Professor Ceiling Cat is poarly today, recovering from a dreadful cold that was probably acquired when traveling (thanks, Canada!). That, and the lack of substantive material on religion, politics or other weighty matters that could engage me, means that you’ll have to do with persiflage. Anyway, it’s a holiday in the U.S. (Memorial Day), and nobody is reading websites here.
When I was thinking of something in which readers could participate, what immediately came to mind was my favorite topic: noms. And that conjured up thoughts of the best meals I’ve had the fortune to consume.
Some famous gourmet, whose name I can’t recall, allegedly said on his deathbed, “There have been kings who haven’t eaten as well as I.” Perhaps I can say the same thing. Although I’ve suffered my share of vicissitudes, I’ve been lucky enough to have been born with a big appetite and an adventurous palate, and to have had both the financial resources and travel opportunities to encounter many fine noms.
I also like to make “best-of” lists, and thought about the best meals I’ve ever had. They fall into two classes: meals cooked at home, and meals consumed in a restaurant.
The former is easy: it was my 40th birthday dinner, which I cooked myself with the help of a Ph.D student at the U of C, John Willis (he’s now a fancy professor of biology at Duke, and has always been a superb cook). I don’t have the menu at hand, but there were about a dozen courses, each accompanied by a different fine wine from my collection. It began with a fino sherry, olives, and almonds, an entire side of smoked Scottish salmon, then foie gras (brought from France) with a fine Sauternes (Chateau Climens), and progressed through fish courses, meat courses (chicken with 40 cloves of garlic and then a tenderloin of beef with Roquefort sauce, the former served with a 1982 Bordeaux, the latter with a 1982 Hermitage), to cheese and then homemade desserts.
The meal started at 6 pm and finished at 2 a.m. There were about ten guests, and every one of them, too full to move and drunk as well, spent the night at my place, some sleeping on the floor. Nobody was either sober or mobile enough to go home. It was a fine affair, and some day I’ll publish the menu.
And there’s no doubt about the best restaurant meal I’ve had. It was when I was in France on a Guggenheim-supported sabbatical year in 1989. Because I had extra money thanks to the Googs, I spent almost all of it on meals in restaurants, mostly in Paris where I lived. That was money well spent, and it was how I learned to eat. I began with the cheap student places, and then, as the year wore on and my money didn’t diminish so much, worked my way up to higher-class restaurants, finishing with a few Michelin three-star joints. I learned how to order, what wines were good values, and how to convert a dinner into an entire evening of entertainment.
One of the higher-class places, however—and the site of the best meal I’ve ever had—was not in Paris but in Roanne, a tiny village about 90 km outside of Lyon. (I also went to Lyon to eat, for it is a great dining town.) From Lyon you take a rickety train for an hour to Roanne, which consists of a few houses, the train station, and a great temple of gastronomy, the three-star Mason Troisgros. (Wikipedia gives an overview and history.)
The Troisgros now seems to be largely a fancy-food place—not nouvelle, with those ridiculously tiny portions—but a place that serves gussied-up plates with fancy sauces rimming the plate, and so on. But back then it was simply a place to get dressed-up local cuisine, served generously. And it was famous. The Gault-Millaut guide once named it “the best restaurant in the world.” At that time I’d have to concur, although of course I haven’t tried all the world’s restaurants!
My then-girlfriend and I arrived in Roanne at about noon for lunch. Seated at the table, we decided to go whole hog and order the menu degustation, a multi-course “best-of” menu featuring the restaurant’s most renowned dishes. Exclusive of wine, it was 600 francs per person—about $100 at the time. I accompanied the meal with the excellent house Beaujolais, served in pewter pitchers.
I can’t remember all of the dishes, except there were many, and they kept on coming. There were gratis dishes, too—stuff not on the menu. There was a plate of local crayfish (they’re big on local ingredients), and their famous salmon with sorrel: lovely fresh salmon in a cream sauce with slightly wilted sorrel: an ethereal dish. Everything was fantastic.
The lunch went on and on, and the sun sank lower. But then it was time for cheese. Two men in tandem appeared from the kitchen carrying a six-foot-long basket, with one end on each man’s shoulder. In that basket was a huge selection of the finest cheeses I’ve ever had, many of them local, including aged Comté (the world’s best cheese) and the small, runny discs of ripe Saint-Marcellin, the best cheese of the area.
This being France, we could of course have as many types of cheese as we wanted. What a dilemma given that we knew dessert was to follow, and there were at least three dozen types of cheese! But somehow back then my stomach had a limitless capacity, and I managed to acquit myself well with les fromages.
Dessert was next—three courses of dessert. And each “course” consisted of a large trolley, a chariot, loaded with dozens of choices and wheeled to our table. One contained sorbets and glaces, one tartes and gateaux, and I can’t even remember what was in the other. From each chariot you could choose as many desserts as you wanted, and the server would give you a scoop or a slice. This largesse, or generosity, was, I found, characteristic of the best French restaurants.
All I remember is that I ate from all three trolleys, even though I had no room in my stomach. And then, before the bill came, we got a generous plate of homemade chocolates and cookies.
Somehow we stumbled to the 6 pm train back to Lyon—the last train of the day. Both of us could barely walk, and when we went into our compartment we immediately laid down. My girlfriend literallly passed out from overeating, and I was not in much better shape. We somehow made it back to our hotel in Lyon. Curiously, the next day we were hungry again.
I know some will decry this gourmandizing, or the sheer volume of our intake. But it’s always been my philosophy that if you like good food, you like lots of good food, and a great restaurant will provide both. At any rate, the Troisgros gave me the best meal I’ve ever had in a restaurant. I’ll never go back, though, for fear of spoiling those memories from 1989.
The whole point of this post is to ask readers to weigh in as well. What is the best meal you’ve ever had—in either a private home or a restaurant—and what did it consist of? (Don’t forget the wines if you had any and remember them.)