Disclaimer: The following recap of my dinner at Le Baratin was written (read: tapped on my iPhone) shortly after I left the restaurant on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. I wrote half in the Uber and half when back at my AirBnB. I was more than half-tipsy. It was intended to be a caption for an Instagram post. I spent a week in Paris for my 40th birthday.
Dinner at Le Baratin: Mackerel tartare, veal sweetbreads, and cherry clafoutis—avec the pit. And some TL;DR. This is the post where you either feel me or are hitting The Unfollow.
I have so many words. So so many. If you know me as the introvert who can talk your ear off, you know how many that might be. I think this was the meal I came to Paris for; one of the #vacationrhianna experiences that brands me. This was the meal I feared the most. The FOH proprietor is notoriously grumpy and cold to Anglos. Many a Paris review give the thumbs down because of him and the lack of a compelling reason to hike to Belleville. But hike up that hill I did. In the +30 Celsius heat, with my nice shoes on. Forty minutes to see the sights. Why? Because one of my friends strongly recommended it, it’s a notable Bourdain stop (and today just happens to be the first Bourdain Day), and a notorious chef hang. That seeming grump is also notorious for his vin naturel knowledge. With another friend securing my place via a phone reservation with her mad French skillz, I sat at the bar, asked for a white with maceration, and ordered the “heart” of veal sweetbreads as my main.
Oh, those words. The ones that tell you that there’s a bit of destiny at play because I first tried sweetbreads on my 30th birthday trip when at La Quercia in Vancouver. There are the ones that relay my great effort to mind my Continental cutlery handling, as those behind and at the bar watched me eat, including that infamous Philippe. Those that tell you that the revered, sweet chef Raquel delivered my main; when I thanked her upon leaving, she was smoking in the kitchen, and my deep appreciation was received with a smile, but one as blasé as that which comes with an extended door open. How about those words about the butter that slicked the plate of sweetbreads and gave me strength instead of weighing me down? The ones that speak to the mountain of that offal heart that I never wanted to overcome because of its perfection. Then the rhubarb atop it that I almost forgot to mention. The FOH underlings who really run the show. There are those words that quake with fear as Philippe too-quickly rotated the bottle when I gestured to look at what he poured when in my crude French asked for a recommendation. Too quickly turned like he rightly knew I would’t really understand the content. And then those words full of shock when he asked, in English (!), if I liked it. There are those words full of victory when he learned I was Canadian and relayed how much he liked, again in English, The Cowboy Junkies (!!)—but not before boldly quoting me an Irish folk song about dying alone (?!). And those words full of gloat when a barmate shared a glass of his “bottle only” Italian orange. When pouring my glass, Philippe relayed, “In North America, this would be considered f*cking good wine.” In my mind, I clapped my hands when a member of the Japanese chef contingency in Paris showed up at the eleventh hour, confirming all the everything. All the money spent on all the other things was for this meal, this night, these memories. And I still have my birthday meal at Septime to look forward to!
The epilogue is that I ripped off a piece of my bill to write “Neko Case” for him; me, that awkward Canadian who pretended to know about maceration and ate alone with sweaty red lipstick and her new Les Soldes French bra on. Because, Paris. But to be Oprah for a moment, it’s actually because of the validation. In my mind, I did good. I made the right choice. And regardless of what anyone thought, I said some right words. As a high-achieving, grade-school student foolishly looking for gold stars in the real world, this felt like a big, f*cking gold star. So glad I had that wine to celebrate it with.
3 Rue Jouye-Rouve
I have always been proud of my self reliance, my ability to be responsible, get things done, and act like I think an adult should act. I pay my bills on time, only ever have had good debt, coordinated an international move all on my own, and regularly see the doctor and dentist. Selfishness and ego developed these skills. Once I saw an opportunity to do things on my own, I did them, likely at too young of an age. Because the ways that I did them were preferable to the ways my parents would do them. I was also faster. My parents didn't even have the chance to parent in some cases because I had already finished the task. But how well I did (and do) these things is questionable. I get things done and on time; my functional life cannot be questioned. But I rarely do my tasks with much self care. I can feed myself, but that means oatmeal for dinner. I don't live beyond my means, but I don't save for the future.
I value self reliance over self care because I've never needed the latter. It's superfluous and foreign to my daily needs for the most part. It adds time to getting things done. New shoes or a restaurant meal constitute my self care. I'm over effort dinners for myself or any manner of beauty product that isn't highly practical or proven effective. I don't fuss over myself. But obviously, I like being fussed over (read: cared for). And I've learned I like being fussed over even in the getting-things-done department. #parentalissues
I learned this the hard way with an incident last summer.
"What happened last summer, Rhianna?"
"Oh, well, you could say that I spent most of July in the bathroom."
A clostridium difficile (C. diff) infection was to blame. I went to the Urgent Care knowing I would likely need my poop (stool is too clinical) tested after a few days of the Big D, and the resident who saw me suggested they would have to test for C. diff. My jaw dropped. I know how evil C. diff is. Not because I work in health care, but because there are enough tabloid-like stories about it in the news regarding how it plagues hospitals and can even kill. I met someone once who dealt with an infection for… years. Nooooooo, I couldn't have C. diff. It was surely only salmonella or e. coli or any of the other bugs. Not C. diff. But it was. And I partied with it for 10 days before I was properly diagnosed.
