February 5, 2015

Warmth for Lunch

Sometimes, lunch is just food. It gives your body fuel for the rest of the day, each bite forgotten as soon as it swallowed. Sometimes, lunch is an eating marathon, the principle activity of one's day. Sometimes, lunch causes personal injury. And sometimes, lunch is a time to warm up.

It has been cold. Not cold like in my US hometown, where it was recently -22 in the sun, but cold for Burgundy nonetheless. A wind was whipping through the streets of Beaune at noon, and it was time to seek shelter and food. I stood in front of an Italian place I had been eyeing for some months and decided today was the day to take the plunge. 

The windows tipped the scales for me on this visit. As I stood on the frozen cobblestones, the glass panes of the restaurant were fogged by the breath of patrons, the steam of cooking, and, no doubt, the hot air of conversation. I went inside and told the hostess I was alone. "Mais pas dans la vie," I was quick to assure her. Not alone in life.

She said she had a table for me, but I would be next to other people. Would that be ok? Naturally. 

I sat and perused the menu, deciding that a thin-crust 4 Seasons pizza would be just right (artichokes, olives, prosciutto cotto, and mushrooms). After ordering, I looked around at the other customers. There were men in business attire, finishing their meal with an espresso. Young couples corralled their children the best they could. A table of lunching ladies worked their way through beautiful salads.

The hostess noticed my table was wobbling and brought over a shim. When I asked if I could have some of the breadsticks that were on neighboring tables, the couple next to me quickly offered their own, one of those little restaurant moments where they weren't eavesdropping, but couldn't help but overhear and just wanted to be helpful. The breadsticks were Italian and divine, dotted with salt and brimming with rosemary. The chill was gone, the red Santenay in my glass was opening up nicely, and everywhere around me was a symphony of French. (There are not many tourists in Beaune on a Wednesday afternoon in early February.) 

Luncheoning alone in crowded restaurants is under-appreciated. This day was a wonderful chance to observe: no book, no phone, no distractions, just looking and listening to the world around me while I waited for my food.

The fresh Sicilian pasta of the day (fat tubes of pasta, anchovies, parmesan, tomato sauce) arrived at the neighboring table. A mother cautioned her daughter not to overdo it on the breadsticks. A sleek, sophisticated man prevented the server from clearing his charcuterie plate until he had pinched the last thin slice of mortadella between his thumb and index finger, popping it into his mouth with pleasure. 

I peered through the pass into the open kitchen. (An internet reviewer claimed this was the only bad thing about the restaurant; when leaving, you smell like Italy. This is a bad thing?) The deli slicer was shaving thin ribbons of Italian ham, deep pink ringed with the clearest white. A server snagged a wooden cutting board and twisted three or four slices onto a fork, deposing them on the board. As she walked the board by my table, I eyed the ham with obvious envy. A minute later, she plopped a little sample of the ham in front of me, my own little surprise board, saying, "la pizza, ça arrive."

As I nibbled on the salty snack, I watched a cook cutting slices of prosciutto cotto and placing them on the pizza under a shower of mushrooms, chunks of artichokes, and a flurry of olives. A young runner kept dipping behind customers to pluck ingredients from the shelves of the épicerie for the kitchen: a jar of anchovies, 10-year old Balsamic vinegar, some olives. A young boy helped himself to glasses and silverware, an odd sight. I quickly figured out he was the chef/owner's son, and the two of them were having a little lunch together at a table by the entrance. It was an incredibly simple, intimate, and public glimpse into their private life. 

My oval of cooked dough with tomato sauce, melted cheese, and toppings appeared, and I hungrily attacked, keeping my head down for a few minutes. When I glanced up, the cook in the kitchen was looking right at me. He gave me an inquisitive thumbs up sign. "Is it good?" I nodded heartily, and returned the gesture. 

A family stopped at the chef/owner's table to say thank you. I recognized the parents from the cover of a magazine on restaurants in Beaune; they own a couple of spots in town, and have chosen this place on their off day to enjoy a simple, satisfying, fresh meal with their children. They exited and walked away on the cobblestones, their figures masked by the thick humidity on the restaurant windows.

I finished and paid my bill, and took some extra time completing the winter dressing ritual: scarf, jacket, hat, gloves. The family and employees pummeled me with mercis and smiles, and I was back in the cold of February, anonymous and alone, yet strangely feeling as if I had just eaten a meal at home.

No comments:

Post a Comment