Before I begin this story, I should let you know that it doesn’t contain any references to sous vide or molecular gastronomy or any other geeky cooking technique. It is simply a story about a great meal that I will never forget.
Rachel and I just returned from a week in New Orleans. In my humble opinion, New Orleans has the best regional cuisine of any city in America – the heavily French- and African-influenced flavors of Creole food are simply unmatched by any other American ethnic cooking style. So, needless to say, I was quite pleased to eat my way through the city. We made sure to hit most of the predictably great spots – Galatoires, Brennan’s, Felix’s Oyster Bar – but it was our meal at Irene’s, a quaint Italian restaurant off the beaten path, that we will remember most fondly.
It was our last night in town and Rachel had chosen Irene’s based on the suggestion of a local couple we had met (and with whom we subsequently shared take-out gumbo on the roof of their 1790’s apartment building). After the long walk from our hotel to the restaurant, we were greeted with the same hospitality shown to us by every place we had eaten, and to which we were becoming pleasantly accustomed. We were seated in the corner of one of three intimate dining rooms, surrounded by wall-mounted photos of past patrons, who we assumed were of some significance. Rachel and I ordered Gin Mojitos and split a crabmeat gratin appetizer, which, as with much of the cuisine in New Orleans, was an unabashedly indulgent combination of seafood and dairy.
We continued on with a steak and a Pompano Meunière Amandine, the latter of which is a local classic: a pompano fillet broiled and topped with browned butter, crabmeat and toasted slivered almonds. The food was all excellent, and armed with the knowledge of our immanent return to Seattle and the requisite post-vacation diet that would follow, we savored every bite until our clothes no longer fit correctly.
And it was right then, at the end of the meal, that our dinner really became spectacular. During the step of the waiter-patron protocol at which your server normally delivers the check to the table, our waiter instead informed us that our meal would be free. We were puzzled. He explained that another couple had been in the restaurant just slightly earlier that evening to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Apparently, this couple had adopted the custom of anonymously paying for the dinner a random pair of diners who appeared to be out of town. As luck would have it, we ended up being that pair for the evening. I asked if we could meet our benefactors or at least send them a bottle of champagne in return, but alas, it was against the rules of their charity.
Rachel and I were stunned by their generosity and we were at once giddy and deeply touched. Unable to identify and thank the couple personally, we decided that the best thing we could do is to pay forward this incredible gesture. It is an all-to-rare occurrence these days to witness a truly altruistic act, particularly one as substantial as buying an upscale dinner for strangers. However, I knew that the only thing that matched our joy was the contentment of the generous couple who had made our night so special. Personally, I look forward to being on the other end of the transaction now and then. If we can provide to another couple the happiness and lasting memory of a meal paid for by anonymous strangers, it will be well worth the cost of dinner.
And for that reason, I probably shouldn’t tell you where we’re planning to eat on our anniversary