Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Birthday Dinner

It is not everyday that I get to be a part of an 85th year birthday celebration. E and I ushered in his father's birthday over the weekend. A hale and hearty octogenarian, Morris loves to eat. A pastrami sandwich on rye at a humble diner would suit him equally well as an opulent dinner at a four-star restaurant. Birthdays, however, call for opulence, and for the last several years, my father-in-law has marked each of his birthdays by inviting a group of us to a lavish dinner. This year was no exception. The destination was L20, a high-end and high-concept seafood restaurant in Chicago. I did forgo my usual vegetarianism -employing many rationalizations to assuage my guilt; I didn't want to hurt Morris's feelings by not fully partaking in the offerings of the menu. But the ignoble truth is that I was mainly motivated by curiosity. Curious about what molecular gastronomy is all about - this new genre in haute cuisine that the restaurant is known for. This school of cooking employs new-fangled, high-tech machines as well as the more mundane staples of a high school science lab -like Erlenmeyer flasks and their attendant rubber tubings, for example- to create dishes that take novel and often bizarre forms.

I wanted to fully absorb the experience -embrace all the nuances of the food, the surroundings, and of course, enjoy the company. But this desire, curiously enough, caused me some anxiety as I wondered if I were up to the task . I don't consider myself a connoisseur of haute cuisine by any means, someone with such a rarefied palate that she could invariably detect the trace of yuzu essence (perhaps distilled with an Erlenmeyer flask) infusing her steaming broth of a shabu shabu dish (that was my main course). Nor could I be confident of parsing all the subtle flavors present in my warm octopus dish. What I did detect, however, was an expertly-crafted dish with a hint of tarragon enhancing the succulence of the octopus, presented artfully in a hollow of a startlingly large plate. I beheld this beautiful sight, surrounded by the wood-panelled decorum of our dimly lit dining room.

And then there was the tea, not to be outdone by the food. The selection was impressive in its eclecticism: a pu-erh, a rooibos, Keemun, Silver Needles, several greens, and even tencha -precursor in the production of matcha, the Japanese powder green tea. I was bowled over as this was one of the few times I have seen tencha offered anywhere. I was duly impressed and much as I wanted to order the tencha, I opted for a pot of rooibos instead, this being late evening, and I didn't want the heft of caffeine in tencha to keep me awake that night.

I sipped the silkily sweet rooibos from my cup. Tropical notes emanated from the tisane. I poured myself another cup from the alabaster-white pot and watched the steam rising as I let my tea cool a bit. I took a bite from my dessert of a creamy rhubarb confection, garnished with the candied edible flower. I savored the gutsy, unmistakable tang of rhubarb as I sat in rapt mindfulness, throwing cares of connoisseurship to the winds.


A. said...

What a memorable meal. Happy birthday to E's dad!

Cha sen said...

Thanks, A. I'll pass on the wishes!

Jason Witt said...

I too am vegetarian and I was feeling what you wrote about in the story. What would I do when faced with a dining experience that asked for me to eat seafood? I imagine I'd be able to refuse the fish but I can't guarantee I'd be able to. It is good news about the tea they offered. I guess it has to be the best of restaurants to offer Tencha. Late at night even I would have gone for it!

Cha sen said...

Perhaps, tencha will come my way again one of these days :)