So, let's talk poop. Because I am a poop friend. We're not going to talk about it because I like to chat medical stuff or overshare. We'll do so because I want to scare you into ALWAYS washing your hands after you use the bathroom. Because that is the only blame that can be given. Where/when/who I got the bacteria from is impossible to know. I got it because there are poop particles everywhere, and C. diff particles are difficult to get rid of. When you buy your Clorox wipes and see that they kill 99.9% of germs? C. diff is in the 0.1%. That's why it's the scourge of hospitals. That's why you need to sing "Happy Birthday" while you wash your hands—you have to really fucking scrub it off.
But, here's the thing. Because I'm good at getting things done, all was well and good for about seven of those 10 days. I've had gastroenteritis numerous times. After a few days of it sticking around, you go get your poop tested. You eat fiberless foods and drink Pedialyte. No sweat. But then after these few days, even after I got the test, I noticed that this Big D was not quite the same: I used the toilet between 15 and 20 times a day; the intestinal cramps were so intense that I would start shaking my arms and legs to distract myself from the pain; unknown muscles in my legs started hurting because of all the toilet sitting; and it didn't matter what I ate, everything came out liquid. So, after a few days of shitting myself silly and getting all my nutrients from essentially saltines and bananas (fewer and fewer as time progressed out of fear of the cramps), I was a bit weary. So much so that I had a bit of a breakdown in the gastroenterologist's office because I was too afraid to leave from all the running to the bathroom. I wasn't getting things done very well.
The fact that my diagnosis came probably five days later than it should have also didn't help. Already long story shorter: I spent two days in the hospital. My first time. The C. diff meant I got a private room. The C. diff meant that no one could enter my room without an additional gown and gloves—although I was promised I was not, in fact, Typhoid Mary. The C. diff meant my room got a 45-minute cleaning with bleach while I watched Food Network on the $10/day rental.
While perhaps one of the most traumatizing moments of my life, it was also one of the best (and not because I got a hit of morphine). Being admitted to the hospital meant I was no longer in charge; I no longer had to get things done. The relief at not having to rely on myself was beyond sweet. For the first time in forever, I could just be. My worries were with other people now, other people with expertise to make them not worries and to get the things done. I didn't sleep but was beyond relaxed. I was free of myself for 48 hours. I was being cared for.
The first morning in the hospital room, a porter delivered a standard breakfast because I had been admitted too late to make any choices. Orange juice, a banana, grits, white toast, and scrambled eggs. As I was now being medicated, I had (incorrectly) been given the okay to eat anything. The previous day's sustenance was largely a handful of saltines and a yogurt, so I attacked the eggs with gusto. They might have been the best scrambled eggs I had ever had despite actually being completely rubbery. My hunger and feeling of safety corrected all imperfections when they entered my mouth. The taste of the salt and pepper and then the (by now) cold, buttered toast normalized the strangeness of it all. The day before I cried because I was afraid I would poop on the ambulance gurney, and this morning I was eating eggs. All was okay again.
Hunger being rewarded with unremarkable but satiating food is a typical diner experience, and the Court Square Diner is all that you want in a typical diner in terms of ambiance, service, and food. The satiation and familiarity of diner fare reels you in, but you can easily raise your brows at the impressiveness of a perfectly cooked order. The under-appreciated skill of a line cook, that is. I'm being unfair to call it unremarkable when these eggs filled me with as much joy as the ones from the hospital but were significantly better. They were perfect.
I incorrectly associate self care or being cared for with excess, especially with the extreme of hospitalization. I tell myself it can be easier, but my default mode thinks otherwise. The compromise will have to be nostalgia via scrambled eggs.
When I received word last summer that my Uncle Wayne was not continuing with cancer treatment and would likely move to a hospice soon, I was not shocked. Wayne had been fighting illness the past few years, and the man I knew wouldn’t continue on with something that ultimately would not cure him. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in at least eight years. Family dynamics, distance, and changing modes of communication (if I’m digital, he’d be analog) all factored into this; fear and insecurity compounded the first. I hate the phone, but death gave me the courage to pick it up. So, too, did the memories of my favourite uncle.
Wayne and his family were my only immediate relatives who didn’t live in Edmonton. Ottawa was so far away when I was little, and I imagined it as a place much more interesting than what I had experienced in Edmonton, especially as my uncle worked for the federal government in the capital of the country. When I finally visited at age eight, the novelty of a faraway family home confirmed my suspicions more than fact did. What wasn’t fantasy was how easily I was made to feel like daughter as much as niece in that home. Being the only niece and only granddaughter often affords unfair privilege, but this blurring of place was because of my aunt and uncle’s inability to draw strict boundaries—and I am forever grateful for that. When I would visit them in Ottawa subsequently, even as an adult in university, I relished the role and structure I had in their house, things I never felt in my own. I can’t describe the sense of purpose I got from being expected to set the table. Yes, yes, that grass, it’s always greener. But obviously not enough that I could go eight years without seeing it.
