Friday, March 19, 2010

Patience to Pay Attention to the Flavors

"Are you enjoying the flavors?" he asked.  Though coming at it from an unexpected angle, the question was phrased just right.  Not "How do like your food?" or "Are you pleased with your selections?" and certainly not "Are your entrees prepared correctly?"  As if we would know.  We were hardly familiar with the preparations -- let's see, when was the last time I made a black bean mole sauce for my grilled shrimp, or tried my hand at pickled jicama shavings, or the ahi-tuna and mango ceviche? No, his question in the early phases of our luncheon at Rick Bayless' Topolobampo restaurant was exactly on point:  the flavors were why we were there -- all the way down to the sweet and savory goat milk caramel sauce with a hint of cinnamon poured along with the raspberry sauce over the plantain crepes withe sprinkled crushed pecans.

Flavors, delightfully outside of my routine.

We watched a young teenaged boy at a table nearby, dining with his mother, tasting first the guacamole, then the ceviche trio.  Not eating as though simply to consume, but carefully tasting each bite -- as if to notice the flavors that were there.  He impressed us -- and I suppose chastened us a bit.  He seemed already to have learned what we too often forget.  By his inspiration we, too, took another bite; more respectfully this time; and slowly, attentively, appreciatively tasted.

And then left to take a long and necessary -- and savoring -- walk.

Sharing a Little Dream

As the waiter alluded to the progeny of the building -- one passing tenant after another -- I thought back to a conversation earlier in the week about three properties in the Des Moines area that are to restaurants what Elizabeth Taylor is to husbands.

On this Wednesday night in Chicago, however, the signs are promising for a longer lease.  Researching where all we might pause in our little culinary breeze through the Windy City, I began reading about a particular Italian restaurant listed among the "slow-food" establishments in town.  The restaurant continued to get good revues even though the young chef credited with developing the dining experience into its current prominence had left to pursue his dream of a restaurant of his own -- his "Piccolo Sogno" -- or "little dream."  He sounded like someone I would like to follow -- no offense intended to the restaurant he had left.

And so with reservations in advance, we endured the cab driver's flustered U-turns executed trying to locate the precise address, and presented ourselves to the hostess.  For the rest of the evening the motion was reversed, the restaurant -- and that young chef -- presenting themselves to us.  From the Parmesan and -- if I can trust my taste buds -- fennel-dusted breadsticks presented as we were seated, to the Hazelnut cake and berried panna cotta at the end, and everything in between, it was an alimentary delight.  The beet and goat cheese salad; the homemade pastas with boar ragu and the one with mushrooms and truffle oil; the sea bass, and Eduardo, our carefully attentive personal attendant.  I know he was responsible for other tables and other diners, but it felt like we were the only ones in the room that, in reality, was a din of lively chatter and bustling activity.  And Chef Tony -- the young one whose little dream we were helping him follow -- seemed truly grateful and moved when we told him we had come from Iowa at least in part to seek him out.

My guess is that whoever owns the building will need to get used to a longer-term tenant.  It was -- well -- a dream.

The cab ride back to the hotel was less eventful than the one beginning our evening.  Call it just one more dessert at the end of a perfect day.

Gently Rocking Into Delight

It was chilly standing on the Amtrak boarding platform at the Osceola station, but the shiver I felt had less to do with the temperature than with the sight of the train pull in.  Having started its run near San Francisco a couple of days ago, the California Zephyr arrived at Osceola a half-hour late, but still expects to arrive in Chicago a few minutes early.  Stowing our bags on the rack, we made our way up to the passenger level and found seats on the last row of this last car.  Before I was seated, the countryside began to move past the window, across fields and thinly wooded meadows, picking up speed.  Nestling in, reclining, I thought again how comfortable is this mode of transportation compared to the "consolidating" experience of being wedged into the Lilliputian seats of most airlines.  We rock gently and smoothly eastward, and I couldn't feel more content -- iPod singing in my ears, my beloved beside me, and even the simplest, most ordinary view out the window a kind of candy to savor more than chew.

It's only for a few hours, course -- just as far as Chicago, and we have delights in store there, as well.  But right now, rocking along through these soggy fields, I could dream about staying aboard this train for months.