Dinner for Three

The restaurant is good and has been for many years.  Owners come, owners go, but the restaurant itself remains and remains good, even though chefs come and go too.  That is one of Paris’s charms, the durability of its restaurants.  This one has never attempted to climb the mountain of three Michelin stars, but sits comfortably and forever a few notches lower. Its standing in the guides has also remained where it should be over the years—not necessarily vaut le voyage, but worth the trouble of finding in a dark nexus of streets making a smallish kind of square in the second arrondissement.  I agree. Reviewing restaurants is not my trade, and I am thinking about something that happened in the restaurant a few years ago, not the food now or then.  I will, however, tell you that I did not order very brilliantly—at the time, the restaurant was best at sea food and I had asked for a Lyonnais specialty with pork, as I remember—but this is part of the story.  I had sat down early and eaten my appetizer all by myself, the place being nearly empty inside and I was dining solo on the terrace.  While I was finishing my starter, a couple sat down not far from me. They were French, a nice-looking couple, and very clearly married.  They seemed distracted by something and nearly jumped out of their chairs when the waiter came for their order, which they placed with no more than a two seconds glance at the menu.  They were talking about one of Shakespeare’s plays: I think it had been made into a movie that was packing them in in Paris.  Though they spoke mainly French, they did go back and forth into English until they heard me talking to the waiter and figured where I came from. The husband even explained as much to his wife, in French, which made me smile—and made her nervous.  What I remember best about their conversation was that he corrected her pronunciation of “blithe.”  She said something like bleeth, rhyming with teeth. He got the vowel right, but he couldn’t make it rhyme with the English scythe, evidently not knowing that English—designed to frustrate those who chose parents who are not Anglophone—pronounces th in two different ways. This must sound pedantic, and maybe dull, but I swear to you that I did not offer a correction though I will also swear that I have over the years since constructed several versions of my speech of enlightenment in matters of English pronunciation.  Timidity may have been one reason I said nothing: I’m not good with strangers.  But the other reason was more powerful.  I thought there was something sexual in his correction of his wife, not dominating but calculated to arouse her somehow with his, oh well, blithe command of Shakespearian English. To butt in and offer a correction would have been about as subtle, and welcome, as walking into their bedroom and clearing my throat—and maybe spitting on the floor: it would break the mood or at least be distracting. And madame, I thought, was already distraite.  She could see me while her husband could not and perhaps guessed that I understood what they were talking about—and it is possible that his trouble with “blithe” did something to change my expression.  In any event, she barely touched her food, which was sea bass—the real thing, not Patagonian Tooth Fish which, admittedly, would be hard to sell under its real name. Even though they had sat down to eat after I had started, they called for their bill just as I was thinking about cheese.  And I remember this too.  The man looked at the bill and looked absolutely horrified, then pursed his lips and blew out not too softly.  His wife looked away, then got up and made her way off the terrace without making eye contact with me or, as far as I could tell, her husband. What a shame I thought—or I thought I thought—thinking of their night at home ruined by an accidental eavesdropper and an unexpected price.  Yes, said the waiter who had heard me involuntarily speaking aloud, the sea bass was so good, what a pity to waste it.  I told him yes, and a double pity since I wished I had ordered that instead. He smiled, asked me if I was still hungry, and after I said yes but before I could tell him I thought I’d just have some cheese, he went away.  He came back not long after with a gift from him and the chef—sea bass in a lovely pale sauce with just the least bit of sherry in it. I went home and slept alone, but happier than monsieur and madame, since I felt blissfully full of good food and completely blithe of spirit.   © Joseph Lestrange
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