My husband, Dave and I have been eating dinner with the same two couples, about every other month for the last eight years or so. The rules of engagement are pretty clear: We can never eat at the same place twice, we splurge (appetizers, desserts and wine are all mandatory), we try to each order something different, and we share liberally– the object being to cover as much ground on the menu as possible. We seldom see these couples outside of our dinner engagements and the result is something that feels like an affair (or, at least, what I imagine an affair might feel like).
For the last couple of years I’ve had this idea that we should assemble our impressions, thoughts and memories into some sort of coherent and permanent record. My fellow dining companions usually nod and smile politely when I ask them to send me their notes of the evening, but I never seem to get any. Occasionally, we will attempt some simple group effort, like recreating the list of places we’ve been, and someone, usually Ken, volunteers to be the scribe, but as a group we tend to lose interest in the endeavor as soon as the sommelier drops by with our first bottle of wine. We tend to focus on the here and now, enjoying each other’s company and the food and the wine and the moment completely. Maybe that’s what makes it feel like an affair.
I’ve just gotten tickets to Kevin Sousa’s restaurant opening in Pittsburgh. Kevin is a food alchemist extrordinaire, and his newest venture, “Salt of the Earth,” has been two years in the making. To generate some buzz, Kevin is offering a select number of five course prix-fixe dinners with wine and beer (oh my!) pairings for the very reasonable price of $89. Gourmet diners of Pittsburgh–get ‘em…they are going fast. This event has been much anticipated in this city, particularly by Kevin’s legion of ardent followers. In fact, one particularly memorable meeting of our dinner group was at Kevin’s “Alchemy” table in the Bigelow Grille. Although it has been years, none of us is ever likely to forget a completely clear Roquefort soup served in a beaker. It looked like water, but tasted like the most intense sheep’s milk Roquefort injected with the smooth essence of warm, thick cream. Or, his signature “Ode to Pittsburgh.” Polish Hill meets Kennywood in this frozen, savory confection. Creamy potato-onion ice cream frozen into pellets the size of seed pearls and served with a bracing chaser of hot sauerkraut consomme. Like no pierogi my Polish grandmother ever dreamed of. “Not just science.” Not even alchemy– each dish started with the ingredients it tasted like. But in form and presentation, it was magic, pure and simple.
I’ve thrown the gauntlet publicly. Dining companions take note: I now will be taking notes during dinner. I will try to be unobtrusive as I record what we’ve eaten and troll for memorable quotes from you, to report back here in a “Dinner with Friends” posting. Stay tuned.