Last week I had dinner at the best new restaurant in America—at least according to Bon Appetit, which honored AL’s Place with the Number One spot on its 2015 “Hot 10” list back in August. I was a little worried in advance of the meal that chef/owner Aaron London’s artful cuisine would be wasted on me, given that after my one meal at State Bird Provisions—which earned Bon Appetit‘s best new restaurant honors in 2012 and is often compared to AL’s—I felt like I hadn’t had dinner yet. That’s not a judgment on the food; it’s just that I’ve grown fond of a linear dining experience that roughly follows this formula: leafy salad, non-starchy main course, dark chocolate. And both State Bird and AL’s revel in a non-linear style—small plates served dim sum-style in the case of State Bird, and tapas-style in the case of AL’s.
Admitting this makes me feel a bit like the Caroline Aaron character in Big Night, the woman who insists on a side order of spaghetti with her risotto. “How can she want??” replies Tony Shalhoub’s purist Italian chef upon hearing her order. “They both are starch! Maybe I should make mashed potato for the other side?” Only I’m a Northern California cliché, and a big bowl of kale is my side of spaghetti.
This failure at food appreciation is not new. During my brief stint as a restaurant critic years ago, I did my best to write thoughtfully about food, but my focus often veered toward things like whether the meal was linear, or what the tables were made of, or what the servers were wearing, or how easy it had been to park. Sure enough, even though I loved my non-starchy, leafy-green meal at AL’s—baby lettuces with herbed avocado, cured trout, smoked brassicas, poached eggs, and a sunchoke and cod curry, washed down with a deliciously bitter aperitif cocktail called Mr. Blonde (yes, all the mixed drinks are named for Tarantino characters)—I found my attention diverted by the hair of the servers, idly counting man-buns (two) and jaunty ponytails (three). I do care about food—I’m not one of those people, like my cousin, who wishes he could eat a meal-substitute pill and be done with it. But minute details about ingredients and process that fascinate friends with more expert palates and culinary curiosity than I mean less to me than details about timing, ritual, tradition, mood, ambiance, and memory.
On this point, I’m out of step with both literary and culinary fashion. There was a time when food narratives—think A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun—were all the rage, with food starring as an unsubtle metaphor for the writer’s epiphany about the true art of living. These days, however, it’s the ingredients that get a starring role and a brand identity, as notably spoofed by the now-famous “Portlandia” skit in which a server not only details the diet (“sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts”) of the chicken on the menu, but feels compelled to add, “His name was Colin. Here are his papers.” Or more recently in the new show “Younger,” in which a similarly earnest server offers up “rescue tomatoes and day-of-expiration burrata.” There’s no question that the cultishness around the artisanal, the sustainable, and the locavore can still produce beautiful, meaningful writing—here’s a recent favorite of mine. But make no mistake: the Tuscan sun has set, and the rescue tomato is rising.
Cooking, as I often do, for only myself and my six-year-old hasn’t necessarily honed my skills or refined my palate, either. (“That’s not cooking, it’s production,” a friend recently commented). But I think my own childhood is the bigger factor. I grew up in an era (casseroles! Kool-Aid!) and a household where the occasion outranked process and ingredients every time. And the occasion really mattered.
With four children, eight grandchildren, and more binders full of parties than anyone else I know, my mother is a high priestess of production, and she rarely relinquishes her kitchen. But I remember one night when she did, several summers ago, on my parents’ 54th wedding anniversary. My sister and I came up with the menu, aiming low (a sautéed shrimp and pasta dish, farro salad) and delivering medium. Relegated to the bar, my mother made Bellinis, the Prosecco and peach purée cocktail invented by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Venice’s famed Harry’s Bar. The Bellinis were a nod to my parents’ courtship; after meeting at summer school at the University of Edinburgh, they had each traveled on their own in Italy, and—a la An Affair to Remember—made a date to meet for Bellinis at Harry’s on a certain August midnight. Or so my father thought, because my mother never got the message with the details, which he’d left at an American Express office. Dad waited and waited that night, and found out a day or two later that my mom had gone on to Florence. Several train trips and two telegrams later, they found each other in London.
At that anniversary dinner, it took all of us a minute longer than it should have to understand the significance of the Bellinis in relation to the day—but once we got it, we got it. The peaches weren’t rescue; in fact, they were probably canned. A triumph of meaning over branding.
Canned-Peach Bellinis (adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Store Cupboard Peach Bellini recipe)
One 15 oz. can of Del Monte sliced peaches, in fruit juice
750 ml Prosecco, chilled
Purée the peaches and their juice in a food processor till smooth. Divide the peach purée between 6 Champagne flutes, with about an inch of purée in each one. Gently top them up with Prosecco. Serve immediately.