It is my responsibility to pick the restaurant. And, while I am the "foodie" type, I am not the event-planning sort. I mean, I can set up a table for four in Manhattan without issue, but this assignment is different: we need a table for twelve for a brunch in Washington DC at a place that is within walking distance of the Newseum
. Oh, and we need this reservation during the White House Correspondents Dinner
, only the capitol's biggest party weekend.
After nearly an hour of fast dialing and mild pleading, I lock down a table at Jaleo
, a modern tapas place by DC's overly celebrated Jose Andres
. Jaleo is a fantasy camp for the eclectic - mis-matched chairs, sheets of cured glass tops over foosball tables, random collections of art on the walls.
But it is a tapas place, and I am always down for tapas. I am particularly fond of bacalao
, a Spanish/Portuguese cod fish hush puppy that I can say is like eating a cloud. So, I am excited for the fish balls and say as much to the client sitting across from me (a heavy-hitter on a global account that is seeded with healthy budgets in all economic climates).
"You have to try the fish balls," I say with enthusiasm.
"Fish balls," she asks.
I am not selling these well, but another client, who is of Spanish heritage, steps in deftly: "He means the bacalao," she says, pointing to the dish on the menu.
"Yes, the bacalao," I quickly chime. "Everyone must have them."
I am insisting on this, inserting this insistence in a weights and measures that is taking shape across the full table. All twelve of us must have the bacalao, because they are good. They have been good in every tapas place prior, and they will be good today. I insist with an authority that is genuine and tactile; it is an authority that has emerged early in the menu decision-making process; it is an authority that overcomes any semblance of trepidation among my guests, some of whom have only just met me; it is an authority that is based in a simple desire to please the tongues and the bellies of those around me.
And this authority is based on experiences from many Manhattan tapas establishments. However, this is not Manhattan and this is not a traditional tapas place but is instead a modern take on tapas, an interpretation of tapas, an abstraction that is to subvert my authority.
So, we order several dishes of bacalao. Enough for everyone. And so they arrive, shaped wrongly as triangles. The bacalao that I have known and that I have devoured are spherical, but I am flexible. Hey, this is a celebrated chef - certainly an authority in his own realm. Triangles can work.
And the triangles are pulled from their baskets and placed on the small dishes in front of us all, and I trade smiles with everyone, looking forward to the collective hum that the bacalao are certain to inspire.
But when the crisp exoskeletons of the triangles are torn open, the contents inside escape in a warm thin runny white fluid, like a watery New England clam chowder, like a helping of semen. And it runs over the fingers of our guests and rolls down their chins and dribbles awkwardly and without apologies out of its broken fried shell, a fish-flavored nasty surprise.
Not at all what I have known.
"This is not what I expected," I explain.
But I have committed the table to this delicacy, and I can only digest the cod-scented bile of it. And so the full baskets make their way down to my end of the table, as they are my call, and they cool in their assembly before me like triangular beacons settling in their grease and congealing in the fishy pus within them.
And the heavy-hitter client across from me has finished hers. I offer her another one, holding out a well-populated basket.
"I am not having another one of those liquid fish biscuits," she says, firmly and politely. She holds a grace that is admirable.
But I cannot let the "liquid fish biscuits" comment leave the ether.
"That needs to be a tee-shirt for a punk rock band," I say. "The Liquid Fish Biscuits. On tour now."
And we turn this over, let it settle over the table, and everyone crams in a laugh and it is better now than it was only a few minutes ago.