To make up for the abysmal fiasco that was my mother’s birthday in early August, I planned and filled this year’s Thanksgiving visit with an enormous amount of fun activities and mother-daughter bonding. The first of these is a Tuesday lunch at Eleven Madison Avenue, a shiny rung in the Relais & Châteaux chain.
It was a rainy day, the first in a series of storm advisories. I would’ve gladly capitulated to the elements, if not for a ridiculous sense of accountability instilled by the faceless internet reservation service OpenTable.com; I’d already bailed on three previous dinners in the past six months, without cancelling in advance, and they threatened, however meekly, to cancel my account if I kept it up. So my mother and I braved it, and made it to the restaurant, driving over the Queensboro Bridge, to the Flatiron District, and then finding a parking garage.
As my mother and I walked in, the storm outside was stirring up. My head was covered with a hood, and I was holding my jacket close to my neck for protection from the forty-mile-an-hour winds. My boots were cluncky and because of cold I felt frumpy. My mother refuses to wear a hat, ever, even on days like this, so her hair was a mess. The restaurant was not at all crowded, perhaps as a result of the weather, and a row of people at the entrance to was there to greet us. “Hi, welcome, we’ve been waiting for you,” said the hostess, and a lady in a green suit took my and my mother’s coats. Just as our waitress invites us to our table, the hostess adds: “Bet you don’t miss this weather.”
The meal started off with a couple of amuse-bouche: puff pastries that, excuse the cliché, melt in your mouth, poached eggs in brothy custard, a teacup of creamy chicken soup. My mother added the special-fancy truffles course to her menu. I had crab meat for the first course and thank God they shelled it for me, otherwise wearing a bib would’ve ruined the entire art deco/Miles Davis sophistication of the restaurant’s décor. Every bite of every thing presented was delicious. The relaxing, soothing kind of delicious; you feel this when the food you eat assuages a discomfort you are feeling but doesn’t sit there in your stomach to remind you that you’ve indulged.
The whole feast lasted about two and a half hours. It continued with the truffles, which my mother insisted on sharing with me. This course was actually a plate of very tiny ravioli, but those were just an excuse for the slices of white truffles the chef shaves over them, freshly, at your table. They taste like the forest, and for those of us that are fortunate enough to have childhood memories of such a place, the truffles will, without permission, bring them up.
Next I had the beef course. I don’t normally eat beef, so when I do I really appreciate it when it’s done properly. There were three different kinds, all cooked to such perfection, that I had trouble differentiating, from texture alone, which was the beef and which was the foie gras it came with. Aesthetically, garnished with a stringy sort of lettuce, it looked like a sculpture. Flavor-wise, it made me question whether I had ever really eaten beef, whether the stuff I ate before this was not actually an imitation, seasoned accordingly to fool me. For the first time since traveling to Napa, I imagined what a really good day must feel like for a supertaster.
My mother and I talked about the events of the year – my stepfather’s stroke, her new life in the aftermath – how things can turn to be so different from one day to another, and as the months go on how things can diverge and become almost unrecognizable. Whenever I think of change, I think of time travel and imagined now what it would be like if I could go back and meet my parents as teenagers, like in Back to the Future, and talk to them. I come from the future, I would say. I’m your daughter. How shocked they would be to see me and hear me speaking an entirely different language from them. They wouldn’t comprehend the future. How come you speak a different language; what happens to us, they would ask. I would tell them that they emigrated to New York and they would be shocked, because they would be unaware, at the time, that that is something they desire. Decisions happen like accidents sometimes, completely without warning, and then before you know it, things have changed.
Sometime before the dessert, our hostess came up to the table and in the same polite tone as her greeting she asked if everything was cooked to our liking. We couldn’t assure her enough that they succeeded in impressing us. “Would you mind if we showed you the kitchen before you left? Would that be OK,” she asked.
My mother didn’t want to go, but I quickly jumped on the offer. As the hostess walked me to the kitchen, she gave me a brief history of the restaurant, describing how they wanted to draw on the place’s history to inspire the décor, how they opened in 1998 and close to that got their Michelin star. She shared a little anecdote about when they were reviewed and the only critique was a lack of Miles Davis. I pointed to the air and we both nodded at the music. I listened respectfully to my mini tour, thinking it was courtesy of my mother having ordered the special-fancy truffles course.
When we entered the kitchen there was a presentation waiting. A pastry chef waited by a metal rolling table, set up with bowls and ingredients. In front of that was a narrow table, which rose to just above my waist, covered with a white tablecloth and displaying two spoons. Someone removed the spoon meant for my mother, and the presentation started. The chef was making me a cocktail. She poured some liquors in a glass, mixed some grapefruits and other things in a bowl, froze the paste with liquid Nitrogen. Like some impressionable tourist, I took pictures with my cell phone, expressing my excitement at how the whole thing looked “just like on TV,” all the while thinking, wow, this is the nicest restaurant ever; glad my mom got those fancy truffles.
During a brief moment of silence, the hostess turned to me and asked, “so, you write for the Huffington Post?” Oh my, I thought, and awkwardly put my cell phone away. Through a series of confusing iterations – “no, I don’t think I’ve ever had anything up on the Huffington Post,” “but didn’t you write about moving away and then visiting again after a while,” “yes, but that was for thenervousbreakdown.com, did you read it on the Huffington Post,” “I think so; you might want to check that out” – I realized she had looked me up, read something I’ve written, and was now giving me special treatment for on it. Sometime in the two years since moving from New York, I had become a writer; albeit a non-famous, not even very prolific one.
When I got home I checked to see, and the piece I wrote for The Nervous Breakdown was indeed not on the Huffington Post; the hostess must have been mistaken. It didn’t really matter, though. It was a happy mix-up. My mother was there for it, and it made her happy to see that my goals are not going to complete waste here in Los Angeles. I also got a free drink out of the whole episode, a worthy incentive as any to keep pursuing a writing career. By the way, the special cocktail I got was called The Hemingway; it was fittingly bitter and alcoholic.