Airplane Food "What's that?" "737." "How about that one?" "DC-10." "Over there?" "Um..." "L-1011."
It's 1978 and my father and I are sitting in webbed lawn chairs in our backyard in suburban Chicago. We're playing a little pre-dusk game of ours: identifying the airplanes that traverse the skies over our neighborhood, on one of O'Hare's congested flight paths. I count the engines, try to read the markings. The grass is thick, blue-green. Sprinklers thock. The cobalt cathode pulse of televisions fills windows. Jimmy Carter is president. Dad sips his coffee. The sun continues setting, darkness comes up, and then we go inside to eat.
Ever since then, I've had a thing about airplanes in flight, the way they look, the effects they produce. Contrails. Slow, whining arcs. Gear-down shrieks, silvery skins glistening. Blinking points that bob and hover in the deep distance. The thrill of actually riding in a plane and entering crowded airspace, at night, with dozens of other planes hugging your right and left flanks, wing lights flashing, descending along smooth trajectories from 500 mph to zip?this is a pure and fantastic thrill, a relatively cheap experience that we appreciate inadequately. You can imagine what da Vinci would have thought, sitting stock upright in his seat in coach, nose pressed to the portal, breathless with awe and delight.
So, the planes. They still stop me in my tracks from time to time, when the sky and the weather and the setting are right, when they add up, unexpectedly; combine in perfect measure, and all I want to do next?after I've taken the moment in, organized the privilege?is have a nice dinner. I emphasize: nice. Not fashionable or cool or sexy or even particularly great. Just nice.
Over where Gansevoort St. intersects with the West Side Hwy., where Manhattan drops away and the city gets all opened-up and flattened-out and Los Angelesy, the skywatching is primo, and representative in its way of what we're all about these days, as a culture. And what we aren't. A misty orange band gradates from the horizon, then a pale lavender all the way up to a vague sliver of crescent moon. The Hudson a rippled slate. Helicopters chop north, in processional tandem: one, two, three of them in a row. Traffic hums. Chain-link fence. Luxury rental banners draped from buildings whose ocher facades burn yellow. Joggers. Dogs. Bikes. And the city settles into another October dusk. I'm transfixed and killing time. Slicing across the sky, lazily sliding from left to right, an airplane dragging a contrail, a creamsicle orange tail behind a silver dagger. Wow. If that isn't something... A few million people can see it if they want, but somehow it feels as if it's all for me.
Then I go eat. Visions make me hungry, and this time, hungry for a correctly paced and proper meal, one that I'll have to eat at a bar, because I'm all alone on this night and totally not into sitting by myself while being over-attended by restaurant staff. Eating alone at a table is symbolic of desperation; eating alone at a bar is evidence of pragmatism. All right, so it's a melancholy pragmatism, but there's also dignity in it, and if you ask me, dignity is in pretty short supply these days. A quintuple-digit Dow, rising forever, and elegance in grievous decline. When did we decide that we wanted to live this way, eating cartoon food and expecting all the waiters to be slick and handsome, the patrons dressed like art-noir stormtroopers, the cocktails dyed neon?
In pockets, the resistance soldiers on. Nice places, remember. Sad places, too, I'm afraid to admit. Take Le Gans, for example, where I found myself last week after skywatching on the fringe of the meatpacking district. I've been spending a lot of time in the area lately; every Monday, I hit golf balls for two hours at Chelsea Piers, then tour the surrounding neighborhoods. Le Gans?which is right up the road from perpetually hip Florent and just down the way from currently hip Markt?struck me as my kind of place. Perched on its corner, tidily jammed with tables, gracefully underdecorated, brick-walled and tableclothed and blessed with a sizable bar. White-shirted waiters (and only waiters) in ties. A curated menu, rather than some scattershot attempt to fuse six different regional cuisines into a media-defying buzz. Meat, fish, chicken. Foie gras. Cheese. Ingredients rather than trends.
