balanced atop a tangle of spaghetti in a very light, herbal tomato broth with more lobster chunkettes. I wanted to lick my plate, but refrained. G's was light, pillowy ravioli filled with shredded roast veal, and sauced with a pure veal jus reduction. Very simple -- and very, very good.
Things fell down a little during entrée time. G's hangar steak was tender and delicious, but he looked askance at the two little slices on his plate. This is where the tasting menu concept doesn't work for him -- he waits through the meal for the thing he likes best, and then it's a little dollhouse portion.
The roast loin of veal, my choice, was only one slice, which was actually plenty for me. Unfortunately, it was on the very rare side of medium rare, which is a nice thing when it's steak, but not so much when it's veal, in my opinion. Veal is one of those meats which, when it's too rare, becomes (in the words of the immortal Laurie Colwin) a tough matting of wet red fibers. I didn't send it back, however, because that always creates problems in a multi-course meal. I soldiered through several bites of it, and very much enjoyed the accompanying geometrically perfect block of crunchy exteriored/creamy interiored potato slices, and the little clump of pungent black kale.
A few tables down from us, a silver-haired dowager did indeed send back her veal, and then the not-so-much-fun started. Of course her three other dining companions finished their tiny entrées in a trice. By the time the server came by to assure her that her veal would be right out, she was in a full-blown snit. "Never mind," she said haughtily. "Can I get you something else?" "Can we have it packed for you?" "NO," said she. "I said, NEVER MIND." By this time, the server had gotten the sous manager, and the sous manager had gotten the manager-manager...but it was no use. The queen mother would not be mollified.
The server came back. "The manager wants you to know that he would like to treat the table to dessert." "I thought the dessert came with the meal anyway," replied the woman, razoring right through the waiter's gesture. The poor fellow had just about reached wits' end, but made a superhuman effort to respond without throttling her. "Yes, of course, but the bill will be adjusted to reflect complimentary desserts," he said, just the tiniest hint of exasperation filtering through, perhaps only noticeable to me.
Ah, the theatre of dining out. I tend to forget about other people, since we mostly dine á deux. We were busy with our own not-complimentary but still very nice (full-size!) desserts when I began to pick up conversation from the other side. At the four-top to our right was a pregnant couple and an engaged couple. There was talk of bachelor parties and baby showers. G appeared not to notice, engrossed as he was in forking up warm ginger cake, pear fritter, crème fraîche ice cream, poached pear and cranberries. The daddy-to-be at our neighbors' table excused himself and left for a bit. The engaged couple honed in on the mommy-to-be. "How are you feeling?" they asked. "Mmmm, I'm not ready," she said. "Not ready for this at all." "Ummm," said the engaged guy. "Then, ummm, why are you doing it?" Soon-to-be-mommy smiled and shrugged. "Well, you know," she said. "It's what people do." I took my spoon from my crumbly, fudgy, chocolate pecan tart, and dipped it, first into the quenelle of caramel crumble ice-cream on the side of the plate, then into the long stripe of dark fudge, then into the little pool of rich warm caramel. The daddy-to-be came back to the table, and their conversation shifted.
I looked up from my luscious plate of sweets, and caught G's eye. He had indeed been listening. "I'm so glad I married you, and only you," I said, as the waiter brought the check with some tiny citrus-scented coconut macaroons in little wrappers. "And I you, my love," said G. "And I you."