By Natalie Marinho
Jacques places the dish before me. I look up and smile. His long pale face nods knowingly over the collar of his impeccable uniform. I look back down at the plate and am glad that I allowed myself to be persuaded by his earlier recommendation.
A fillet of beef has been sliced evenly so that the pieces cascade over themselves beside a carefully arranged stack of vegetables. Baby carrots and fine green beans balance precariously over a fat dollop of mashed potatoes whipped to creamy perfection. The beef has been well rested with a pink interior that does not bleed into the dark sea of surrounding jus.
They have given me the wrong type of knife to cut the beef but it is of little consequence. I take my first mouthful, close my eyes and am instantly transported out of the room and beyond the walls. I forget about the other guests of this fine institution and am enveloped by culinary bliss.
I am a post-flavour kind of man. It's true that flavour is important. Get them wrong and the dish is lost. But flavour does not make a meal. I will tell you what does: texture. Flavour may provide the melody for a dish but texture is the harmony, which brings together all the individual elements into one unifying experience. It gives a dish body and depth. Critics talk endlessly about smell and taste but I have always championed the forgotten sensory experience. The way your tongue works its way around a tender piece of meat. The satisfying crunch of a lightly fried crouton. A burst of ripe summer as a whole cherry tomato explodes in your mouth. Small weighty dumplings, which yield and sigh softly as your teeth sink into their cushioned exterior.
I finish my mouthful and open my eyes. I raise the glass to my lips and take a small sip of wine. It's a Bordeaux, the colour of blood, warming my mouth and throat quite pleasantly. Its depth of flavour is a perfect complement for the fillet. It's a robust match between two intense flavours which do not compete with each other but dance in unison like a tango where the individual becomes lost in a single fluid motion.
Despite all the expensive restaurants, long lunches and candle lit dinners I cannot for the life of me remember the last time I ate such a fine meal. A memory appears in my mind's eye unbidden; a night with Caroline, a long time ago, at a little seafood place overlooking the beach. June, I think, when the nights were still cool and the sun had yet to acquire its bite. The restaurant was not far from our house and in summer a meal was often followed by a walk along the beach, hand in hand, with nothing but the sound of crashing waves to punctuate our comfortable silence. I do not remember what we ate that night and yet the night lingers in my mind, unremarkable in any way except that I remember it. Nothing went wrong that night. Everything was easy. It was a perfect evening.
I wish she were here with me now. Eating alone always adds a semitone of sadness when one is presented with such a fine meal but I do my best to cast the feeling aside and savour each mouthful until the last.
Jacques waits an appropriate length of time before stepping forward to take my empty plate. In another time and place, he would have made a fine waiter in any Michelin starred restaurant.
Did you enjoy your meal, he asks quietly. I certainly did, I say, dabbing the corners of my mouth lightly with the crisp white linen serviette. My compliments to the chef, I add. Jacques nods again slightly and says, yes he aims to please. He hovers for a moment before speaking again. Are you ready for dessert? I nod and Jacques leaves with the empty plate.
I place the serviette back on my lap and smooth away the wrinkles. I hope he takes his time. I want to savour the flavour that still lingers in my mouth just a little longer. I lick my lips and can still taste a hint of jus. Just this once, I resist the temptation to write a mental review of the meal. I focus on the impending dessert. I try to avoid creating an expectation. Expectation leads to disappointment. Expect nothing and you won't be disappointed, my previous neighbour had told me once. But I can't help it. I want it to be wonderful. I want it to be the best dessert I have ever eaten. Footsteps approach and my heart beats faster.
Jacques is carrying a tray with a single dish covered by one of those old fashioned silver domes. He balances the tray with one hand and grasps the lid of the dome with the other. He gives a faint smile then quickly takes away the lid theatrically.
I nearly gasp, it's almost too good to be true. Resting at the centre of a large plate is a plain white ramekin dish. As Jacques lowers the tray I hold my breath and peer over the ramekin's thin circular edge, which perfectly frames a flat even surface of familiar golden brown hues. It's a glass of champagne shimmering in the distance to a man lying in a desert dying of thirst. But this is real.
I pick up the silver spoon and turn it over. Just as I once did, as a young boy, I lean forward with my ear towards the dish and tap the back of the spoon against the hard surface three times. My heart soars as the sound resonates with the sound of my childhood. Tears well in my eyes with memories of my dear mama in Provence. I shatter the surface and dip into the undulating waves of sun coloured cream then slip the spoon into my mouth. Velvet smoothness glides past slivers of crisp caramel. The chef is a god: a crème brûlée of perfect proportions. I wish it could last forever but nothing can. In the end, I place the spoon down. That, I say, is the finest dessert I have ever had. Excellent, Jacques says and takes away the empty plate and spoon. He says he will return in ten minutes.
He leaves the room and I am alone again, sitting at my familiar table. The minutes pass by quickly and my thoughts are of nothing in particular. I am an old man and the thoughts are the same ones I have had over the last decade. Of what I have done, what I did not. What I would change if given the chance and what I would leave the same.
When Jacques returns there are two other gentlemen with him whom I do not recognise. Jacques does not smile anymore. But I do. I do not bear any hard feelings towards the man who has served my dinner over so many years. I stand up and brush away imaginary crumbs from my overalls. I'm sorry but... Jacques begins but I hold up a hand to silence him. I understand, I say, and lift up both hands. Jacques places a cuff around each wrist and the sound of each lock snapping into place seems to echo through the corridor outside. One of the other men crouches down and snap cuffs around my ankles. When they are finished Jacques steps forward and I follow him through the doorway. The two men follow me into the corridor.
My room looks small viewed from the frame of the open door. Four walls, a single window and a sealed box on the bed, which will be forwarded to Caroline, who can do with it whatever she pleases.
We walk down the corridor and no one says anything. The only sound is my shoes dragging along the ground as I shuffle forward towards the open door at the end of the corridor.
I think about the things I have done and inevitably to that which I shouldn't have but did. I am sorry but do not expect forgiveness. I was angry and reckless and gave into temptation but a mountain of reasons cannot stand between me and the door at the end of the corridor. The die was cast long ago and here I am, shuffling towards my inevitable fate. But all things considered I have lived my life to the full and can say that I have enjoyed every mouthful. Of that I am sure.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 3 Jul 2011