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Christopher came out of the kitchen frequently to chat with us. Why not? He didn't have anyone else to cook for. That scene repeated itself a couple of weeks later when I returned with Bob, Laurie and Chip. Bob has a phobia about eating in an empty dining room — "It's a bad omen," he insists. But he grudgingly agreed to stay and eat anyway.
That happened to be the week when the hotel stopped serving lunch. "It was a business thing," said the woman at the front desk, who was also one of the bartenders and, I was told later, one of the hotel's owners. (There's a Petticoat Junction element to this hotel that's kind of endearing.)
We received individual salads that night. The house salad's artful arrangement of greens was as pretty as a picture but not nearly as tasty as it looked. My Caesar might have been a success had it been tossed. Instead, a spoonful of dressing lay hidden in the center of a pile of romaine.
Bob waxed eloquent about Christopher's chicken Marsala — the moistness of the bird, the nutty sweetness of the wine reduction, the plumpness of the mushrooms. He called it the best version of this dish he'd ever eaten, even better than a dinner in Rome. I didn't taste whatever Bob ate in Italy, but the Marsala at La Scala was indeed something special. My own meal was less thrilling: a bowl of house-made gnocchi, bobbing in a shiny balsamic reduction. The sauce overwhelmed the dumplings so much that, at first, I thought I'd been served the wrong dish.
Laurie had her heart set on the steak with the gorgonzola cream sauce but was mistakenly given a lobster-stuffed hunk of beef on a swirl of risotto — excellent, creamy risotto — and drenched in a paint-thick lobster cream sauce. Christopher's menu describes Chip's meal, pesce negre e piccata (misspelled picatta on the menu) as blackened tilapia, but it was simply pan-seared and draped over a mound of penne and corn-tomato relish.
There were four featured desserts on the menu, including tiramisu, but Christopher insisted that we sample his latest invention, a warm fruit compote — pineapple, grapes and cherries — topped with crushed biscotti crumbs. Very rustic but no la dolce vita.
And then there was brunch. Christopher is justifiably proud of his dejeuner menu: seven French-inspired omelets; eggs Benedict, Sardou, Oscar and Christophe; five crêpes (including the hard-to-find Suzette, made with Grand Marnier, fresh orange and buttery caramel); and "handcrafted" beignets.
The folly of this ambitious brunch might work well in a more cosmopolitan setting, but the Clarion Plaza Hotel, I'm sorry to say, is not it. My friend Franklin and I walked into a dark, empty dining room at 12:45 p.m. and turned to leave when, suddenly, we heard the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen. I peeked in, and there was Christopher, mixing up beignet dough. He seemed shocked to see customers but demanded that we stay.
We settled into a banquette and sipped coffee while a reveille of clanging pots and pans regaled us from the kitchen. "What is he doing in there?" Franklin asked.
He was making our eggs Benedict, as it turned out, which were perfectly acceptable with a gorgeous, lemony hollandaise sauce. Later Christopher returned with a plate of sugar-dusted beignets.
"He's a trouper," Franklin whispered. "If it had been me, I would have told us the dining room was closed and called it a day."
But Christopher takes his role — and his restaurant — seriously, even if no one else in the hotel or this neighborhood yet appreciates his passion and hard work. He deserves credit for caring so deeply about his food and his customers. The wheel of fortune is spinning for this unusual restaurant, so if you're going to eat at Bistro La Scala, go sooner rather than later. It needs a little fortune.