Sunday, January 11, 2009

My Two Dales

It had been a while since I’d gone out to eat in the City, and it felt like it.

Everything about our destination, Buddakan, was a bit mystifying. First of all, was this a nice restaurant, or a Las Vegas sex club? When we walked in we were greeted with loud music, paintings aglow with amorous shades of red, and a black-lit bar area crammed with boisterous twenty-somethings. My parents wondered if they were over the age limit.

The wait was too long, and, tired of standing, my mom sat down pretty defiantly on the narrow stairs, blocking the path of the twenty-somethings. Noticing the obstacle to his customers’ mating dances, a manager approached and ushered us past the bar scene and into a huge eating area.

Confusion persisted as Marcy and I schemed about how to hit our bull’s eye, former Top Chef contestant Dale. We’d read online that Dale worked the kitchen, and our mission for the night was to get him to autograph a Buddakan menu for us. Having bought Top Chef merchandise and arranged meetings with other Cheftestants in the past, we're definitely Top Chef groupies. By traveling over 300 miles from DC to meet Dale, we're also probably stalkers, but it's not like I want to get Padma's used napkin for my kitchen drawer or anything (I would frame it and put it up on my wall). Dale's got a mohawk, so we figured he’d be easy enough to spot, but the restaurant was the size of, well, a Las Vegas sex club. We realized he could be anywhere in this cavernous eatery.

Another confusing aspect to the evening was the Buddakan menu. Online, the prices seemed reasonable, but what I didn’t realize, as our waiter smugly pointed out, was that each item was amuse-bouche – just a few bites. He rattled off a dissertation on the proper ratio of cold appetizers; hot appetizers; noodle dishes; rice dishes; and beef, poultry, and vegetables. Eventually, he concluded that we would have to order about ten dishes. As I watched the color drain out of my parents’ faces, I realized that I had recommended that they take us to one of the most expensive restaurants in New York.

Hoping that the massacre of my dad’s wallet would at least finance an opportunity to brush up against Top Chef greatness, I asked the waiter if he could help us meet Dale. He looked at me as if I had just asked him to douse his grandmother with gas and light a match, then recovered and said he would check.

He returned a little later with our dishes. The food was very tasty, although I was looking for something a little farther off the eaten path. The only thing on the menu that made me curious was the ginger glazed veal cheeks with pickled apple salad. Everyone at the table rolled their eyes when I suggested ordering cheeks, suggesting that it was an overly eccentric choice, but I just took that as extra incentive to order them; I could enjoy the cow dimples all to myself. Because everyone had gone on record as anti-cheek, I carelessly positioned the bowl in close proximity to my dad – who ended up eating about three quarters of it. Even Marcy tried some and smiled, adding fuel to the debate over whether I’m turning her into a carnivore, or she’s turning me into a vegetarian. I do have to admit that I enjoyed the bed of apple salad almost as much as the cheeks.

Other highlights were the tuna tartare spring rolls and steamed sea bass rolls. The sea bass came in a sizzling scallion oil, which I liked so much that when I got back home I unsuccessfully tried to recreate it. Buddakan’s version was a little more tart than mine, so I added in some ginger, which drowned out the sesame oil. A work in progress.

Our waiter never got back to us about Dale, so we didn’t get our menus autographed. He just handed us the bill, and I resolved to buy my parents really nice birthday presents to make amends. To add insult to injury, after we left Buddakan we realized that we were thinking of the wrong Dale. Buddakan’s Dale is actually the diminutive, acerbic Indonesian Dale from season five, not the mohwaked, self-proclaimed “sleazy” Dale from season four. Back home, I fruitlessly scanned my memory for any recollection of seeing a sneering Asian guy in a double-breasted jacket. Next time, we’re storming the kitchen with our pens drawn.

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