The Successful Search for an Extraordinary Dining Experience

Call me bodacious, but when I go out to dinner, I want an extraordinary dining experience. I want my taste buds to wake up to the aroma of spices and flavors that rise up to my nose and shake my brain awake. I want to have a love affair with someone else’s cooking. I want to feel slightly guilty that I could never make something that delicious and curious enough about how it’s done to want to try to replicate it.

I’m not thrilled by the chain restaurant experience. Gigantic portions, generic interiors, and gooey desserts big enough to serve the population of Alaska don’t get me excited. To me, less is more when it comes to genuinely good food. I want to taste the fresh herbs in the grub, not listen to Herb’s conversation at the next table, talking about the grubs destroying his lawn.

Tonight I had an amazing dining experience. It was so good, it was a conversation-stopper. When you realize you are loving every bite, even as you discuss interesting topics, you share more than conversation. That’s when dinner goes from being ordinary to being extraordinary.

A real dining experience has several important components. A perfectly good chef can be undone if all the restaurant offers is good food. There’s more to eating than just plunking the plates down.

When the wait staff admires the dishes they serve as much as I do, the food speaks for itself. I want a waiter who looks over once in a while, who notices where I’m at in the meal, and checks on me from time to time. I don’t want to be rushed and I don’t want to wait forever in between courses. Tonight, I sat at a table for two hours in a busy restaurant, crowded with diners, and those two hours flew by. The wait staff was busy, but organized and unobtrusive. They worked together, helping each other out. That’s the secret of a really good restaurant.

I’m a huge bloody Mary fan. There is nothing I enjoy better than a bloody Mary that knocks my socks off. Horseradish? Bring it on. Hot sauce? Kick it up a notch. Sure, there are some pretty good bar mixes that punch a wallop. But a fresh bloody Mary from scratch? Impressive. Most bartenders throw in a celery stick and a wedge of lemon or lime. Occasionally, you get a shrimp dangling from the glass if you’re lucky. Once in a while, you might get an ordinary bar olive on a plastic sword. Tonight I was served some really spicy olives in a bloody Mary that sent my senses reeling and I found myself admiring the uniqueness of the drink. That’s memorable.

If you remember the episode when Elaine ordered the “big salad” on Seinfeld, you probably understand my love affair with lettuce. There is something wonderful about a well-built salad. The type of lettuce sets the tone. Butter, bibb, baby field greens — bring it on. I’m always open to a new kind of salad experience. Cousin Jimmy introduced me to the romaine and cucumber salad dressed simply with lemon juice, a smidgen of sugar, and olive oil. I discovered the beauty of strawberries and baby spinach dressed with raspberry vinaigrette one heavenly summer day. I’ve been known to make salads out of just about every vegetable and fruit I can get my hands on. Tonight, the rich dark greens and slices of cucumber were dressed with a fresh bleu cheese dressing that was light and refreshing. No heavy mayonaise base here. The taste was simple and clean on the palate.

When it comes the main course. I love to be wowed, not by reputation or public aura, but by the actual food. I once had a fling with a filet mignon with Béarnaise sauce in a little outdoor cafe in Geneva. Sitting under the shade of the umbrella on a lovely summer day, there and then I succumbed to the most succulent piece of beef I ever ate, dressed in a liquid ambrosia that mingled with the meat juices — it made me a believer of heaven on earth. Unpretentious in its presentation, exquisitely prepared by an obviously experienced hand, it was a gift from the gods. More than thirty years later, the memory of its taste still lingers in on the tip of my tongue.

Tonight, I was blessed with a paella that could bring a girl to tears. When it’s done adequately, paella is a tasty dish. When it’s done right, it’s amazing. My sweet mussels bodaciously danced with tender chicken and spicy sausage served over luscious rice that absorbed all the flavors of that lovely sauce. Every bite was a flavor explosion in my mouth.

That’s the real beauty of an extraordinary dining experience. It remains with you long after you say “uncle” and put down that cutlery. It lingers with you after delicately dab your chin with your napkin and ask for a doggie bag. (You never want to gorge on an extraordinary meal — too much of a good thing can spoil the mood. I always like to leave myself wanting more.)

A good restaurant meal might make you feel pleasantly content. A great restaurant meal makes you feel alive. It’s like watching an ordinary dancer go through the motions of moving across a stage and watching someone like Gene Kelly use dance to express his joy in “Singing in the Rain”. Every time I see Gene swing himself around that lamp post, I want to join him. I want splash through the puddles and leap through the air, all for the glorious experience of being hap-hap-happy again.

An extraordinary dining experience is transforming. It’s like a really good, deep, wet kiss from the right person. Magic. Is it because we are so bodacious that we appreciate these treasured moments in life, or are we bodacious because we have the capacity to embrace a great experience when we have one? All I know is that I’m glad I’m bodacious enough to want an extraordinary dining experience and lucky enough to have had this one.

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