Craving More Feel-Good in 2020
Many moons ago while waiting for a table at a popular New Hampshire diner, I-spy numerous Hula-Hoops hanging from the host desk. Retro entertainment for the fun and restless. Love the kitsch. I was half-expecting our waitress’ name to be Trixie. I added this to my latest restaurant research-fixation list — the many ways we entertain you beyond expectations of great hospitality. Our people are fun.
For instance, the French-inspired amuse-bouche is the epitome of “surprise and delight,” an unexpected culinary gift to “amuse the mouth.” A recent shot of “squash bisque from the chef” provided bottomless warmth and welcome from my 3-ounce glass. It’s on the list.
We curate entertainment far and wide, from filleting to flambeing, Jenga to Jell-O shots. We stimulate your senses and imagination. We share our fascinations of the moment, from brick chicken to plank salmon to sous vide. We bring the heat in smoking this and sizzling that — as bartenders set orange peels alight and tantalize with a round, hot pepper-laced ice cube, a slow burn melting in a “Global Warming” riff on a margarita. (Thank you, Marmalade in Puerto Rico, for that genius!)
If we can make you smile or bring tears to your eyes — with candles and the happy birthday song, or a round of wasabi roulette — bingo!
At Napa Valley’s Brix, blowtorch caramelization atop a creme brulee summons cotton-candy joy as burnt sugar sweetens the dining room air. In Lower Manhattan, at a sultry ceviche lounge, Chef creates “smoke-kissed” oysters, blazing a gravity bong on the bar top … that waft no less intoxicating.
At Lowell’s Cavaleiro’s, you can sizzle slices of tender steak on a super-hot rock, and at Dracut’s Grazie Italian Restaurant, their Parma prosciutto magically cascades down to the beautiful antipasto below.
It’s true that sometimes we find the simple, silly things more fun than a barrel of monkeys. We pay homage to pop culture: There is a Pop Rocks-rimmed drink in Oakland, a Fruity Pebbles infusion in Portland, and tasty Spam and eggs in Chicago. We honor classical traditions, too. I recall my very first busboy job and Greek Demetrius — my all-time favorite waiter still — joyous in his singsong intonation and with a mustachioed wink: “Watch this,” wheeling a cart tableside, where into a giant wooden bowl he would crack an egg, whisk in EVOO, Dijon mustard, anchovy, cheese … “Opa! Caesar salad for two.” He would then twirl his tongs like a drum major before piling each guest’s plate high — the drama all but cementing my destiny while discovering that iceberg wasn’t Earth’s only lettuce.
Other times he’d near-skip throughout the dining room, titillating with a frosty pina colada on his cocktail tray held low — the snow-white and frothy concoction swirled up and over its tall, curvaceous tulip glass, a bright slice of orange straddling the lip, a glistening red cherry on top. It wasn’t long before the unamused bartender was glaring at her blender, one frozen drink after another ordered, adding additional joy to the face of my mischievous mentor.
I do love tableside theater. From guacamole mixed in a stone molcajete (so fun to say-say) to whole fish deboned in Portugal, or pigeon in SoHo — and call it squab if it makes you feel better. What’s more fun than a bird’s-eye view of Chef’s knife skills!
In analyzing our own two restaurants’ optics while planning our next Something-Stones (stay tuned!), I polled my favorite foodie peeps for fodder. My brother reminisced upon raucous Japanese teppanyaki — banging spatulas and shrimp flipped through the air, taking “fun” to the next level. Close friends recalled the endless parade of cowboy-attired, meat-carving gauchos at a Brazilian churrascaria, and also the spaghetti masterpiece at Aruba’s Italian-owned beachside Azzurro, where the gooey, cheesy ingredients are blended in a giant flaming wheel of melting Parmesan — a dish that our pasta-loving friend Cindi would proclaim: “Orgasmic!” One Happy Island, indeed.
A sentimental uncle emailed: “Doing tapas with family” — as this communal style of dining commonly conjures a celebratory mojo while revealing ongoing flavors and textures. “What’s next!”
From a cousin: “Maryland crabs!” One never forgets their first crabs. Armed with a wooden mallet, the brown paper rolled across the picnic table, the continuous cracking of Old Bay-coated shells, we soothed tingling lips with the quintessential pitcher of beer. Not just fun. Damn fun.
But of all the giggle-worthy pupu platters and such, the memory that tickles me fancy the most occurred along the Mediterranean coast in the south of France in our own version of a European family vacation.
Following a day of self-guided discovery — driving from the Italian border and Monaco’s riches to the minimalist (nude!) beach-vibe of St.-Tropez (who knew!) — we happened, hungry, hot and weary, onto the cobblestone streets of Antibes, our three precious children in tow. Seated outside, the enchantment of strolling street musicians, a setting sun and the gregarious owner enhanced our most incredible bouillabaisse for two — my eldest daughter and I sharing a dented pot atop a glowing flame in the center of the table. In a glorious accent, he instructed us to rub the garlic clove across the crusty French bread, before spreading on the saffron aioli, before dunking the bread into the aromatic and roiling seafood broth … Aislyn’s eyes spellbound! I was drunk well before we finished the wine he had bought for us. “Welcome to France!” A joyous memory we will all treasure forever.
If you have a fun and unique dining experience to share, we’d love to hear @ firstname.lastname@example.org