A short story by Jeremy Ryland. May 2020. c Jeremy Ryland
The intoxicating aroma of dry aged beef, slightly charred on a wood fired grill, greets me at the entrance. The girl at the door looks at me suspiciously.
“A table for one?”
She made an effort to scan through her iPad, to look as if they were busy. “I can fit you in over there in the corner” gesturing with her hand to other side of the room. Not bad. The corner table will afford me a good view of the restaurant and the open kitchen.
The dining room is quite plush. High ceilings. Large windows. Light tan leather booths. White tablecloths. Soft brown carpet. A large glass display fridge showing off the aged beef and other hanging cuts. An expansive open kitchen full of noise and action. Soft classical jazz in the background. Casual fine dining!
Amazing bouquets. Ironbark and applewood smoke from the grill. Strong earthy truffles. Sweet onions. The distinctive nutty fragrance of coconut. Pungent olive oil. The ocean breeze of oysters. Fresh and enticing. A symphony for the nostrils.
I quite enjoy this gig. The restaurant review. Eating in a variety of establishments. Incognito. The secrecy and subterfuge. Somehow being different to other diners. It suits my introverted nature. Savouring the flavours. Observing the rituals of dining. Watching others interact and perform. Observing Australian Life.
I make my way to the table in the corner. Other guests are looking at me. More for curiosity, I think. A table for one. Much more common these days. People dining alone in the past were travelling salesmen or restaurant reviewers. Today, up to one in three of diners in Australia eat alone – the product of our disassociated society.
A middle-aged woman catches my eye as I sit down. She quickly looks away. She mumbles something to her partner, who then glances at me. Curiosity? Sympathy? Disapproval; as if I am not welcome? We all judge one another by our looks. So close yet so far away. I turn my attention to the table.
A waiter brings some water. Still, as requested. Sparkling water cleans the palate better, but I dislike like the feeling of the bubbles going up my nose.
He also brings the wine list. I believe that one should match the wine to the food. Yet, most establishments bring the drinks list first. They encourage guests to buy a cocktail. Or to choose a wine, without knowing what they are about to eat. The margins on alcohol are higher and a drink tends to relax people, and perhaps spend more. Eventually the food menu is, almost reluctantly, provided.
A young waitress brings an “amuse bouche”. A mouth amuser. A small complimentary appetiser. A gift to enhance the feeling of hospitality, stimulate the appetite and provide a pause in service. Today, it is a delicate buffalo curd with olive oil and crisp ryebread. This is completely wasted on the young couple next to me who are oblivious to the food and surroundings. They are too interested in one another to savour the fresh lively, slightly acid flavour. Whilst food plays an important function in courting, it is often a lost side dish to the main course of love.
A couple in the opposite corner, are arguing about the correct pronunciation of “bouillabaisse” and whether it should have boudin in it. Since MasterChef took Sunday nights by storm, everyone is an expert! They pause to take a drink and survey the restaurant. Glancing briefly at me, they then continue their animated discourse.
I am offered bread. Bread used to be ubiquitous but is not always available today. A lot of places do not serve bread, as “many people have allergies to gluten”. Yet only a small proportion of Australians are truly celiac. That is, they have an auto-immune allergy to gluten. Still, more than tenfold shun bread due to some misplaced advice or to follow the trend. Australians love to be part of the herd – and follow whatever trend is currently in fashion – avocado toast, cold dripped coffee, sour rancid butter etc. Gluten has developed a bad name. It is the desire for quick, soft, pliable, long shelf life bread, which science has provided. Sadly, the gluten in these products is underdeveloped, causing stomach upsets in some. Old fashioned sourdough and long fermentation doughs such as those still found in France, give the gluten time to develop and change. Such doughs cause fewer bloating issues. I enjoy a slice of well-developed sourdough.
