Earlier in life, I was engaged to a man originally from Okmulgee, Oklahoma, where restaurant meals consisted of barbecue, Sonic Burger, and pickled eggs from the bar at the Penn Club.
Twenty years later, he found himself with me, a woman who grew up in New York City, who for her seventh birthday went to a French restaurant and, unprompted, asked for escargot, frogs’ legs and chocolate mousse.
“You just order for me,” this man finally said, after we’d gone to our umpteenth Italian, Japanese, Korean, what-have-you restaurant, and he decided, yet again, that what I ordered was always better.
This was a long time ago, and I have since, for the most part, wound up with diners who know their way around a menu. There are few greater dining pleasures than to go to a restaurant and have someone with better knowledge of the cuisine than I, do the ordering.
This was not the case last week, when I met a group at a new tapas restaurant in Portland, a restaurant quickly christened by food cognoscenti as the best place to open this year. I’d previously been to Toro Bravo three times, with various groups of family and friends, and had always been swept away. The long group tables; the warm umber light, the pitchers of sangria, the smart and funny waitresses bringing one great dish after another to be shared, everything about the place works, to the point where I once found myself spontaneously genuflecting in the direction of the open kitchen.
And so, when a friend told me she needed to meet a few work acquaintances, and could I suggest a spot, I suggested this Toro Bravo. Great, she said, and did I want to join them? I was the first to arrive, and took a seat at the head of the table, telling the waitress we’d be five, and whetting my appetite by perusing the 30 or so tapas on the menu that night.
“Are you Nancy?” asked a woman. I told her, I was. We’d swapped a few quick meet-and-greets – she described herself as “a Harry Potter geek” who wrote a newsletter devoted to the Hogwarts school – when the waitress asked, if we’d like to order.
Hogwart picked up the menu and appeared confused: what were pinchos? I told her, pincho was a little bar snack, but anyway, we’ll just order a bunch for the table to share.
Hogwart looked unconvinced. The waitress asked if she’d like more time. She nodded. I smiled and said, we’d get drinks now and wait to order when the rest of our party showed, which I was hoping would be rather soon, my knowledge of Harry Potter being limited to having watched half of the first movie.
“Hi,” said another woman, looking as rumpled as if she’d come in out of a rainstorm, though outside the sun was shining. She took a seat just as our drinks arrived; would, the waitress wanted to know, she like a cocktail? Rumple seemed unprepared for the question, but obligingly took both the tapas and cocktail menus in her hands… and held them there. The waitress waited. I waited. The waitress waited some more.
“Maybe I’ll just come back,” she said. I smiled.
“So, how does this work?” asked Rumple. I told her, we order a bunch of small items to start, and more as we go along; that it was really fun this way and you get to taste a lot things.
“What’s ‘potatoes bravas’?” she asked. I told her, probably something with potatoes.
The waitress returned and asked if we were ready; neither in my party answered. I ordered toasted almonds with sea salt, and pickled vegetables with marinated olives to start us off. And maybe Rumple would like a cocktail?
“Where’s the cocktail menu?” she asked, and the waitress helpfully pointed to the menu in Rumple’s right hand.
The almonds and pickled vegetables arrived. Dig in, I said.
Rumple said, “I don’t like beets or olives.”
Hogwart didn’t want any nuts.
I turned to the waitress, who by this time was getting slammed with other customers, and ordered oxtail croquettes, fried anchovies, marinated sheep’s cheese with harissa and mint, and the potatoes, enough for the table. And did anyone else want anything?
Rumple said, “I’ll have the bread with olive oil.”
Hogwart said, she didn’t know yet.
I think I smiled, though I can’t really say, as I was at this point only partly in the room. Yes, I might have ignored that I was in the best new restaurant in the city with folks who could manage only to order bread, and really, who cares, if the company is good? But I had no way of knowing whether the company was good, as our conversation proceeded thus: had anyone read the new Langewiesche book? Hogwart said no, but she was “so, so, so, so excited” about the following week’s release of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”; that she and her two kids were probably going to camp out overnight in order to make the first screening downtown, and Rumple, still looking at her menu, asked “What’s ‘paella’?”
The food arrived. The women looked at and away from the oxtail croquettes, and Hogwart gave the veritable fish eye to the tangle of fried sardines. Rumple did try one of the latter, and Hogwart managed to order a steak just as our mutual friend arrived. She quickly glanced at the menu.
“I’ll have griddle shrimp with chiles and the Moorish lamb chops with preserved lemon,” she told the waitress. “And a glass of Rioja, whatever kind.”
She then began to tell us about a recent trip she’d taken to Cuba, and I thought, for sure, we were on good footing, until we were joined by the last to arrive, a man with a backpack and a bandana worn a la Axl Rose. While he had the wherewithal to quickly order a beer, he looked less certain about the food on the table.
“Is there anything vegan?” he asked. I passed him the one remaining potato, which he ate with his fingers as I held the plate midair.
The steak arrived as fat slices of rib eye, a cut I adore. Hogwart and Rumple began poking at it with their knives, one pinning it in place while the other pulled away the lovely rim of fat and plopped it on the tablecloth.
That was when I turned the corner for good. It was as though we’d entered a dystopic fairy tale; we were at the king’s palace, a banquet set before us, but because we’d been bad, or ignorant, or in some way found unworthy, a spell had been put on the beautiful, beautiful food. The oxtail croquette, tender and toothsome but moments before, took on the gray pallor of cheap dog food. My next mouthful of sardine was like chewing wood. I tried to run down a different hallway, to a place where the salt cod fritters were crunchy, the sherry chicken liver mousse unctuous; the olive oil cake beguiling, as I knew it to be. But there would be no finding my way this evening. I’d lost my appetite.
I looked at the group, happy and chatting, ordering second glasses of wine, and saw any unhappiness was only mine, missing as I was a meal I didn’t get and which no one else wanted.