Dear readers, I have come to a startling realization on the subject of my monthly expenditures. Money spent on food/booze/the buying of company is DIRECTLY proportional to the relative level of over-age pouting.
This is disturbing in part because it is a dreary day, and copy chief, office manager, photo coordinator, copy editor, and production coordinator are all taking the day off. Meaning I am an island. I have been insanely productive as a result, but I think that's at least in part due to the hope that staying busy will raise my body temperature against the current 47-degree air-conditioning they're pumping through the vents. The phones have been in and out all day, so the loud screech that results when the system goes down skitters through the silence and forces my heart to jump into my eardrums. To boot, there seems to be a vast maudlin iPod conspiracy designed to put only the angst anthems at the front of the shuffle line.
HOWEVER. An appointment this afternoon, while not hotly anticipated, will still get me out of here at a pleasantly early hour. And the iPod is currently whistling "I wanna turn it around for you," so things are looking up. If I can motor through a story about jerk seasoning and bang out a house plan, we can put this day firmly in the plus category.
Today's lunch was uninspiring (leftovers), but earlier this week I gave myself a truly luscious treat. One which AmEx will shortly inform me was not even a little bit within my means. But again there was the antsy whine and a renewed interest in the barter system (think dog-for-sandwich would work?) that gets my bank account into trouble.
My lunch partner wishes to remain anonymous—mysterious!—so I will not reveal his/her identity. For the purposes of this post, and because we all know my conversational experiences with boys have in the past few years consisted mostly of "how's your wife doing" or arched, possibly tipsy diatribes about politics—attractive!—aforementioned incognito luncher will be referred to as Mrs. X.
With the hushed giggles of two people who are embarking on an adventure they can neither defend nor afford, we headed to Chez FonFon, Frank Stitt's Frenchy venture. According to absolutely unreliable Interweb sources, this "fonfon" business loosely translates to something like, "sure, sure!" That sort of sardonic attitude endears me to the place instantly. As does the decor, which has a perfect bistro quality. The bar is prominent and mirrored, and the lighting is high and flattering. A lady in heels will have to traverse a treacherously slippery floor, but in this case the effort paid off with a comfortable leather banquette in the corner. If you could only cross your legs beneath the just-too-short tables, you probably would be inclined to spend an entire afternoon.
As with every great dining experience, the little things always thrill. Around us, people who seemed without reason to not have jobs sipped red wine from short-stem glasses. Everyone's conversation seemed hushed and conspiratorial, and the restaurant is small enough to make accidental eye contact feel like furtive glances. I was so busy sizing up the room that I was slow to notice a hand in my lap, which was the waiter sliding a black napkin into my hands (the black dress I had on was a lint magnet, so he instantly noticed that the white option would not do).
Our server was heavy-lidded and suitably snooty, with just the right hint of boredom. As Mrs. X and I scanned the menu, he ran through the specials like an auctioneer. That became the ideal setup for me to miss the soup of the day so that, when I asked about it later, he was able to somehow say "tomato" in a way that conveyed both wonder and pity. I loved him.
Our drinks arrived, followed by the bread.
Beautiful. No crumb-catching napkin, no deep basket requiring spelunking for greasy corn muffins. Just artisan bread, locally made and baked that morning, with a dense middle and dirtily chewy crust. Plus butter that is somehow exactly the right softness, presented without fanfare (TAKE NOTES, people. You know who you are).
Mrs. X then had this exchange with the waiter.
Mrs. X: Is the chicken salad really mayonnaisey?
Waiter, gently chastising: It's a sandwich.
MX, confused: Yes, I know ... but ... is it mayonnaisey?
W, so over it: No.
She ordered it. I don't think she thought she had a choice. I ordered the "tomato, stupid" soup, which came swollen with cream and topped with chives and a drizzle of olive oil.
You think you've had tomato soup, but you have no idea. Mrs. X wanted to pour it on pasta, but I proprietarily snatched it back. This was meant to be eaten just as it is served—with a wide spoon, so you taste the oniony chives, the fresh tomatoes, the sweet cream, and most importantly the red pepper that gives the already comforting soup extra warmth. It's difficult to describe the marriage between the pureed tomatoes and the cream. The richness gives the fruit a confidence it didn't have before. It's like pumping air into a tire; everything gets round and puffed-up and proud.
Alongside I had the ratatouille tartine: toasted bread topped with herbed farmer's cheese, a mixture of citrusy roasted eggplant, zucchini, red peppers, and onions, crowned with spicy arugula.
This was lunch's only misstep. Either someone was asleep in the back or the fire was just up too high, but the edges of my tartine and Mrs. X's sandwich were BLACKENED. It wasn't so hard to cut away the burned bits, but the smell of char overtook the more-delicate aromas, making the whole dish somewhat less appetizing. I think there was goodness to be had here, it was only slightly hampered by the carcinogens.
There was a 30-minute debate on the merits of pommes frites for dessert, but ultimately we both chickened out and less-than-satisfied ourselves with gazing at them longingly as they went by on other people's plates.
Sated and lovingly berated, we asked for our checks.
They came in gold-embossed red leather folders that should have been stamped with "Budget Blown." But the food was delicious, the atmosphere was funny and warm, and we were undercover. It was bad for my wallet, but so good for my psyche.
2007 11th Avenue South
Birmingham, AL 35205