James dined regularly at Le Gourmet. It was not his favourite restaurant in London, not at all, nor did he expect to be surprised by Bruno’s plats du jour. He knew them all: Fried Fillets of Sole in Almond Butter every Tuesday for years, Osso Bucco on Wednesdays, Navarin of Lamb Thursdays, Bruno’s Bouillabaisse Fridays, et cetera, et cetera. Happenstance? Hardly. He dined there because of its convenience; his house was just a block away. Whatever about the food, the music was regrettable, wall-to-wall Piaf.
Maître d’ Bernard greeted him. “Your special table, Mr G.” Rarely was he addressed as he saw fit, James Livingstone Gall, for most a mouthful too far. “Mr G” was his moniker among restaurateurs, its snappy familiarity a token of distrust under the pretence of mutually beneficent exchange. Fact was they hated his guts.When it boiled down to it, he was a critic and the conventional assumption was that he had the power to destroy reputations as easily as he might gild the lily. They feared him and fawned. Butter was their stock-in-trade and Bernard spread it well.
James ordered the sole with a side dish of spinach and a bottle of Chenin Blanc from the Loire, serious and redolent of new mown hay. He had a keen nose. Lone dinners did that for a man. Solitariness he saw as a catalyst of understanding and assimilation in matters of the arts and music. Bernard was waspish as ever, breathing sweet poisons in his ear. He burnished James’ ego with gossip about rivals and their restaurants.
“You hear about Carlo?”
“His wife and the sous chef.” Bernard made a play with hands and fingers to demonstrate an adulterous act.
“Not at all surprising, Bernard. The lady merely makes up for lost time. Carlo’s been laying waste to waitresses for years.”
“But he’s a man!”
James swallowed more wine, suddenly recalling the childhood taste of his mother’s skin after an Atlantic swim. So, so cold. The memory made him tremble and he consciously pushed it away, scanning the room for interesting faces. As the night’s custom peaked, kitchen clatter and called orders mingled in a rising clamour. To James the noise from a well-run kitchen was not noise, it was music composed and orchestrated by the chef. At best it brought to mind Strauss, one of the younger’s frantic polkas.
Parties of businessmen shared lubricated opinions, couples sought hands across tables in flickering light. He was the only lone diner, drawing glances that showed interest and then slipped away. Like it or not his was a formidable presence, not your caricature, corpulent, sage-gone-to-seed food critic, not in any shape or form. He was, he would have us know, the handsome exception, his early middle-age in charge of itself; he had his hair and his height, six foot at a stretch; when he opened his mouth, heads turned; submitted to the surgery of his pen, they rolled.
A waiter went by carrying a tray of food aloft: oysters in the half shell, a bowl of soup and a still tumescent soufflé. His identification clock clicked on: oysters, the flat Galway Bay variety; soup, tang of
curry, coconut, coriander; the soufflé, ego food, puffed-up and erect
with goat’s cheese, egg, flour and butter. It paid to be right. He believed he had that quality, rare among men, of picking up the most ephemeral scents. It was essentially an animal phenomenon: bulls drawn aggressively to the inviting odours of cows; cats and dogs, however tamed, connecting to coded smells of genitalia in heat; a sexually-aroused human giving off smells of the sea not unlike that of crustaceans and fish. Ruminating as he drank, his eye was drawn to the couple just arrived at a table for two, Bernard seating them, male facing him.
“No!” The woman was emphatic. “You know I like my back to the kitchen.”
As they changed places she looked across the room, straight at James, lingered for a moment too long while an outstretched hand accepted the proffered menu. His look lingered too. Whatever he saw there focused him with an involuntary jolt. Ever on the qui vive, he sensed he was on to something. He looked up again and at that precise point she did also. Bernard reappeared with what he believed to be a flourish, blocking James’ view.
“Rognons sauté, sauce Madère,” the lady said. “And a glass of Malmsey on the side.”
“And after the kidneys, madame?”
“It’s not listed, but I’ll have osso bucco.”
Bernard stiffened, head inclined. “Apologies madame, osso bucco is Wednesday, may I suggest tonight’s—”
Bernard, contrite, turned his attention to her friend. “And Mon-sieur Felix?”
Her interjection brooked no indecision. “La même chose!”
Bernard scuttled to the kitchen, the lady’s certainty snapping at his heels.
Her companion, a man of James’ age, buttered a bread roll and sipped Madeira wine with sly, practised ease. James signalled for another Port. “Not ‘87. Is there a decent Cockburns in the house?” The quiver besieging his lower lip modified to an imperceptible tic under the influence of an imperious Cockburns ‘55.