Feb. 13, 2010
I must confess that, as I prevailed in my reading of The New Yorker compendium edited by David Remnick, I was struck by not much and left about as cold as a vichysoise by the writing. Steve Martin drawing up a couple of imaginary menus -- one from an organic eatery, the other from someplace in Kansas where fat is akin to gold -- What is there to say about that? Or Woody Allen's brief spewing on the subject of fat? Sometimes TNY indulges, and these were indulgent little pieces published for the sake of a name.
But let me tell you what did impress me recently, even more than my reading. Friday night, I cashed in my paycheck and decided to take a friend out for some Japanese fare at a local eatery. We live near the Big Apple and boast some pretty fine restaurants here, despite the fact that we are actually separated from the culinary brain of the world by a bridge -- the GWB -- and a vast expanse of fetid water -- the Hudson River.
Into this notable little restaurant we stepped at about 9 p.m. It was cold inside, and we appeared to be the only non-Asians, so we made ourselves comfortable at a table, and were presented with an assortment of three menus each -- one with photos, for idiots (like us) who can't read Japanese; the other, a sushi menu; the last, containing a standard listing of appetizers, entrees and desserts, such as one finds at any establishment. We have eaten here before on less crowded nights during the week when only one or two other tables were filled. This night, only one or two tables were empty.
The place isn't really big. You know the sort it is -- a handful of rectangular tables under bright lights separated by a row of plants, with a sushi bar set in the corner.
Along came Madam, clunking in her small, strapped black shoes; black tights, black dress, black bun -- taut and hard. Her eyes perpetually squinched and her eyebrows arched and her lips perennially pursed, as if in an inverse question: "Oh? What is this? Who am I? Why do you want to know?"
She approached, and I asked, "Can you please tell me what this vegetable dish is?" The word "vegetable" was written before another indecipherable word, and I was curious, being a vegetarian, whether I might in fact be able to enjoy something here besides the Miso soup and Fried Tempura that I'd ordered on a previous occasion. Madam pursed her lips further, arched backwards and said, "Not for you. Only Japanese eat," and walked away.
It was a curious way to take an order, so we waited some more, and watched as she cleared and cleaned a couple of tables behind us. After she'd wiped them clean of varnish, she passed by again, and my partner said very nicely, "We're ready to order." She pretended not to hear and clunked away to the back of the restaurant, and that was that. We sat for another five minutes in a state of mild stupification, then my friend stepped to the back of the restaurant and broched the subject with the manager, who ignored her as well.
It was a conspiracy of ignoring, and it did not taste good. We stepped out feeling we'd trespassed into an establishment in front of which had been posted a sign we'd failed to notice that read, "You Are Not Allowed."
Was it something cultural we missed? we asked ourselves. Outside the restaurant, my extroverted friend parlayed about the incident with two English-speaking Asian females who had just dined where we were. "Was it some kind of cultural misunderstanding?" we asked again. Did I humiliate the waitress by asking her a question in English that she couldn't understand?
"No, she's just tired. She's probably really tired. She's the only waitress," said the woman, who answered.
In the car, on our way to Roberto's, where we enjoyed a very satisfying meal of stuffed mushrooms, Arugula salad with blood oranges, broccoli rabe and chocolate cake and espresso, I pondered the matter further.
Briefly, I imagined an Asian conspiracy in this city, where approximately half the inhabitants are Korean, and half their establishments bear signs that are unreadable. Often, it's hard to distinguish friendliness on a stiff expression, and fear and not knowing a language often make people seem stiff and removed. But it was not this, I know better. We know many nice, friendly Asian people. Our Korean Bikram teachers; the owner of another restaurant we frequent; a Japanese businessman who started a very worthwhile foundation in honor of his son; many of the members of our rotary. This wasn't about race so much. But what about gender?
What is a woman close to age 70 who speaks virtually no English doing, waiting on so many tables all by herself n an American locale? -- Perhaps she just helps her husband who runs the business, and perhaps she gets no pay. Maybe we just walked in too late.
"Too many tables. Too many orders, even if from my people. These new customers are just women. And my shoes are too tight."