But sometimes life takes a funny turn and becomes more like a reality TV show than actual reality. Take, for example, my second dinner at the cozy little bistro called SORedux. I was dining with my friends Bob and Lou Jane, waiting for the fourth course of our eight-course prix fixe dinner to arrive, when we all happened to look out the window at the same time. Our jaws dropped in unison. "Am I really seeing what I think I'm seeing?" asked Lou Jane.
Right there outside the restaurant, chef and co-owner Ray "Pete" Peterman stood in front of an occupied van, demanding that the driver stop. Flailing his arms behind Pete was, I think, the dishwasher. Suddenly Peterman's wife, Heather, ran out the front door of the restaurant, and there was a brief flurry of yelling before the van drove off mercifully, not with Peterman under its wheels.
A few minutes later, the incredibly tall co-owner of the restaurant, former pro basketball player Todd Jadlow, sheepishly stooped over our table and whispered, "Sorry about that. We had a table walk out on a $900 bill." Gulp! Bob, Lou Jane and I all worked in restaurants in our past lives, where each of us experienced at least one horrible dine-and-dash. I suffered several, and they were particularly brutal because the restaurants demanded that I cover the unpaid check out of my own pocket. Years later, I'm still fuming about the injustice of it.
"What should I do?" asked Jadlow.
Call the fucking police, I insisted. And he did, because at some point between the salad course and the cheese plate, two broad-shouldered Kansas City Police Department officers walked in. If only there had been a camera crew following them, taping the incident for a segment of the trashy Fox series Cops. But I'm getting ahead of my story, and the beginning was almost as colorful as the climax.
Let's rewind the imaginary videotape back to 7:08 p.m. on a Saturday. Bob, Lou Jane and I arrived a few minutes late for our 7 p.m. reservation reservations are mandatory here, by the way. We were seated fortuitously next to one of the big picture windows in this storefront building. The building that now houses SORedux was, for decades, a neighborhood pharmacy; in more recent years, it was a sort of catch-all shop that sold, according to former Columbus Park resident Lou Jane, "booze, cigarettes and sundries." This yet ungentrified corner of the historic "North End" seems poised for a renaissance. But will SORedux lead the way?
Bob and I had eaten at SORedux when it first opened last October, back when Peterman was ambitiously and perhaps foolishly attempting to offer four different prix fixe menus. "I used to offer a three-course, a five-course, a seven and a 10," Peterman told me later. "Talk about a nightmare in the kitchen."
What I remember about that autumn dinner was that the food was creative and delicious but the kitchen's pacing was glacially slow. I think I nearly fell asleep before the dessert course. But Peterman recently streamlined his prix fixe to an eight-course affair that's priced quite reasonably at $38. The menu changes every day, but typically there are a couple of "supplemental" courses that bump up the price and the dining experience.
"I don't remember the dining room being so noisy," Bob said, unfurling his napkin. Well, there are many hard surfaces in the narrow, 45-seat room. But this particular evening's acoustic level was intensified by the ear-piercing screech of a beautiful, expensively dressed blonde at an adjoining table. She was having a wonderful time with her entourage and expressed her glee in much the same manner that a black-capped chickadee sends out a mating call. By the time I finished my first course, a delicate portion of pan-roasted veal sweetbreads with yams, I didn't know whether to scold her or call the Audubon Society.
Sweetbreads are an eccentric delicacy, in this case the thymus glands of baby calves. I would never have actually ordered the dish not for any politically correct reason but because the only sweet breads I really crave are made with dough, yeast and sugar. Still, ordering isn't an option here, and I didn't want to insult the chef, so I reluctantly nibbled at the smooth-textured meat, which Peterman roasts with shallots and wine. It was actually better than I expected.
My appetite perked up for the second course, a tiny portion of Holland sole in an amber-colored "vanilla-tainted winter tomato butter." I told Lou Jane that tainted isn't a word that one sees on a menu very often, given its sort of unsavory connotation. I thought of other possibilities. Infused? Dappled? Perfumed? Despite the odd description, it was a wonderfully flaky, delicately vanilla-scented piece of fish ... and it was gone in two bites.
We decided to share the two supplemental dishes offered that night. Both were sensational and well worth the extra dough. A 3-ounce "pee wee" Maine lobster tail was described as "double fat basted" (in bacon fat and butter, I learned later), which was why the portion slightly smaller than a business card tasted so fantastic. And for 10 bucks, the succulent little slab of roasted foie gras, its exterior just slightly caramelized and perched on a bed of sweet red cabbage and raisins, was an extraordinary deal. We practically arm-wrestled for the last bite.
It was during the next course officially the third that I realized we had been eating, modestly and elegantly, for two hours. And there were five more courses still to come! The epiphany that this would probably be a four-hour dinner had me squirming in my seat before the duck course, which was a tender burgundy sliver of Moulard Magret with a dollop of lentils and rutabagas.
Suddenly Lou Jane tapped my hand. I turned my head and watched a lithe, tan little chicklet in a tight white halter top (which barely contained her mammoth mammaries) get up from her seat, walk over to where her date was sitting and climb into his lap.
"She's giving him a lap dance," whispered Bob. I noticed that every other patron in the dining room had also turned to look at the performance. The clean-cut quartet of suburbanites at the next table giggled with embarrassment. The groping twosome were so hot for each other that they didn't seem to mind.
Later, looking back on their demonstration, I found it hard to accurately remember which course I was eating when the floor show started. Was it before or after the five-top split without paying the tab? And had the group with the 8 p.m. reservation already stomped off angrily because the table with the screeching blonde was lingering too long? So many details, so many courses.
It was definitely before the cops arrived, because I had already polished off the fourth course, a New Zealand lamb rib served with a spoonful of olive-studded polenta. In fact, I was halfway through the next dish, a dainty little salad of bitter greens splashed with fresh orange juice, before the squad car pulled up.
The sixth course was all fromage: a china plate with slivers of brie, goat cheese and Jarlsberg accompanied by a glass bowl containing pencil-thin slices of bread. Each serving on this menu is a miniature version of a traditional full-sized portion, but by this point, I was getting full. I took one bite of cheese and pushed the plate away. Bob and Lou Jane ate every morsel.
It was 10:30 p.m. when the first dessert course seven was served. Bob griped that he was missing a favorite TV show, but Lou Jane had settled in for the long run and ordered another glass of wine. I greedily wolfed down a sweet spoonful of an apple tatin, the traditional French upside-down tart, which Peterman had baked in a cornmeal crust and sided with thyme-and-vanilla ice cream. It wasn't just wonderful; it gave me a second wind.
By this point, Ms. Halter Top and her companion had left after eating only the first three of their eight courses. "They had to go home and, uh, pay the baby-sitter," our server informed us. Bob and Lou Jane burst into hysterical laughter. "I'm serious," insisted the waiter.
Then a relieved-looking Todd Jadlow came over and said, sotto voce, that the host of the runaway table had apparently realized the error of his ways (it was a felony, after all) and had returned to pay the bill.
Shortly before 11 p.m., the finale was brought to the table: a 2-inch rectangle of baked chocolate mousse that was the consistency of the most luscious fudge, accompanied by slivers of banana and splashed with a cocoa-bean-Merlot syrup spiked with star anise. By the time I paid the bill, we had been sitting at the table for exactly four hours. That's one hour and 15 minutes longer than The Lion King, and without an intermission.
Still, this evening had all the elements of fabulous theater: drama! sex! costumes! And the food was scene-stealing, too. "It was one of the worst nights of my life," Peterman told me a few days later.
Too bad, because it was one the best of mine.