All I had left was a phone call, to close that long gap, to say hello, and to say goodbye. I was afraid my drama with other family members would creep in and poison the conversation, but I underestimated Wayne. He led the call like the gentleman and father figure I loved. There was no talk of pain or sadness. There was no interrogation or hint of disappointment. He wanted to know how things were going with me and to make sure I was good in life. The truth didn’t really matter. They were glossy, almost small-talk questions to underline the purpose of the call: to have a happy connection on the eve of death. And we did.
Beloved restaurants close here all the time, often without warning, leaving regular customers and neighbourhood residents saddened by the abrupt shutter. “The rent is too damn high” darkens everyone’s life here, even those who seem to not have such worries. Although I’d never been, the announcement that celebrated West Village restaurant Annisa would close with advance warning felt a little like a terminal cancer diagnosis. If you are going to make that phone call, you better plan on making it pretty quickly. Chef-owner Anita Lo was someone who I enjoyed watching on Top Chef Masters, and the restaurant was always on My List, but it just never was a priority destination—like so many others. A death knell proves motivating, however, and I eventually made a reservation knowing that as its closing date (May 27/17) drew near, I’d likely get a non-stop busy signal, literally and figuratively.
As with my call to Wayne, there was fear of disappointment and a sense of futility about the whole dinner. It was not going to be cheap, so would it be worth it? For the time with my friend and companion that night, of course. We could easily have quality time at a less expensive restaurant, and one that we both wholeheartedly liked. But the allures of an ending and having an experience at a place much loved were too great. And thankfully, the apprehension lost its legs once we passed through the doors. Catching up with someone you haven’t seen in months usually means a good time regardless of setting, but its occurrence at Annisa meant for an excellent one. We swooned over our food, were well taken care of by our server, and repeatedly said how we must try to get back before the lights go out.
But, I will not. I had my night to learn why Annisa is a good restaurant and will be missed. I appreciated the chance to say goodbye. I made the phone call and put the receiver down, half heartened, half heartbroken.
I never grew up eating in courses. Not that I think many people did. The only early dining experiences I can think of that involved them would be at weddings and Olive Garden. When bruschetta started becoming a thing in the 90s, I remember that being ordered when out for (non-OG) Italian, but it was a slow embrace of a longer meal in my circle. I am now someone who loves eating in courses, but I can see how my preference started from eating one thing at a time, in a specific order, not from minestrone soup or frozen breadsticks.
In choosing to go to an academic high school, I chose to face a mountain of homework each night. Most of my friends went to the neighbourhood school, so socializing was less of a distraction. I quit recreational sports. I committed to the notion that good marks meant a fruitful university path which meant an opportunity to leave Edmonton. Dinner was my study break, and my family situation and picky eating ways meant that dinner was almost always of my own making and eaten in front of the little television in my room—nascent solo dining days. A toasted supermarket bagel with jam, a yogurt cup, a banana. Consumed in that order. No bite of bagel then spoonful of yogurt. No hunk of banana taken while bagel remained. With commercial breaks used to fetch each course, my meal could almost cover a sitcom. I followed suit at school, eating my lunch one element at a time to avoid cramming for a test or getting a head start on homework.
Now, lengthening a meal through courses and eating one element at a time is an act of prolonging my joy rather than procrastinating. I want a meal to linger because of derived pleasure. My regular sack lunch is about six courses, and most dinners at home are four. When ordering at restaurants, a common question is, “Can the dishes be coursed out?” When the answer is yes and I receive a dish before the current one is finished? I’m the difficult one who will send it back because of its premature arrival. #sallyalbrightforever
Not surprisingly, I am especially fond of tasting menus. The longer the better. When a restaurant gives the heads up on a reservation that a meal will take more than two hours, I get a twinge of excitement. (And not just because it’s likely there will be a bread service.) I am absolutely one of those people who views her time at a restaurant as the night’s entertainment; it is not merely what comes before or after. While there are other reasons I like tasting menus (no sharing, curtails indecisiveness), the opportunity to settle in and fully experience the talent and creativity of a kitchen is the main one. The price of tasting menus, however, makes them prohibitive for a typical night out. Weekday asceticism helps out a great deal with atypical nights, but full-on tasting menus are still largely for special occasions.
Except with Contra. The Orchard-Street restaurant has become my favourite in the city, and their regularly changing tasting menu never fails to impress. The price for the six courses (ha, like my lunches) is reasonable and can easily be less than a lot of other places a la carte. That gives me the opportunity to indulge my preference more often than just birthdays. Warm service and a comfortable room add to my fondness.
Thus, I had a less stringent attitude when it came to booking a table at Contra for a much pricier menu—a one-night collaboration with the chef from Copenhagen’s celebrated Amass. With a trip to Denmark still unlikely anytime soon, I didn’t want to say no to the unique event, to the special meal (a few highlights below) that didn’t require a plane ticket. With a wink, my devil argued to my angel that it would be a Christmas present to myself.
She bought it. Literally.