A few months ago, at the end of September, John Kessler–former food critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constiution and one of our nation’s best food writers–e-mailed me. John and I met back when I lived in Atlanta. He wrote a really kind and thorough piece about me just when I was starting out (you can read it here; you have to register and then wither at the sight of my horrible picture (the photographer insisted on using a fish-eyed lens: never fall for that!)) and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Last year he took me to a fashion show; more recently he e-mailed me after my Alain Ducasse post to warn me about compromising my integrity. (I haven’t eaten free truffles since!) This e-mail, though, was titled, simply, “Favor.”
The favor, it turns out, was one of the best favors I’ve ever had to perform. You see John has a friend named Carol. They met at jury duty and instantly hit it off. “She’s in her 70’s,” he explained in his e-mail, “retired and traveling around the world enjoying herself, a firebrand liberal with a hilarious sense of humor. I love everything about her.” She would be in New York at the end of November to see opera and she was looking for someone to “be her guest at Babbo” on the 29th. John recommended me. Would I go?
A speedometer would have trouble calculating how quickly my fingers hit the keys Y-E-S.
Since this happened in September, I nearly forgot about it. But as the end of November rolled around I got a fun, funny e-mail from Carol. She said the reservation was at 5:30 and that we could meet at the wine bar at 5. “I’ll be wearing a black coat with a fox fur collar and a black hat,” she wrote. “You should have no problem identifying me as I look almost exactly like myself.”
At 5 PM, then, on November 29th I stood outside Babbo and studied the crowd of people waiting for the doors to open. I must confess I was nervous: I felt like I was going on a blind date. I looked for elegantly dressed ladies standing by themselves but saw none. Then the doors opened and the crowd entered and I stayed behind. Carol, I determined, had yet to arrive.
The night was cold and I paced a bit and had my hands in my pockets when suddenly a cab pulled up and a hand waved at me. Could this be Carol? It could. I watched her pay the cab driver and then opened the door to help her out.
“I hope you’re Carol,” I said.
“I am indeed,” she answered. She got out of the cab and smiled a big smile. “I’m so excited about this dinner, aren’t you?”
I took her by the arm and led her into the restaurant. There, the maitre’d took Carol’s name, the coat check woman took my heavy back pack and we were led upstairs to a table in the back. The entire room was quiet and Carol and I had ample time to learn about each other. But first she ordered a Manhattan.
“You’re drinking a Manhattan in Manhattan!” I quipped. She laughed and posed for this picture:
Carol told me lots of details from her life. She works in a book store in Atlanta, she has three children and several grandchildren. Paul Auster is one of her favorite authors; she loves the theater (she’d just seen “The Vertical Hour” which she didn’t like) and is a passionate opera lover.
“I wish I knew more about opera,” I said. “I’ve never seen one.”
Carol couldn’t believe it. “You must go!” she said. “Don Carlo is playing on Monday, you should try to see that.”
(When I told her I had a student ID and could get $20 tickets she practically fell out of her chair and urged that I take advantage. So on Monday, actually, I rode the train at 9 AM up to Lincoln Center to try to get tickets for Don Carlo. They were sold out. Drats! But I will try again before the season’s over.)
Our waiter approached and asked if we were ready to order. We weren’t. We’d hardly looked at the menu.
“Oh boy,” said Carol when she finally opened its pages.
“I know,” I said. “It’s intimidating.”
We studied the menu for a while and the waiter returned. “Can I take your order?” he asked again. But Carol hadn’t decided on an entree.
“Can we order the appetizers and then order the entree after?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “The kitchen prefers you order everything at once.”
Carol studied the menu some more and our waiter, I could tell, was a bit impatient. When Carol decided he took our order and walked away.
“He probably wants to get three turns tonight,” said Carol. I think Carol was totally right: The food came out extraordinarily fast and we were rushed through our meal. This is the second time I’ve experienced this at Babbo.
But Babbo being Babbo, it often makes up for it with the food. Carol and I shared two antipasti plates. A gorgeous plate of salumi:
And lovely marinated sardines:
I knew I loved Carol when she took a bite of the sardine and said, “Forgive me for saying this…but this really gets me off.”
We chatted some more about life and love and theater and opera. She explained to me the athletic nature of opera singing, how opera singers don’t use mics and therefore have to have the talent to hit the notes to the back of the house. I told her I saw Beverly Sills co-host The View. She smiled and ate another sardine.
For the next course we shared goose liver ravioli with a balsamic reduction which Carol was really excited for. “I love liver,” she said. Here’s a bad picture:
It’s a pretty presentation but, unfortunately, an unsuccessful dish. “It’s tough on the outside,” said Carol, referring to the pasta. I took a bite and had to agree: it wasn’t properly cooked. Having made pasta from scratch myself, now, I know that you have to cook it all the way through and this certainly wasn’t. And the sauce was a bit overwhelming. “It’s a bit disappointing,” said Carol sadly.
Almost instantly our plates were whisked away and our entrees arrived. It was 6:15. We’d only been sitting for 45 minutes. We were extraordinarily rushed.
But we were there for the food, we told ourselves. I had the venison in a cranberry sauce:
The sauce was less sweet than I expected and the venison was extremely rare, but I enjoyed it. Carol had the lamb chops which were wonderfully tender and plentiful. “Here,” she said, “you’re a growing boy” and plopped one on my plate. I didn’t refuse it and proceeded to grow a few more inches around the waist.
Carol told me the story of how she met John during jury duty. It’s a funny story because at the time John was the food critic for the AJC so when they asked him what he did for a living he could only say he wrote for the paper. “They kept pressing him,” she laughed. He said he wrote “feature stories.” But she knew who he was from his name.
“He’s really smart,” she said. “And have you ever heard him talk about Japanese food? He knows so much.”
Soon we were done with our entrees and the dessert menus arrived. These were brought by a curly blonde waiter or captain who may have been a Greek statue come to life. “Whoo,” said Carol fanning herself, “is he handsome.”
For dessert I ordered the saffron panna cotta:
And Carol had the chocolate hazelnut cake, which she poses with here:
She wasn’t a fan of my panna cotta (“That’s something you taste once and never want to taste again,” she quipped) but she enjoyed her cake. We talked about the rest of her trip, the operas she was going to see, the friend she was staying with. She said she may come back in February and that she’d love to take me to an opera if I was willing. Was I willing? Of course I was willing. “That’d be terrific fun,” she said.
When the evening was over, I escorted her outside and helped her into a cab. Carol told me earlier that John had teased her that our “date” was going to end like a certain 70s movie with Cat Stevens music. They say behind every joke lies some truth, but I’ll let you be the judge of how our evening ended. Suffice it to say it was a real pleasure getting to meet Carol–she was a hoot and a half.