This is a premium, well regarded restaurant. It describes its menu as “modern contemporary Australian”. This is a bit of a catch all phrase. Australia is a multicultural society developed over two hundred years of immigration. Australian food is the food of our pioneers. The original indigenous society, British convicts and colonists, Chinese gold hunters, European refugee migrants, Asian refugee migrants, other displaced migrants and people who just want to be here. So Australian eateries typically try to keep everyone happy by specialising in everything!
A family group of four navigate their way past my table. Mum, dad and two teenagers. A family outing, although the teenagers look somewhat reluctant. Maybe they would rather be someplace else. Coerced by their parents to be there for some family time. The young girl looks at me and smiles. She is quickly told to keep moving by her father. No tarrying. He is keen to sit them all down at their table. Minimal fuss.
The entrée is served…what is also called, a starter or appetiser in Australia. This always confuses Americans who refer to their main course as “entrée”. Australians may be multicultural, but when it comes to food, we generally follow European formalities.
The entrée is a delicate seafood consommé made with smoked shellfish, rice and ginger with generous shredded crab and thin slices of white Alba truffle: a wonderful blend of smoke, earth and delicate seafood flavours with a heady exotic aroma.
Two young women, dressed formally in business suits, are seated close by. They order a squid ink linguine with pipis and Moreton Bay bug meat – to share. Even from here it is redolent of the ocean and smells scrumptious. Sharing has become very popular. Something to be commended. Very Australian and egalitarian. They eat slowly, obviously enjoying their meal. Sipping champagne from tall flutes. Their casual, friendly chatter belies their formal attire. One has even kicked her shoes off. Australians love to be casual, informal and relaxed.
The waiter takes away the entrée plate and moves to take away the side plate with the remains of the sourdough. NO – please don’t do this. Bread is not an entrée – it is a side dish that should accompany the whole meal. Bread is for dipping, sopping and mopping up tasty sauces. It should be left on the table and replenished as in France and Italy. Treating bread as an entrée, a pre-meal filler, is one poor practice we learned from the Americans – along with tasteless fast food and sugary drinks.
Whilst waiting for the main course, I watch the interaction of the staff and the guests. Some guests are keen to know what they are eating, asking questions of their servers and interrogating the menu. They want to know where the ingredients come from. Are they local? Sustainable? Does the chef supervise every dish? Others are more blasé – just here for the enjoyment and the company.
I have a good view into the kitchen. Open kitchens are popular. They provide entertainment. They reassure that the food is freshly prepared. Like the cast of a theatre production, the staff are also on show. Today’s act is somewhat slow. The staff look a little bored. Going through the motions. Preparing dishes that they have prepared a thousand times or more a week. A sort of production factory. The rhythm of the kitchen is somewhat lacking.
An older couple, obviously married, are sitting in silence. Eating slowly and staring into space, not talking. After decades of marriage, they have run out of small talk. They do not need to chat. They have grown accustomed to one another’s gestures and subtle nods. But they still enjoy each other’s company – like an old sweater or a favourite pair of shoes. Two solo diners together. Present, important but unnoticed.
Further away, a table of young, well dressed millennials are present but not here. They are communicating with other distant places on their electronic screens. They do not talk to each other. They share the table and the food. But they are busy silently chatting. They are all together but alone. They only pause to take pictures of their food – to send to thousands of Facebook friends who are not here. This is something I do not understand. I prefer the company of others to the tiny screens. The kitchen table is the original social medium.
This restaurant prides itself on great steaks and their signature dish is a dry aged rib eye on the bone. The aroma that greeted me on arriving. Dry aged beef is an art. The steaks are held in a carefully controlled environment for several weeks. During this time, the meat loses moisture and the naturally present enzymes tenderise the proteins – intensifying the flavours. The steak is dark, slightly charred with a nutty, butter flavour that melts in the mouth. Complemented with a rich buttery mashed potato. Simply magnificent.
