Sunday, November 1, 2015

Food is Memories

It's a pretty terrific lunch that makes people change their evening plans.

Unlike last year, I hadn't bothered with Fire, Flour and Fork at all this time around. That is, at least until today's irresistible lunch, poetically dubbed the 100 Meter Journey.

Unlike some people there, I immediately got the reference, having seen the film "The Hundred Foot Journey" last September at the Bowtie.

So I knew about the story of an Indian family (and their talented son who cooks) having to flee their home and restaurant due to political unrest before landing in France to open a restaurant, hilariously named Maison Mumbai, across the street from a one Michelin star French restaurant run by the imperious Helen Mirren.

I recall fondly that there were two romances, the young (attractive and earnest Indian chef and bike-riding French sous chef) and old (uptight French widow and garrulous Indian widower) to remind us that food and love go hand in hand. The lesson? Fine cuisine is not an old, tired marriage but a passionate affair.

The upshot of the movie was simple: food is memories.

So when I saw that Amour Wine Bistro and Curry Craft were combining forces for this 100 meter journey as part of FFF, I wanted some of that passion.

Arriving as a singleton guaranteed that I'd be seated with whomever had room for me, which negated any chance of sitting with any of the people I saw and knew.

Fortunately, though, it landed me at a table with familiar faces, two handsome guys I've repeatedly met around town at wine dinners and restaurants, where they welcomed me in. Another stray joined us and we were four.

I knew from past encounters how much fun these two can be, as evidenced by their favorite parlor game when at Lemaire. It's called "Wife, daughter, hooker?" and they play it any time they see a younger woman with an older man at the Jefferson.

Good times.

Today's journey began humorously with Kir Royals and Amour's French owner Paul welcoming us to, "Fi - ah - I hate that word - fi-ah, flour, whatever it is!"

Whatever it was, we were about to find out.

Our first course of shrimp and grits "Pondicherry," which was Curry Craft's chef Mel Oza's sassy take on the southern staple, set a high bar for the rest of the meal. Using upma with aromatic spices instead of grits, he'd created a fresh take on a ubiquitous standard.

Savoring it with Cave de Beblenheim Heimberger Pinot Blanc, I polished it off right down to the tasty nasturtium leaves adorning the plate.

My table companions had already been to multiple FFF events and proceeded to regale me with details about them, both food and people-wise. Someone mentioned that at the afterparty at Pasture last night, the chef had roasted a whole pig.

"That's right up Jason's alley," one of the guys commented, not realizing until the words came out his own cleverness given that Jason's last name is Alley. Hearing about the dinner at L'Opossum, I wasn't the least surprised to hear of the giant statue of David on the roof or the marquee name guest.

But all conversation ceased when cups of French onion consomme arrived, a crusty circle of a giant crouton atop each one and paired with another Beblenheim, this time a lovely, dry Riesling that set off the savory soup to perfection.

The last few spoonfuls of Chef Rob's soup-soaked bread were nothing short of sublime.

We were knee-deep in conversation about eating out habits - trying new places versus craving familiar favorites - when cordial glasses of Calvados sorbet arrived, fetchingly garnished with apple slices. Our table must have been very, very good because we each got two.

Okay, so they actually had a few left over and we were happy to sip more Calvados.

Sadly then, one in our group had to leave (prior engagement involving flowers), reducing us to a trio, but the loss was his.

The room was considerably louder by that point, no doubt due to several rounds of wine but also, maybe, because it was a gloomy, gray day outside and we were all comfortably ensconced inside with this parade of French and Indian-influenced food to keep us happily occupied.

Familiar faces continued to stop by my table on their path to the bathrooms, spurring discussions of thrift store dresses (hers and mine), over-priced oysters and why it's easy to skip certain restaurants.

Slow-roasted salmon with Allepy spices melted in our mouths (was that a hint of Pernod?) but just as gorgeous were the accompanying root vegetables - radishes, leeks, local carrots -and the decadent cardamom-ginger emulsion they were swimming in, washed down with Jean Sablenay Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, a seductive sipper.

By this point, we were probably three hours into our lunch and had already learned that chefs are terrible with microphones.

As we began each course, the chef who'd prepared it (Rob of Amour or Mel of Curry Craft) would talk about the dish, barely speaking into the mic and completely unintelligible from our perch in the back. But Paul, the former DJ, was a master with the mic talking about the wine pairings, projecting his voice to the rafters, even to us.

Cue disco ball. Some jobs just require an experienced DJ.

Our first red wine, Chateau Michel de Montaigne Bergerac 2012, delivered black fruit and spice, an ideal pairing for beef bourguignon with a veal demi-glace and the most adorable miniature fresh vegetables I've ever seen, truly tiny.

It was about then that my seatmate looked at his watch, wondered aloud about making his flight to Texas tonight and made an executive decision to reschedule.

For that matter, I was starting to reevaluate my own plans to go out tonight. It was already obvious that it would be well after 5:00 when this lunch finally wound down, so perhaps I should reconsider 6:00 plans.

After all, we hadn't seen the dessert cart - more lyrically labeled "le chariot de desserts" - go by yet and this Cremant d'Alsace wasn't going to drink itself.

On the cart's first pass, we snagged Lilliputian chocolate sea salt caramel creme brulees and what resembled chocolate bar bells: dark chocolate covered coconut sorbet and chocolate-covered marshmallows connected by a wooden skewer.

As owner Paul put it, "If you don't like chocolate, you're in trouble." I was in the opposite of trouble.

On the cart's next trip by, we got Chef Mel's take on a sweet course, which included rice pudding and got us talking about what an old-fashioned dessert it was.

"In my family, on Fridays, we used to have steak, Cold Duck and rice pudding," my seatmate recalled fondly. "When I got a little older, they even gave me some Cold Duck." Some parents can be so cruel.

The point of his stroll down Memory Lane? "I want my rice pudding," he announced and, let's face it, that's not something you hear every day.

And of course Chef Mel hadn't made a lackluster rice pudding. No, this one had Indian spices blended in and a compote of figs, pistachios, cardamom and red wine surrounding it. Fabulous and, I'm willing to bet, as far removed from my new friend's childhood rice pudding as imaginable.

We also had little ramekins of kulfi flavored with cacao, chilis and rose petals, a beautifully balanced marriage of unlikely flavors that ended lunch on a high note.

By this time, Paul and Mel were cracking wise about their inspiration for the lunch, joking that in lieu of flying in an Indian chef for FFF, Paul had brought in Mel from east Carytown's Indian neighborhood two blocks away.

I've heard it said that fine cuisine is a passionate affair, not an old, tired marriage. Today's lunch ably demonstrated that some people can go at it for five straight hours and keep things exciting.

And if you don't like that kind of action, my friend, you're in trouble.

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