It’s Friday night on the Culinary Institute of America campus. My friend Bill and I will be taking a Tapas Boot Camp on Saturday morning, so we decided to stay over and have dinner at the Escoffier Restaurant. Bill is stuck in traffic in Waterbury, victim of messy snow showers, rush hour, and construction. The hostess and maitre d have been very gracious about moving our reservations ahead an hour, but Bill is never going to make it before the kitchen closes. “Have a good dinner for me. I’ll call you when I’m in Hyde Park,” he says, before turning off his cell phone to conserve the battery.
With the combination of grace and awkwardness that I have come to expect from the CIA restaurants, I am seated, given a menu, several wine lists, and had my drink order taken three times. Chewing on an incredibly good roll, I watch the room. Unlike many people, I enjoy eating alone. I can concentrate on the food and eavesdrop on the other tables and think my own thoughts. A low buzz of conversation, always the sign of happy eaters. A student nervously prepares Bananas Foster tableside. Six waiters assemble at a table, a silver-domed dinner plate balanced on each one’s palm, their other hand behind them. The dishes are placed on the table and, with a nod from the headwaiter, the domes are removed with a “Voila.” It is like watching a dress rehearsal rather than the play itself and I feel like a friend of the author, privileged to watch the show.
My appetizer arrives. A Fois Gras Oxtail Terrine with a Cranberry Compote. Cold foie gras is a little too much like eating butter for my tastes, but the oxtail is amazing. It is caressed by a port wine reduction I would drink by the glass. My entrée, Veal Cheeks with Mashed Potatoes is a homey, braised dish, enlivened by threads of orange zest. I get the “Voila” with my dish as well, although it loses some drama as a monologue. The accompanying vegetables—haricots verte, a few baby carrots, a slice of beet, and a baby turnip are all cooked to perfection. I chew happily, in a room fitted like the private salon of French chateau.
Bill arrives as I am finishing my cheese course. The kitchen is closed, but the chef sends out two desserts on the house while Bill finishes my cheese and a glass of wine. My meditative mood is a little shattered and the conversation I have continued with the student who has become my server falters, but it is good to see Bill. We talk as the room empties, the serving staff assuring us there is no hurry about our leaving. The bill includes a 15% gratuity which goes towards scholarships, but we leave an extra $10 by way of appreciation.
I have been writing about restaurants for a year now. I have had some good meals and good service and some disappointments, but I have not enjoyed most of those meals as much as this one. I am sure it is colored by my attitude towards the CIA, which I love as someone who has never been a student can, an outsider who sometimes takes classes here and wishes he were 26 again and choosing a profession. Some of it is that backstage feeling, where you can see the pins holding costumes together, the director calling tiny corrections to line readings. And a lot of it is the food, which reaches high, sometimes nailing it and sometimes missing, but always prepared honestly, without cynicism or (luck for them) financial compromise. How can I live here? I always wonder when I am on campus, knowing it would change if I did.
But tonight, the magic is there. Tomorrow, I will be cooking at the CIA. How cool is that.
Update: 1/31/08: See Bill’s post on the class with some nice photos of our dishes. I intended to write something, but sloth took over.