Party of three + one

IMG_0029Nicole was in town a couple weekends ago, and we decided to cap off her visit with dinner at a State Bird Provisions. I mentioned this restaurant in a previous post, and just like last time, I won’t attempt to describe our meal because I won’t do it justice. You simply have to experience this place for yourself. More than the meal, though, what I loved about our evening was my unlikely dinner companion.  You see, we began as a party of three–me, Nicole, and Warrington–who’d gallantly offered to stand in line for two and a half hours before the restaurant opened in order to secure seats at the bar overlooking the kitchen. He thought Nicole, a talented cook herself, might enjoy watching the chefs in action. And so, at nine p.m. we slid onto our stools, book-ending Nicole who sat between us, and proceeded to order drinks and pluck small plates from the trays the waiters were passing around. But because there were three of us and there were four stools at the bar, the one to my right remained vacant for a time.

State Bird Provisions is best experienced with friends. Almost every dish is unexpected and amusing, and at some point, you need to be able to look across the table or down the bar to see your own amazement reflected in someone else’s face. Some of my fondest culinary memories are of visiting a restaurant with friends, each of us ordering a different hours d’oeuvres or entree, then dividing everything into forkfuls. And sometimes, the most pleasurable part of a meal happened after the plates were cleared. It might be the next day, a week or even a month later, and I’d turn to those same friends with whom I’d dined and say, dreamily, “Remember the time we had that . . . . Wasn’t that the best . . . you ever tasted?” and they knew exactly what I was talking about.  Good food shared with good friends; it doesn’t get any better. So you can imagine my surprise when, half an hour or so into our meal, a young guy eased onto the stool beside me.  He ordered a glass of wine, talked to the waiter for a bit, then studied the menu.

I’ve seen plenty of people dining alone in restaurants. They usually bring a book and sit at a quiet table in the corner. And even though I’ve often wondered whether they were perfectly content or desperately lonely, it’s never occurred to me to strike up a conversation. But the guy next to me didn’t have a book. He just sat there, sipping his wine, watching the chefs scurry back and forth, and occasionally glancing down at his menu. And maybe it was because I felt sorry for him, or maybe it was because Nicole and Warrington were deep in conversation, analyzing the mushroom dish we’d just tried, but I decided to talk to him. He was eating one of the dishes we’d ordered earlier.  I asked him how he was enjoying it.

Pretty delicious, he said.  He nodded slowly, and stared at his plate in a way that suggested he was thinking carefully about how the dish was constructed.  He asked me what other dishes I’d order, which had been my favorites. I made some suggestions, then asked if he was eating there for the first time.

Yes, he said, but this was actually his third dinner of the night. He’d already been to two other top restaurants in the city.

Do you live here? I asked.

Turns out, he was in town for the Fancy Food Show. He was a chef, in San Francisco for a few more hours before he flew back to his home town.  I’ll give you one guess where he lived . . .

That’s right.  New Orleans! Wouldn’t you know it??  The moment he said it, I felt my heart bloom. I practically hugged him.

And so, a night that was already really great, got even better. We talked about how much New Orleans was changing. I told him about my little house and he told me where he lived–uptown in the Garden District, not too far from where I stayed last summer. We talked about how the dining scene in New Orleans was booming; so many new restaurants popping up all over town, and I named all the places where I’d eaten–Root, Oxalis, Dominica, Booty’s Street Food, Dominique’s, Magazin, Couchon–and all the ones I look forward to trying the next time I visit. He knew them all, knew the chefs. He even knew where my friend, Suzonne’s, husband works as a bartender uptown. He had an interesting take on New Orleans’ culinary history and shared his opinion about why some chefs will succeed while others will eventually fail. He explained the differences between this new generation of chefs and the old guard; how even in a restaurant like State Bird Provisions, you could tell that philosophy in the kitchen was different. It’s more about the individual, he said, less about the team. He told me how he came to be a chef. He was humble and soft spoken, with an easy manner, an openness, and a warmth that reminded me of so many people I’ve met in Louisiana.

And then it was almost midnight.

Give me a call the next time you’re in town, he said, handing me his card.  We’ll grab a drink and I’ll get you into some of those restaurants you want to try.

That’s a deal, I said.  I introduced him to Warrington and Nicole, and told him I’d love him to meet some of my Louisiana friends. I slipped his card in my wallet and left him sitting at the bar.

So, once again, the Universe showed me some love. I made a new friend, and even as I sat there, I felt myself sprouting another root anchoring me to that strange place I call my second home. And yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors, but I also felt the circle expanding, felt the best aspects of my life colliding and overlapping–which is exactly what should happen. Because it’s not about the taking, it’s about the giving and the sharing. I know this may sound like a heap of bullshit–a little too dreamy, a little too woo-woo, a little too Polyannaish–but it’s what I believe.

An empty stool, a new friend, another layer of connection. Perfect timing.

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