The maitre d’ stops by to say hello. He looks at me warily. He enquires about the meal. He stays to chat for a short while. Taking pity on the lone diner. Talking about the competition and the cost of meat. Thankfully, he soon moves on to the next table. I prefer to be left alone to observe the comings and goings.
Over near the piano, a group of businessmen are tucking into a large dry aged tomahawk steak. An extremely expensive cut, best shared with French fries and a rich jus. Served with some equally expensive wines. Someone is obviously trying to impress someone. Meals are interesting things. Eating together is an important human interaction and is often symbolic. The sharing of food is both a sacrifice and a symbol of acceptance. Feasts cement agreements, treaties and alliances. Quarrels are patched up with a shared meal. Family and friends join together to share good times with food and drink. People meet new people over dinner. Lovers woo one another with a special dinner. There are feasts for birthdays, weddings, religious ceremonies, cultural ceremonies and even funerals.
And, of course, business is discussed and conducted over a meal. The business lunch especially, is an artform. At first, one does not talk about business. The participants chat about personal interests, sport and mutual acquaintances and try to pretend that business is not the main point of the meal. Eventually, the topics turn to the business on hand, hopefully building trust and relationships, whilst the players continue to try to impress and outdo their peers.
Personally, I prefer something simpler. Eating may be a need, but it is also a pleasure. Food is one of the simple pleasures of life. Good food should be savoured, relished, enjoyed and eaten at leisure. Good food should be eaten mindfully.
Still, I’m not much of a dessert person. Too sweet. Too fancy. There is a large table in the middle, with a group of young people taking pictures of their desserts. A series of colourful, architectural creations with foam, smoke and glitter, designed more to appeal to the eye than the palate. Creating pictures of food is not new. Food has been depicted in art in many different ways from the earliest cave paintings to modern art. Many artists learned their art by painting still life images of fruit, vegetables and preserves. Food has been photographed ever since photography was invented and is of course, used widely in advertising, to stimulate desire and sales.
Today, taking pictures of food is commonplace, not just for bloggers and reviewers, but for everyone with a mobile phone. Food pornography, gastro-porn and food photography is a phenomenon that has taken dining by storm over the past few years due to Instagram and other social media. It is a sign of gratitude and a form of “selfie”. Sharing pictures of food that one eats is a form of self-identification and describing oneself. As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, nearly 200 years ago, “tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are”. Today he would ask people to show him what they eat.
No dessert for me. In fact, I really need to go to the toilet. We really need to get the bill.
I look at the waitress. She totally ignores me. Happens all the time. Why is it so difficult to get a bill? It can be so frustrating and ruin a good meal. Wait staff seem happy to bring you drinks and make a fuss at the commencement of a meal. But when it is time to leave – they ignore you, won’t make eye contact and disappear. No wonder Australians love to eat at pubs, clubs and casual places where you pay up front. This way there are no nasty surprises and when you have finished your meal – you can up and leave at your own leisure. In some premium restaurants, it’s almost that they don’t want you to pay.
Eventually, the bill is brought to the table. Thank goodness. I cannot hold on much longer.
I make a hasty beeline for the front entrance guiding my way around the tables and to the large wooden doors. The two young lovers’ glance at me and smile. The millennials continue to chat to the cloud, oblivious to the world around them. At the entrance, the girl holds the door open for me. She looks a little relieved as I leave.
I get outside. The aroma of dry aged steak gives way to fresh, cool air tainted with cigarette smoke. I stop at the large tree on the corner and lift my leg. The sense of relief and tension drifts away as I relieve myself. I look up at my owner. He looks down at me with a warm knowing smile. He knows that as a service dog, he should not have shared his meal with me. Just a few tasty titbits mind you. But he knows that I appreciate it and a little spoiling is a reward for my looking out for him 24/7.
I glance up and down the road, which is clear, and carefully guide my owner across to the bus-stop. Here we can wait for our ride home, sharing in the knowledge that this restaurant, a microcosm of Australian life, was certainly worth a detour.
copyright: Jeremy Ryland 2020