Monday, December 27, 2010

Just a Plain Lettuce Salad, Sil Vous Plait

[A chapter from The Cooking School of Life]

Bob just wanted a salad. A nice, crisp pile of lettuce with some tomatoes, maybe a slice of cucumber and a black olive or two.

“I’m sorry, we have the braised endive. Or maybe Monsieur would enjoy some Tomates a la Provencale?”

“No. Really. I’d just like a lettuce salad.”

“I’m sorry, again. We have no lettuce.”

Bob just stared at the waiter. We were in a French restaurant (back when they were “French” restaurants, not “continental” or “Euro-fusion”) in conservative Orange County, California. Bob was from New Jersey, out on business. He gave a sigh and slumped a bit, looking grumpy. Bob was the kind of guy who had his Range Rover in Jersey but also a 10-year-old-Oldsmobile as his New York City car. He commanded a bit of a presence, but also wasn’t the scene-making type.

“Let me ask if the kitchen can do anything for you sir.”

The kitchen did manage to find some hearts of Romaine (“No leaves?”), but insisted on French-ifying it so as not to appear too common.

I had never had French food. Never been to a French restaurant. Never had dinner with New York businessmen twice my age. I was over my head and I knew it so I tried my best to keep my head down and be as business-like as possible in my suit that I now know was much too loud and California-flamboyant for these guys in dark gray and brown.

The evening was awkward. I remember dropping the tiny salt shaker in the potatoes on my plate, but I think the conversation at the table was animated enough that no one else actually noticed as I wiped it off with the napkin on my lap. Especially as this was the type of French restaurant where everything was so perfectly spiced, seasoned, and salted that there were no salt or pepper shakers on the tables for the crude Americans who over-salted everything without even tasting it. (They must have known my Dad.) Thus, Bob had had to request salt and pepper for the table.

What I remember were the songs on the menu – Canard en Croute, Jambon Farci et Braise, Poulet Roti. Other than the Spanish of my youth and the street Japanese I picked up living in Asia, French menu items were the first words of another language that I learned. And I remember the sauces – Hollandaise, Mornay, Beranaise. And I have no clue as to what I ate that night or on other evenings at the restaurant. Other than they were rich and lovely.

Not just a plain lettuce salad.