Sunday, October 23, 2011

Even the Tripe Made Me Sing

The waiter wheels out the tea cart. The gold-plated teapot sat on the gold-plated heater.

“I will prepare your tea now,” he says. From the 4 potted plants on the tea cart, he clips branches and puts them in the tea pot. After steeping for 5 minutes, he pours a sample into my cup. “Has it finished?” he asks.

I sniffthe bouquet (mint, lemon, chamomile, something I can’t identify...) and sipp. Yes. It’s perfect. He pours my cup. Then, he brings out a box of nine different types of sugar for me to choose from. Normally, I’m a purist, but how does one say ‘no’ to 9 different types of sugar? I select the honey-gel that has been rolled in natural sugar.

Can heaven come in a cup? Oh, sister, yes it can.

And that was just the herbal infusion.

Who knew that spring waters from southern of Italy had different characteristics than waters from northern Italy, and that you could taste the difference? I found out, after looking over the 4 pages of Italian water on the menu. I didn’t even get to the rest of Europe. You may all call me "water snob" now.

You should have seen the carrot foam (which might have made me cry) or the 5 types of seafood on a salt brick. One course, The Sea, simply Was. A pure fish stock, added at the table, to a bite of conch, a bite of sea bass, a bite of squid. I put the conch in my mouth, bit, and it dissipated through the broth. No chewiness, no rubber, just fish and then sea. By that point in the meal, if Heinz Beck, the chef, had prepared it, I would have eaten rock dust.

There was a palate cleanser, of course. Followed by a silver box with 3 drawers per side, for a total of 12 drawers. Each drawer contained 2 bite-size sweets--marzipan so light it melted; cannoli thinner than your pinkie; jam-print cookies no larger than a quarter but with a lighter flake, more perfect butter than I’ve ever tasted. 12 different sweets. And then came the dessert.

Hal had the Gran Dessert. 7 courses, 3 cold and 4 hot, that mimicked a boat, an island, a bit of tiramisu...

And then the chocolates. 20 different one-bite chocolates, filled with hazelnut, or fruit, or dark chocolate cream.

4 hours after arriving, and 39 different tastes (“courses” makes it sound large, but they were all proportioned to get the taste without becoming overwhelmed) we finally rolled out. We spoke with the chef twice (I may have cried again) and left thinking our lives were complete. The staff was attentive (if you left your chair, they picked up your old napkin with a fork, and delivered, via a silver tray, a brand-new napkin) but not aggressive. The waiter, smiling at our "oooh's," explained the 20 different cheeses (my answer was “Pick your favorite 3 for me, thanks,”) and then, when I couldn’t decide, he selected my dessert (I don’t do alcohol, coffee or tea leaves and he delivered what I can only describe as perfect raspberries capped in a cloud topped with apple yogurt ice cream.) What I feared might be a stuffy experience turned into a life-altering, heaven-glimpsing night.

This was our first 3-star Michelin dinner. La Pergola, in the Waldorf-Astoria overlooking Rome. And, honey, let me tell you, food has never made me cry before, but after eating a poached quail egg on amaranth, I have become an acolyte to the only German-born Roman god I’ve ever met.