Friday, October 13, 2006

What was your best meal ever?

Food for Thought


For any true food fanatic, it is certainly a daunting question: "What was the best meal you've ever had?"

Immediately, you think through all of the most expensive dinners out you've had—or, perhaps, any time you've spent in the culinary capitals of the world. There was that bistro in Paris, maybe. Or an unbeatable plate of pasta in Naples.

Then again, maybe it was that warm winter stew you had at that friend's house, the one who cooks four-course meals every weekend and has neat stacks of Food &Wine, Bon Appétit and Wine Spectator magazines on every countertop and table in the house.

A winemaker friend posed the question to me not long ago—and I was paralyzed.

"No way," I said. "I can't answer that."

But the seed had been planted. The question lingered in my brain like a list of tiresome weekend chores. The words repeated themselves over and over, often as a pleasant distraction: "What was the best meal I've ever had?"

Then came the barrage of scents and flavors.

It all started in France. I'd lived there as a youth and then was wise enough to return for a job straight out of university. I guided luxury bicycle tours through the major wine-producing regions: Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Provence.

Eating at three-star Michelin restaurants—those bequeathed with the European travel guide's highest rating, earned by fewer than 30 restaurants in France in any given year—became a semi-regular event. It seemed like every other week I was taking my taste buds to new heights.

I came to understand the subtleties of foie gras. Organ meats were no longer scary. And at a place called Lameloise, in the Burgundian city of Chagny, those three Michelin stars melted on my tongue and hijacked my brain. That must have been it. Certainly, that was it.

But no. Something was missing.

Then I thought of the most spectacular setting in which I've ever eaten a meal. That was an easy one: a brown-bag lunch on top of a 20,300-foot peak in the Nepal Himalayas, just miles from Everest and the Tibet border. That was it, I thought, but then found I couldn't even recall one item I'd eaten that afternoon, save the dry, half-frozen energy bar.

Well, if it wasn't in France, then it must have been in Italy. Yes, Italy. There were probably a dozen meals in a two-week span that would qualify—especially that tiny hole-in-the-wall "ristorante" in Florence that didn't take reservations and served pork with polenta that would make you want to lobby for making p the first letter in the alphabet.

No—I couldn't choose Italy over France. That could start World War III in some recess of my gray matter that sorts out the hierarchy of culinary dominance. It just wouldn't be fair to the Gauls, the deserved kings of cuisine.

So then I looked closer to home. There was a simple meal of lobster with drawn butter in the quaint fishing-village-turned-tourist-haven of Ogunquit, Maine. Or that lobster thermidor the winemaker and I made, trying to duplicate the famous dish served by Scoma's, on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. No, it was definitely that $425, 11-course lunch at the French Laundry, the Mecca for American gourmets, in the Napa Valley town of Yountville. The seared foie gras would bring many of the French to their knees. Best of all, my wife footed the bill as a birthday present.

That was it, it seemed, and then it hit me: salt air, seafood, salt and pepper. A glass of white wine, but nothing exceptional. A view over the expansive Pacific Ocean.

Some 20 years ago, my parents and I went to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, before it was discovered by Van Halen and became Baja's answer to Daytona Beach. On a perfect January day, my father and I went game fishing. I caught a sizable blue marlin and we each landed a tough dolphin fish—mahi-mahi to the Hawaiians. They looked like swimming rainbows.

We gave the 120-pound marlin to the Mexican boat captain—he wanted to cook it whole and throw a backyard party for his neighborhood. Pleased, we took the bigger mahi-mahi back to the hotel and had the chef throw it on the grill with some lime and mild spices.

Then, under the stars, my father, mother and I ate the fresh fish and talked like old friends. We laughed about life—in France and elsewhere—forgetting every moment of anger and doubt we ever knew. We told stories no one had ever heard before, and, for an hour or so, the world was a perfect place.

Yes, indeed, that was it. I guess it's not all about the food, nor all about the company, but those all-to-rare moments when all of our thoughts and passions embrace.

So, what was your best meal?

I'm already getting a vibe about a bistro in Paris.




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