The notion that something is “the best” of anything gives me pause. Of all the hundreds of pizza joints in which I’ve eaten, how can I know which was the best? Is it possible to recall the taste of every rack of ribs, or plate of foie gras, or roast quail I’ve ever eaten and proclaim any one of them as the best?
I haven’t eaten in every deli in the world so how can I know which serves the best blintzes? How can I say any sushi restaurant is the best in the United States, when I haven’t eaten in every one of them?
Yet people insist on playing the game, ready to do battle to defend their choice of “the best burger anywhere”, or “the best clam chowder in the world”.
I decided I would no longer participate in this game a long time ago. I do believe Nathan’s Famous at Coney Island serves up the best hot dogs I’ve ever eaten; Nunan’s Lobster Hut outside of Kinnebunkport plates the best Maine lobsters I’ve ever had set in front of me; Le Calandare in Padava served me the best suckling pig I’ve ever tasted and Biba in Sacramento does the best calamari fritti. All this comes with the disclaimer that I haven’t eaten in every hot dog joint or lobster shack in the world. These are just the ones my memory recalls as my personal favorites.
So, when atLarrys.com co-host Larry Dietz asked me over lunch at Angelini Osteria if I could name the best meal I’ve ever eaten, I told him, “There have been too many good and great things in my life to single out any as the best, whether it’s a catch by an outfield in a baseball game, or a meal in a restaurant or at someone’s home.”
“O.K.,” he said. “How about the most memorable meal?”
That, I thought, would be easier. I started to rattle of a list of possibles:
An 11-course dinner with Jennifer and her friend Sandra at Tetsuya in Sydney; the last four courses were desserts and we laughed a lot throughout the meal;
Any of a number of dinners at the old Scandia restaurant on the Sunset Strip; or one particular night at Scandia the first time my brother-in-law Bryan saw a waiter carry the Viking Sword en flambé across the restaurant;
Lunch at Perino’s in Los Angeles with the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy;
A room service feast at the Awahanee Hotel in Yosemite National Park;
A cholesterol overload at my aunt Tillie’s house in Pembroke Pines Florida the first time I visited her there – chopped liver, chicken livers with mushroom and sweet breads and then baked brisket;
The night I ate jambalaya in Lafayette Louisiana while the band played Jambalaya;
A four-hour feast in a private, upstairs room at the old Paoli’s in San Francisco;
A salami, cheese, rye bread and Zinfandel lunch eaten under the trees at Beringer’s Winery in the Napa Valley;
My first steak Tampico at the Maria Isabel Hotel in Mexico City;
Sushi at Morimoto in New York, the old Murakami in West Hollywood, or Asanebo in Studio City.
I rambled on for several minutes before announcing, “Can’t do it. If I tried to list the top 100, I would get to number 99 and become stuck trying to fill the last slot from among all those that remained.”
The thing is: flavors fade faster than memories. A great meal is composed of many elements: the food of course, but also the company, the anticipation, the mood in which one approaches the table, the waiter, the wine, the ambiance of the restaurant … For a short time we can remember the various courses and something about the preparation. But as time goes by we tend to just remember the experience. I can’t name a single dish that was served at that wonderful dinner at Tetsuya. But I remember how nice it was to meet Jennifer’s old friend and how much we laughed. And I remember the food was magnificent.
On a five-week driving trip through England, Scotland and Wales a few years ago we ate some phenomenal meals at manor houses and castles that were competing with each other to hire the top chefs available.
Before we left for a five-week driving trip through Italy the late L.A. Times food writer David Shaw passed along a number of restaurant recommendations, including one at which he had his wedding lunch. About one-third of our dinners were at places David suggested. But the topper of all the meals on that trip and probably the single most memorable meal I’ve ever eaten was at a place recommended by my cousins Barry and Beverly.
Al Veluu is perched on a hillside overlooking Lake Como in northern Italy. Barry and Bev had been there before, but it was the first visit for Jennifer and me. The day was bright and sunny, the temperature was mild and the view of the lake and mountains was spectacular. We were nearing the end of a trip that began in Rome and took us through the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, and to Venice. It was a trip I had dreamed of all my life and now we were in Bellagio to relax for a few days before heading home.
We took a ferry across the lake and were met by a car to drive us up the steep hill to the restaurant. With the weather and the view so perfect, we opted for lunch outside. I have no recollection of what we ate. I think we started with a bottle of prosecco and some salumi. I think each of us had two courses plus dessert. I think one of my courses was a pasta dish; the other may have been fish. There was lots of sharing of tastes and lots of laughter.
The ferry ride back across the lake to Bellagio was another matter altogether. A torrential summer storm swept down from the Italian Alps and drenched us before we even boarded the ferry. It continued to pound us all the way across the lake. When we got to the other side, we couldn’t dock because the water was so choppy. So we waited on the ferry, rocking wildly on the water while waiting for the storm to blow over. When it did, we marched back to our hotel, changed clothes and set out again.
So, there it is – an extremely memorable meal and the food was just one part of it. In the course of our five weeks in Italy we ate at some extraordinary places – al Moro in Rome, where I first tasted fried zucchini blossoms; Il Cibreo in Florence for a truly fine dining experience; Ristorante Santa Catarina at the hotel of the same name, which is the most romantic hotel I’ve ever seen; and Il Luogo Di Aimo E Nadia in Milano, one of the finest restaurants I’ve ever visited. But it was Al Veluu that provided the seminal experience, not just of this trip but of a lifetime.