I ate early, and so for about half an hour was the only one in the place. Immediately, I fell for the bartender, a older guy with neatly combed hair and steel-rimmed spectacles. He fiddled with the dimmer to set the lighting. He struggled with the CD player when it skipped. He was nine-tenths serious as hell and one-tenth wry grin. The restaurant did not fill up. The staff didn't seem particularly nervous about it, however. They milled around and shot the shit. I sipped a medium-bodied red Bordeaux and studied the menu and the wine list (heavily French, the wine list, and not at all pricey). A guy dressed like a tourist ambled in and ordered a Johnny Walker Black. The bartender set me up. Bread appeared, and softened butter. The underoccupied staff calmly studied the empty sidewalk. Cinzano rubber pads decorated the bar, and one of those typical bistro folies, a glass bee filled with toothpicks. A huge smoked-glass ashtray.
My starter is a lump of goat cheese crusted with almonds and served over a bed of mesclun. There are completely tasteless chickpea pancakes as well, presumably to spread with the goat cheese. But it doesn't work for me, and I wish I'd ordered something else.
Johnny Walker Black is joined by a friend. The reservation book is just off my right shoulder. Le Gans seems to have about 12 reservations for the entire week. A preppie duo enters and is seated. Couples arrive. And just as I think things are looking up, the death blow: a young woman dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans and carrying what appears to be a math textbook approaches the bar. "Can I get a cappuccino to go?" she asks.
My heart sinks. The bartender explains that they don't have takeout cups.
She drinks her cappuccino at the bar. My roasted venison filet with red-currant poivrade and chestnut puree arrives. A bite. "Ith rarynou foyu?" asks the bartender, with an accent somewhere between Iberia and the Italian boot. Baffled stare from me.
"Ith rarynou foyu?" A gesture toward my plate. "Rarynou?"
Ah. okay. Is it rare enough for you? Of course it's rare enough. I ordered it medium rare, but more rare than medium. What are they going to do if I'm disappointed? Re-roast another $26 venison filet? Are they that goddamn thrilled that at least someone is eating the game dish tonight?
It's pretty good venison, by the way. I know a little bit about deer hunting, via my brother. "Fucking sucks," he reports. "You sit in a tree all day and wait for the deer to come by." He prefers hunting quail with his dog. Also duck from a blind. Since I don't have to shoot the deer, I can just sit back and enjoy the slightly sweet tang of my tender filet, crusty outside, muscle red inside. Dee-lish. The chestnut puree is intoxicating, generously flavored and pocked with nutty chunks, not whipped smooth. The red-currant poivrade's a fine complement to the meat, an able condiment. Pinot noir would be the perfect wine to accompany the dish (a peppery one, like Calera), but my Bordeaux has a spicy edge, so the match is good enough for me. A really big Bordeaux would overpower the venison, as would a California cabernet. Autumn is a mellow, contemplative season, and venison is the perfect protein for it. Accordingly, you want a medium-wattage wine, one that will lay back a bit, play background chords rather than dominate the melody. Spanish Rioja, perhaps. A wine with some manners, some respect.
And then more wine. "Dessert isn't any fun if you're by yourself," I tell the bartender when he presents me with the menu. "You want to share dessert."
"How about a dessert wine?" I ask.
He pulls down two bottles of something Spanish that I've never heard of. "Don Pedro Ximenez," he declares.
"Which do you recommend?"
He taps the '72 Gran Reserva on its cork. "Ina Spain, they drink with seafood. Very good."
"Why not?" I say. He pours. It's terrific, port-like but without the afterburn, thick, dark, molasses, a mouthful. Comforting. And neither the bartender nor the manager has any idea how much a glass of it costs. They scour the menu together. Then they make a call. Somewhere in, oh, I don't know...New Jersey? Long Island? Le Gans' owner picks up the phone. Is he concerned that his restaurant, a bastion of politesse in a rude and flashy neighborhood, is all but empty? Does he cheer quietly to himself when he learns that someone got talked into the $18 Pedro Ximenez on a deathly slow night? Who knows. I pay the check. The bartender places both hands on the bar and, making an admirable effort to straighten his aging posture, bows slightly to me as I slip from my barstool. I'm touched. I'm going to miss this place.
A block away, I look back. There he is, framed through the open doors of the restaurant, alone once again at the bar, a single figure visible and clear from a hundred yards away. His shirt, white, blazes.