Food & Drink: Taking a restaurant-cure

The clink of cutlery and a crisp cloth lift the heart like nothing else
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE some people who are only really happy on a boat. On dry land, they walk with an awkward, compensatory roll, and squint into a distant horizon even when there isn't one. But put them on a sloop, ketch, dinghy or clipper, and the transformation is immediate and graceful. Suddenly those funny-looking moccasins make sense as their wearer lands like a cat on the deck, as confident and self-righteous as a Mormon on a doorstep.

I'm exactly the same - with restaurants. They're my beat, my stage, my village. I'm only truly at ease when wedged into an upholstered carver or perched on a bare-bottomed bistro chair, my elbow resting on cloth or stainless steel. My music is the clink of cutlery, the ping of crystal glasses, the eeeek of a cork being pulled from glass, the native drums and cymbals echoing from the kitchen.

I revel in the anticipation, the curiosity, the company, the hospitality, the dialogue, and the ongoing silent contract between those who dine and those who feed them.

The best time of all is that small window that occurs once you have settled in to the table, and have taken a moment to observe the nature of your surroundings. A tinkly drink is placed in front of you, and your order is speeding its way back to the kitchen. You're in the system. Food is imminent, and yet there is time to ponder the day and relish the present. This is the defining moment of dining.

Those of us who love the dining-out process relax into it like a Badedas bath. At that moment, we are members of the club, the community, the industry, the very nation of Diningland. We know how to read a restaurant the way a lion sniffs the desert wind. Without even knowing it, we can pick up tension in a waiter's stance, register a contradictory sound from the bar, or tell from a hint of yesterday's oil in the air not to order the fish.

At table, we can do no wrong. We may stumble upon arrival and stagger out later, but put a crisp cloth before us and we are Baryshnikov. We can be as diplomatic as Blair, as manipulative as Saddam, as sexy as Depardieu. The dining table is our level playing field when negotiating business or romance. In fact, we are at our most revealing, sensitive, and intimate when something hard, square and wooden comes between us and our loved ones.

The worst possible thing we can do is even consider opening our own restaurant. I play-ed with the idea once, and ended up in hospital. My casual job as kit- chen hand - never, ever start at the bottom - had me opening 40 dozen oysters on my first day. Until that time, I had only ever opened two dozen at a time, maybe three if anyone else wanted any.

Somehow, a sliver of shell worked under the skin of my palm. Within two weeks, it had grown into something that resembled a giant pearl. My doctor looked terrified and told me there was nothing to worry about, as he drove me to hospital.

Convalescing, I decided I was born to eat in restaurants, not to cook in them. I've trained all my life for it. I've covered the ground, done the research: Chinese, Lebanese, Indian, Japanese, Hungarian, Moroccan. New and old. Scary and comforting. Cheerfully cheap, and breathtakingly expensive.

Never once have I become jaded, tired, or cynical. I thrill to the chase of a fine new restaurant, and love to plug in to the restorative power of an old favourite.

Restaurant: from the verb restaurer, to restore. That's what the good ones do. Put back what the day takes out. Add what you didn't know was missing to your life. Make you the person you always thought you could be.

The one big test of any restaurant is not the freshness of the bread, nor the length of the wine list, it's this: do you feel better when you walk out than you did when you walked in? If you can't say yes, don't go back.

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