Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dining alone

How often do you dine alone?

I don't mean sitting in the kitchen eating Kraft Mac & Cheese out of the sauce pan - although that has a certain delicious comfort to it. I mean going out to restaurants by yourself and having a meal.

MFK Fisher wrote about Dining Alone. She wrote of the great Roman host Lucullus, who was famous for throwing fabulous feasts. But one night he ordered a meal just for himself - and noted at once the lack of care in its preparation. He summoned his kitchen staff for an explanation.

The fellow stammered out that they'd felt no need to prepare a fine feast when there were no important guests to impress.

"It is precisely when I am alone," Fisher quotes Lucullus answering, "that you require to pay special attention to the dinner. At such times, you must remember, Lucullus dines with Lucullus!"

Fisher herself learned to enjoy dining alone in public without being bothered or self-conscious. "I sat alone and ate judiciously and with amiable concentration.... I read, and drank without ever showing but a self-contained enjoyment, and seemed not to want better company than my own."

I recently enjoyed a satisfying lunch at the Border Grill in Santa Monica. I attended a meeting at a nearby office, and by the time it ended it was lunchtime. The Border Grill has a weekday lunch promotion - $10 lunch if you eat at the bar.

Although the Border Grill is a very noisy restaurant when it's busy, that afternoon it was quiet. The huge box-like space with its black walls painted with giant drawings of faces was dark.

I perched on a tall stool at the bar, and while I sipped a diet Coke waiting for my lunch I watched the bartender cutting up his garnishes and organizing his materials. There was space for me to lay out my notebook and review my notes from the meeting. I scanned my phone to see if any new emails had come in, and then the bartender placed a small oval plate before me.

Image from the Border Grill site. Click on the picture for their slide show

A sweet corn tamale, wrapped in a cornhusk and tied with a little bow, like a gift. Two little round dishes were on the side, one with a dollop of crema, the other with chopped pico de gallo.

He also delivered a basket of tortilla chips and salsa. I love the way Border Grill presents salsa - there's a little round steel dish containing three smaller round steel dishes, with three different salsas. Here was a brick-orange chile salsa, another darker one, with bits of seeds and charred skin, and a third bright green and fresh with tomatillos.

When you dine alone, you can carefully savor each little bite, without the distraction of conversation. The sweetness of the tamale was tempered with the bit of the pico de gallo, and mellowed with the sourness of the crema.

The next course was another tamale, but very different. Wrapped in banana leaf, this was stuffed with chicken and olives and chopped onions, and napped overall with a rich Oxacan mole that was so dark it was almost black. On top was a salad with some greens and some slivered pear, in a citrusy vinaigrette.

What a different taste this was! The mole was so complex and alkaline it was almost bitter - a dab of crema mellowed it considerably. The crisp bite of the pears and vinaigrette lent a nice contrast. The chicken filling was piquant in a different way. It was like having three distinct flavors in one mouthful.

To look at the two little tamales, you might think it was a small and meager lunch. But masa harina can be very filling, and as it turned out, the portion size was perfect. Not too much and not too little.

A few more bites of chips dunked in salsa, another pull at the straw for the last of the diet Coke, and I was ready to head back to my office. It was a nice break from the weekday routine, to center my head.

How do you get away from it all when you need some quality alone time?


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I used to end up dining (out) alone whenever I was on the road for a multifamily underwriting assignment.

I found some interesting places.

I've got more than enough alone time now, though!

Alexia said...

What a fantastic description of the food - it made me very hungry!

I travel alone and often eat out alone - and I enjoy the company :)

Gary's third pottery blog said...

oh man, sweet lunch! I am always alone, working at home. For me, getting out and seeing people or when they come over is the big deal :)

Anonymous said...

You could be a travel and food writer; you have a real gift!

I can think of one time that I purposefully took myself out to lunch at a restaurant. Much as you describe, it was an experience to focus on the flavors of the food itself. (I had a hankering for Chinese food that day.)

I am home alone most days, but I'm more likely to skip lunch altogether than to purchase lunch when out and about. However, I am partial to a Greek deli in a nearby town. The owner makes everything himself and the gyros and baklava are superb! (Sadly, there isn't a place to sit down to eat there.)

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I enjoyed hunting for a non-chain restaurant near Case Western Reserve in Ohio this weekend anded up at a great, authentic middle-Eastern place. I had my Nook in my bag, so I enjoyed savoring my meal and my book together.

Unknown said...

That sounds like a very good lunch indeed! I love their slide show. What beautiful pictures.

barbara said...

I eat alone all the time. It's an adventure when traveling, but even at home, I'll have a glass of wine and put some good music on, no matter how humble the food.