A writer reflects on the art of using a restaurant as your living room.
I have never cooked a meal in my apartment. Okay, let's be frank: I have never cooked a meal in my life. I have fried the occasional egg, toasted the odd bagel, boiled random pots of water, but this is lilydipping relative to the great canoe trip that is true cuisine. (Yes, I'm Canadian.) And in my apartment I have cooked precisely nothing.
The stove is clean, if you discount the layer of dust. The fridge is immaculate. Inside is a Brita pitcher, sans filter, and a box of baking soda, valiantly waiting to combat the odor of something more pungent than water. The cupboard isn't just bare, it's buck naked. I don't even own salt. When I step through the automatic gates of a supermarket, I feel as an illiterate must feel when he cracks the spine of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Pity my kind, wandering the spice aisle in despair: the incuisinate.
I am notionally homeless. The concept of home is bound up in the lovingly repeated rituals of cooking and dining: Home is where the hearth is. To experience this sense of being at home, I have to lean out my window to catch the fragrance of the Portuguese meal being cooked down the hall by my neighbors, a family of first-generation immigrants from Porto. That's the closest I come to home cooking: somebody else's mother's bacalhau.
confessions of a trained assassin
And yet--this is embarrassing--I have for many years been a food critic. A travel writer, primarily, but in those travels an occasional reviewer of restaurants. You, no doubt, can conjure an encyclopedic list of food writers whose expertise was forged in the kitchen. In my defense, I probably eat in restaurants more often than any of them do. The kitchen may be an alien domain to me, but the dining room is not. For more than 20 years, I have been served almost every meal--breakfast, lunch and dinner--by a person who expects a tip.
Not that I have a regular table at Le Cirque 2000. My habits are enough to bankrupt me at anything properly called a restaurant. I do have a regular table, but it is at one of New York's oldest bars. When I'm in town, I can be found almost every night at The Ear Inn, on Spring Street.
Frankly, I'm happier at The Ear than I am at many of the pretentious rooms I'm required to review on the road. A restaurant is a multimedia experience, a synaesthetic pleasure dome, and you're supposed to appreciate it as such. You're meant to luxuriate in every aspect, especially as a critic: the extent of the wine list, the tenor of the decor, the effect of the lighting, the accent of the maître d'. If even one of these details is seriously off, it's like suffering through an aria where the high C is a quarter-tone flat.
At The Ear, however, I'm effortlessly forgiving. I know people at this place, and I know its history. When I say that The Ear has a history, I mean it partially in the antiquated sense in which people used to say that a woman had a history: During Prohibition, The Ear served as a brothel. I like that John Cage once hung out there, and that it continues to serve equal parts boozy regulars and ardent avant-gardists (and that these categories overlap).
I have ridiculous expectations for the places I review. I force myself to be less than satisfied; otherwise I'd have nothing to write about. We're a shallow lot, we critics. We moan about the spots on the wineglass, often at the expense of the Bordeaux behind the spots. If the waiter's a klutz, and not particularly charming about it, who cares if the magret de canard is done to perfection? And if the duck is in fact dry, the knives come out. We're not talking steak knives. We're talking switchblades, Ninja steel, Marcus Junius Brutus. This is why dining with a review on your mind is no fun. It's like eating while contemplating a killing. I am, in a way, a trained assassin.
a test of character
This is not the attitude I bring to my local joint. I'm not there to shed blood. I don't want people to admire my skill with a scalpel. I just want to be comfortable. Yes, I can expense 10 times as much on dinner at the finest restaurant in Anguilla, but I never have the sense that I'm eating in a nice brothel. Also, there's no guarantee the food will be any better, despite the lavish presentation. The Ear is a couple of blocks from the Hudson River, but back when Manhattan was a major port, it was only a few feet from the water and catered mostly to stevedores. The aqueous connection remains strong. Although food at The Ear can be variable, the fish is always fresh and simply prepared, the shrimp and the crab cakes are wildly good, and 10 bucks for a decent-size lobster, boiled, represents one of the city's last great bargains.
The Ear is a test. I use it to distinguish depth of soul. One yuppie acquaintance, masquerading as an artist, sniffed that the food wasn't up to his standards. And I soon discovered that his artwork wasn't all that good. A girlfriend can leap in my estimation if she begins suggesting that we eat at The Ear. (Unworthy women have to be dragged there.) The Ear, you see, captures the essence of bar-ness: a community solidified, paradoxically, through liquid. It's true that I'm not a particularly engaged member of that fraternity; the waitresses find me, in fact, peculiar. The Ear has many regulars, but most are there to participate in the merry life at the bar. I, for the most part, sit alone and read. For me, this is community.
It's rare that a restaurant in a foreign country offers this sense of belonging. A friend in Tokyo took me to her local sushi bar and it felt a bit like this, what with the chef's ceaseless attention and banter; it was almost worth the $220. But it takes a long time for a restaurant to accept you into its fold, and I've been apprenticing as a customer at The Ear for almost eight years. I've been there long enough to watch a former waitress, Cecily Brown, skyrocket to fame as perhaps America's most controversial painter: an action painter of sorts, although the action depicted is explicit copulation. She no longer speaks to me, but once she served me lamb chops.
For a time, it looked as if my tipping days were numbered. My girlfriend moved in with me, and we spent a grueling week purchasing kitchen stuff: pots, pans, silverware. I began to suspect that she intended us to cook. And, yes, cook we did. Well, she did. I washed dishes. But my sloth soon corrupted her; we cooked for less than a month. We now eat in restaurants, both of us, three times a day. Recently she (a worthy woman--a truly great woman, I suspect) has begun to suggest that we eat at The Ear. And so my kitchen, despite her well-meaning additions, remains merely decorative.
Not long ago, a friend and fellow novelist, David Eddie, borrowed my apartment, and at the end of his stay left me this note, with which I leave you: "Don't be frightened by these items in your fridge. These 'groceries,' as they are sometimes known, are actually quite common and fairly harmless. It's an interesting concept, actually: food items intended for home use. This may take some getting used to. Hope you're well. Love, D."
Douglas Anthony Cooper is the author of the novels Amnesia and Delirium (both published by Hyperion).