Another old piece originally published in Damned Intellectuals:
The Tasting Menu
It’s been a while since I’ve traveled without an itinerary. The last time I had that pleasure was in the summer of 2000, when Jack and I wandered through Northern England. We never knew where we’d end up for the night—just stopped when we felt like it and found a likely looking B&B. We stuck to Yorkshire and then the Lake District, gazing at the landscape as we drove aimlessly from place to place and absolutely reveling in the luxury of needing to be nowhere. We did end that vacation with a more structured weekend in Paris—Jack had reserved a room ahead of time in a lovely hotel—but even then we managed to ignore time and to simply let things happen, rather than racing to meet an agenda.
We've traveled a lot since then—another driving trip through England, a stay in Genova, Christmas in Barcelona, and a spring vacation in Switzerland—but always with my children, who spent last year in an International School in Italy and gave us a splendid excuse to make frequent trips to Europe). Traveling with two adolescent girls requires planning. You don’t want to spend too much time in the car, you want to know where you’re staying each night, and you try to make sure you’re always near something interesting. All quite pleasurable, but not the sort of letting go one can experience when traveling alone or with a partner.
A few weeks ago, quite unplanned, Jack and I found ourselves in Le Tableau, an appealing-looking French bistro in the East Village. We decided to put ourselves entirely in their hands and try the tasting menu with accompanying wines. I don’t know why we don’t do this more often. It reminded me of a night in 1997 at La Scopettaro in the Testaccio Quarter, where the restaurant owner offered us “a taste of Rome” and proceeded to send out plate after plate of unexpected and wonderful dishes (four antipasti, two pastas, two secondi, all accompanied by a wonderful dry red; two rounds of sweets with sparkling wine; and finally a death-blow consisting of three bottles of spirits—grappa, limoncello, and some sort of aperitivo tasting of raisins). It reminded me of a lunch Jack and I had in Apricale, on the Italian Riviera—again endless plates of fabulous food and no need to make any decisions.
We did it again last week—this time at Tocqueville in Union Square, a lovely place with attentive (but not obsequious) service and food to sigh over. We opted for the 7 course tasting menu and, if I remember correctly, we were each brought: a sashimi sampler plate consisting of the freshest fish I've ever tasted; a small bowl containing two perfect tiny tomatoes and a tiny scoop of tomato sherbet floating in tomato confit; a serving of grits and truffles topped with a perfectly poached quail's egg (this one may sound odd, but tasted seriously sexy); a serving of perfectly cooked foie gras with scallops which made Jack emotional and me feel corrupted in a divine sort of way; a serving of veal with herbed potatoes; a serving of some fabulous runny stinking cheese with a pear roasted in cognac and tiny pieces of raisin toast; and finally THREE normal-sized desserts to share—a chocolate soufflé sort of affair with mint ice-cream, a mango pavlova, and a burnt-sugar apple tart. Each course came with wine selected by the chef and wine steward. We started with sake (the sashimi) and moved on through champagne to reds as the meal progressed.
These little culinary adventures make me happy. As we sit and talk and let it all happen I feel myself expanding—letting go and becoming close to happy. Maybe it’s because on most days there’s an agenda of some sort to get through—an endless series of decisions. Maybe it’s just because the food was so good. Whatever the reason, I felt suddenly free and as if I was traveling again—no need to think about tomorrow at all.
(We've been back to Tocqueville many times in the years since, as well as to La Bernardin, Aquavit, Bouley, The French Laundry, Gary Danko's and Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road. We always have the tasting menu and we always love the adventure. Somewhere I'm sure Jack or I have pieces we've written about some of these remarkable meals. One day I'll dig them out. In the meantime, we jave a long list of tasting menus yet to try.)