Critic in an Ideal World


The party was winding down a bit, and I was fortunate enough to be occupying half of the most comfortable sofa when The Bore came over and sat down. It was late enough that even his company wasn’t enough to make me leave a comfortable chair, so I endured listening to him for a while.

This particular evening he was grousing about a restaurant review he had read in a local paper. “Purists,” he snorted. “People who no doubt can’t cook an egg themselves, but feel qualified to complain when the salad fork isn’t in the exact position they think it should be in.”

Ending a sentence with a preposition, I mused. My editor would get you for that. I listened drowsily as he continued his tirade.

“All this natter about ambiance and mood and what wine goes with what. It’s a sham, I tell you. Food is good or bad, cheap or expensive, and the rest is some artificial standard that these reviewers make up to impress each other. Nobody can be perfect, after all. What do these pencil pushers want?”

What do I really want, I asked myself. How could I explain to this windbag the kind of experience that I crave? Let’s see, perhaps it would be best to start the evening at the beginning. When my companion and I show up at 7:20 PM for a 7:30 reservation, there should be a place to sit that’s comfortable and pleasant. Drinks may be available while we wait, but nobody at the bar does a hard sell if we’re not interested. At 7:30 our table isn’t quite ready, but the maitre’d gives me an honest approximation of how long I will have to wait. The delay is quite brief, and we are shown to the pleasantly appointed dining room within minutes. The place isn’t really that fancy, not spit-in-your-eye elegant, but the linens and silverware are clean and the chairs are comfortable. The tables are far enough apart that our dinner conversation and the ones around us do not disrupt each other, and the waiters have enough room to walk by without gymnastics.

The lights are bright enough to read the menu, but not glaringly so. The menu itself has a legible and accurate description of the offerings from the kitchen, and the wine list follows suit. The joy with which I read that list, with its balanced selection of high and low priced bottles, the broad range of wines by the glass beckoning me to try new experiences! The descriptions, neither overly poetic or dourly brief, give me the basis to choose wisely, and I linger over the list for a few minutes.

After a short while the waiter makes his appearance. His manner is warm but not intrusive, professional but not coldly formal. He is my guide to the intricacies of the menu, the person I trust to be my counselor. Does this appetizer complement that main dish, I ask? And this wine- will it flatter both my meal and that of my dining companion? The questions about the entrees he answers with thoughtful honesty, but alas, I have chosen one of the few wines with which he is not familiar. No matter. Doctors and lawyers find no shame in consulting with their colleagues, and neither does he. He departs briefly, returning with one of his comrades who has experienced the wine in question. She considers the matter and responds with a choice: this wine will do, but have I considered another in the same price range that might be a better companion to both our entrees? I had not, and I gratefully choose the recommended vintage. The bottle is brought to the table and opened, with a suggestion that it be given just a bit of time to breathe before tasting.

Bread arrives at our table crusty and warm, with butter that is just at spreadable temperature. My dining companion and I sit back and relax, comforted as much by the pleasant rhythm of a well-run establishment as by the instrumental music that plays quietly in the background. Salads arrive in a few minutes, the greens not drowned in dressing but accented by a light coating that tossing has mixed well. Our waiter waits until we have tasted the salad before offering to grind pepper on it, and I decline with thanks. Our table conversation changes as we become involved with savoring the freshness of good greens and the delicacy of good dressing.

The dishes are cleared unobtrusively and our old friend the waiter returns with the suggestion that the wine should be investigated. He pours a moderate portion into our glasses and awaits our judgment. It is a complex wine, with hints of the grape fresh from the vine, the oak of the barrelhouse, and the character that can only come from proper aging and loving care. We are enchanted. We savor the joys of the grape while our appetizers are served and our water glasses and bread basket are replenished.

Our main courses arrive, each platter to its rightful owner without fuss or question. We admire the beauty of the food for just a moment while our glasses are topped up, then attend to the business of savoring the delights from the kitchen. Our waiter glides by noiselessly, stopping for just a moment and raising an eyebrow. Are things as we had hoped? Most assuredly, they are.

Plates emptied and gone, our benevolent outlook on life could only be improved by one thing: dessert. Our waiter- I must remember to write him into my will- arrives with the selections for the evening. On this tray as in all other things there is balance. Some fruits and tarts offer the path of low cholesterol virtue, while rich and chocolatey items tempt us with calorie heavy sins of the flesh. This evening I will choose virtue, my partner vice; on other nights it will go the other way. Feeling more virtuous still I choose to accompany mine with decaf coffee, knowing that at this place it is always as fresh as its more wicked sister that tempts me from my companion’s cup. I toy with the idea of a glass of port from the well chosen list of dessert wines, but decide to save that joy for another evening.

The last plates are clear, and I notice the room is more sparsely populated than before. Our waiter places the folio containing our bill on our table, and I flip it open. The legible writing and neat figures are all in order, so I reach for my wallet. With a practiced one hand flip I open it to the credit card section, and …

Stiff fingers poked my shoulder, jarring me from my reverie. “What do you think, eh?” The fingers jabbed me again for emphasis, and The Bore’s voice went a notch louder.

“Would you want to eat a meal that had actually been cooked by these typewriter bangers? Would you? That would prove whether they were qualified to put down other people’s cooking, I say!”

I got up from the sofa without answering and went through the sliding glass door into the back yard. The party was only a murmur there, and I looked up at the night sky through a light haze of fog. There were just shreds of my daydream left, and I stared at the stars and tried to recapture that memory of caring and artistry.

“Just a group of people who love their jobs and do them well. A little respect given and received, in an oasis of comfort and manners,” I murmured. “Is that so much to ask for?”

The night was becoming chill, so I went back inside to get my coat.

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