It's rare that I find myself thinking about the French writers the Goncourt brothers twice within 24 hours — rare, in fact, that I find myself thinking of them at all.
But while I'm watching the marvelous 1947 French film noir Quai des Orfèvres I see the jealous husband pull up in a taxi to the venerable Parisian restaurant Laperouse, in order to confront his wife's would-be seducer in exactly the kind of private rooms once available on the third floor of Jack's (for exactly the same purpose). (Of course, the would-be seducer turns up dead in the next reel, and the helpful waiters at Laperouse testify that they overheard the husband threaten to kill said would-be seducer if he continued to pursue his wife.)
I lean over to Cathy and say, “I've eaten there.”
She seems singularly unimpressed. I continue, “They've been voting on the Prix Goncourt at a fancy lunch there for, like, the last hundred years.” Which piques her interest somewhat more, since she's a literary girl, and the Goncourt has recognized Proust, Malraux, de Beauvoir, like that, in its time.
The next day, being something of a literary girl myself, I opened Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It with some excitement, because Geoff Dyer is one of my favorite writers (I think his Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence is absolutely astonishing) and because I was thrilled to be reading a new book of his. (I was thrilled to be reading a book at all. “Why does it seem,” I ask myself as I click around on the Internet for hours after plowing through newspapers and magazines, “that the more I read the less it is between hard covers?”)
And this is what Dyer chooses to quote on his first page:
Everything is unique, nothing happens more than once in a life-time. The physical pleasure which a certain woman gave you at a certain moment, the exquisite dish which you ate on a certain day — you will never meet either again. Nothing is repeated, and everything is unparalleled.
— The Goncourt Brothers
This is a somewhat more elegant way of saying, “You can't step in the same river twice” (with an added and seductive frisson of “Seize the day”). But for some reason (who knows why we make the connections we do?) the “exquisite dish” that “you will never meet … again” inspires me to pick up the phone and invite my friends Adam and Janice to dinner that very night.
They'd told me about a frustrating evening the week before at Restaurant LuLu, when they'd gone there with another couple a little more than an hour before seeing a musical called Goin' Dot Com! a few blocks up the street, intending to share some appetizers and a bottle of wine. But their overconfident waiter had assured them that they could order two courses and get out within their time limit “as long as you don't order the grilled steak.” “He pointed out a couple of other dishes that would take too long, too,” Janice said, “so we figured he knew what he was talking about.”
In the event, they were able to accomplish only their original plan: They received and enjoyed their appetizers and wine, but the main courses never came, despite repeated assurances that they were on the way, and the group had to flee, apologetically, into the night. “Almost everything they do there is grilled over oak or cooked on an oak-fired rotisserie, and they have a rotisserie special every night,” Janice said. “It was rabbit, that night, which we'd ordered. But the meats on the grill looked and smelled so good. It was hard to leave.”
I remembered that Adam, who is the King of the Grill — he has two different ones, and there's a running discussion in the house as to which grill is more suited to which ingredient — had been planning to cook some rabbits himself. I also remembered that their incomplete dinner had been exactly a week ago, so I proposed that we return to LuLu, with their son Chester in tow, and order the same meal all over again — therefore attempting, indeed, to step in the same river twice (but also to seize the day and create an experience unparalleled).
I was somewhat abashed to call LuLu in midafternoon and request a reservation for prime time that night; at the height of the dot-com blah blah blah, such a request would have gotten you the old horse laugh. But no, they were delighted to be able to see us at 7:30.
And we were delighted to be sitting at a table in the middle of the huge, soaring space, which still seems the height of urbanity with its vaulted ceiling and big skylights. As it turned out, I was wrong about the night they'd been there; it was a Tuesday, and the special for tonight, Wednesday, was leg of lamb instead of rabbit. (I was also wrong, it turned out, about the Prix Goncourt being chosen at Laperouse. A quick Googling proved that the restaurant in which the prize is chosen is the Drouant, not quite as venerable or otherwise literary as Laperouse, where Émile Zola, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas regularly dined, but indeed host to the 10 Goncourt jurors since 1914. Because the Goncourt's bylaws state that the total cost for the meal must not exceed 20 francs, the jurors get a bargain Michelin-starred lunch. In exchange, the Drouant gets floods of publicity, once a year.)
We ordered the same main courses Adam and Janice had originally chosen: pork loin and chicken from the rotisserie, grilled quail, and, eh bien, the lamb instead of the rabbit — plus a rerun of a squid pizza that had been intended as part of their first course but which never showed up. (We wished we could try Friday's suckling pig, too.) We departed from their previous menu for the appetizers (they had, after all, received and enjoyed two plates of three antipasti each, including roasted beets, country pâté, duck liver mousse, chickpea crostini, and olives — “It was all delicious,” Janice said). We chose an antipasti assortment of beets, rabbit rillettes, and a leek, goat cheese, and bacon tart, along with a dozen Kumamoto oysters, to share. Adam slipped in a request for a Bloody Mary and a vodka martini, and we asked for a flight (four 2-ounce pours) of Austrian and German whites and another of Piemontese reds, also to share.
It was a marvelous meal. My only quibble with the starters was their size: I could have eaten much more of the smoky bacon tart, and I think each of us could have downed a dozen of the tiny, creamy Kumamotos. The divine squid pizza was buttery, on an impossibly thin crust. The grilled and roasted meats were served family-style. I liked the fat, juicy quail best, followed by the rosy-rare lamb on a bed of assorted beans, but the smoky chicken and the fennel-scented, faintly pink thick-sliced pork held their own. “This is so much the way that I like to eat,” Janice said.
Even the rather disappointing desserts — an uninspired, somewhat dry cookie plate, and a not wildly flavorful apple galette — didn't spoil our mood.
What did, a little, was our waiter's odd response to my pointing out that the Bloody Mary and vodka martini we'd ordered had metamorphosed into a Ketel One Bloody Mary and a Grey Goose James Bond martini on the bill. He seemed to say that the restaurant's computer required that a specific alcohol be input, but our revised check read “well vodka” just as clear as day. (We also hadn't ordered a double martini, which the James Bond is, but I left that one alone. I was already exhausted by the discussion, which shouldn't have been a discussion at all, but a quick apology.) It seemed to be what my friend Andy calls a “soft con,” and rather a silly one on a check that ran over $200.
That suckling pig drew me back to LuLu for a Friday dinner with my parents. We feasted on crispy sweetbreads, custardy under their light, crunchy batter, and a simple risotto ennobled by half a dozen slices of black truffle. We weren't thrilled with the roasted spot prawns (underdone, underflavored), and they were whisked away and replaced with a bowl of earthy parsnip soup. (They were whisked away from the bill, too.) The massive, superb grilled Black Angus rib eye steak could have fed four (we took half of it home), but its bed of badly trimmed, undercooked potato slices and baby artichokes seemed soupy and uninspired. (We were glad we'd gotten a side order of cauliflower, tarted up with niçoise olives and rosemary.) The thin-sliced suckling pig, alas, was dry and almost tasteless. Our accommodating server brought us some more, which was moister but still remarkably flavorless.
The cheese plate (that night an unusual Tasmanian blue, an herbed goat cheese, and a triple cream) was way more voluptuous than our other desserts, a trio of insipid citrus sorbets and decent profiteroles.
We'd had a number of “exquisite dishes,” per les Goncourts, at LuLu — memories of the bacon tart, oysters, squid pizza, sweetbreads, quail, lamb, and steak all flooded into my mind. I would certainly return for another experience unparalleled.