My first breath of fresh air in three days came in the solid form of deep wood paneling, gilt and Delft-blue tile, classic and antiquarian but not stuffy. Polished to gleaming, refined. Desperate for real food and just an inkling of culture during my trip to Las Vegas, I made my way through the through the choking haze of cigarette smoke, the flashing lights and jangling slot machines of the Strip this morning and arrived just before 10 a.m. at Thomas Keller's Bouchon in the Venetian.
After a weekend saddled with Vegas' garish ball and chain, I suddenly understood a little better why married people might have affairs.
I felt an air of the illicit as the maître-d' led me to my table. I whispered conspiratorially to him that I felt as if I'd returned to civilization after three days in a cultural desert. He grinned knowingly and pointed to my seat, nestled in a corner, and handed me the New York Times.
I should have been on the trade show floor already, but the fluorescent monotony had driven me to distraction. This would center me, I thought.
I settled in, unfolded my napkin into my lap, glanced at the menu but let my eyes wander. After all, part of the joy of eating alone is the opportunity for shameless voyeurism.
Books and newspapers are no match for the pull of other people's conversations, other people's meals. With no companion across the table, I just stare at the other patrons and their food. Lustily. A group of men seated at a round table in the corner of the restaurant had just had their food delivered when I was seated. I gazed longingly at a plate of artfully arranged French toast, topped with strawberries and a dusting of confectioner's sugar. One man had eaten the soft center out of his croissant, leaving behind a single layer of browned butter and dough, glazed with egg white, a crisp, airy shell I longed to snatch off his bone china saucer and devour myself. A server shook me from my reverie to ask what I wanted. The Breakfast Jardinière: two eggs, potatoes Lyonnais, sautéed spinach, tropical fruit salad, brioche toast, juice, coffee, a pastry.
Just-pressed coffee and the most beautiful pain au chocolat I've ever seen in my life arrived first, and my voyeurism suddenly became exhibitionism. I tore my first bite off the croissant, sending a shower of flaky crust onto the white tablecloth and all over my lap. Everything around me vanished, and I was back at the café on a narrow, winding Montmartre sidewalk where I found myself on my first morning in Paris. With the same sense of foreign delight and almost guilty pleasure to be enjoying something so simple, so perfect. I sat back, letting the flavor linger in my mouth, and stirred cold cream into my coffee with a tiny silver spoon, mesmerized by the swirls of white mixing with the dark brew.
More food arrived. A shallow dish of golden-brown potatoes, seasoned and fried to glistening perfection with beautifully translucent onions, complemented the fresh-squeezed orange juice and banana slices sprinkled with toasted coconut. The spinach, dripping with olive oil and topped with cloves of garlic, took my plain scrambled eggs to another level entirely.
I closed my eyes and moaned — actually moaned — as I ate, trying to savor every nuance of flavor, stave off a return to the Strip as long as possible. I pity anyone who eats just to get her three squares a day. For me, truly amazing food offers a full-body pleasure better than any sex I've ever had. (Some might argue, possibly not incorrectly, that that's an issue best addressed from the other side. But I think I'd rather just eat.)
I ignored my newspaper altogether, glanced around occasionally to see if anyone was enjoying their meal as much as I was. They weren't. Others ate in silence, absorbing the requisite calories for a long day of drinking and gambling — maybe a show later on — while my food and I had a love affair. Sweet nothings from a welcome paramour after a weekend of lame pick-up lines from strangers in leisure suits. An old English couple at the table next to me watched, bemused. Everyone pities the girl eating alone, though truthfully there's no one I'd rather eat with than myself. We chatted intermittently. I politely asked about where they lived, about their trip. I tried not to rudely ignore their obvious efforts to help sad single girl feel less so, when all I wanted was to drown in my coffee; pile spinach on eggs on potatoes and revel in the melding of tastes; lick my index finger, press it to my plate and gather up every last flaky crumb of my croissant.
When they left, I enjoyed my last bites in lovelorn solitude. I handed over my credit card without looking at the bill; I knew the meal had been expensive, but worrying about the price would have cheapened the experience. Somehow.
I didn't eat the rest of the day; as I wrote this, my body begged for calories but not another meal, not like that. I want to remember it.