Monday, December 21, 2009

Alex Witchel's New York Times piece about the closing of Café des Artistes is a tour de force of gorgeous writing, but occasionally a trifle confusing. Lest the casual reader abandon the piece prematurely, let me expound on what I believe this brilliant prose is trying to say.

IT'S been a sad year for restaurant lovers in New York. All those birthdays, anniversaries and promotions commemorated at the now-shuttered Chanterelle, Fiamma, Lever House and La Goulue, to name only a few, consigned to bittersweet memory.

The bithdays, anniversaries and promotions commemorated at other restaurants? They made it into either semi-sweet or milk memory.

The restaurant I will miss most is Café des Artistes, the Old World grande dame that was a stone's throw from Lincoln Center until it closed in August.

And then suddenly it was thirteen miles away!

What intoxicated me there was the air of nostalgia among its older customers, the post World War II immigrants, who like the restaurant's fabled Hungarian owner, George Lang, came to New York to begin again.

Poor old people stink of desperation, but rich old people float on a heady air of nostalgia. It's either the Oil of Olay or fur.

If I had more space, I'd share a few of the fables with you. In one, George argued with a fox about grapes.

In the late 1980s I met a blind date there for a drink before the ballet. We sat at the bar and after some perfunctory conversation, he sniffed in my general direction before proclaiming, "I'm allergic to perfume." I was more amused than offended because my perfume was the least significant fragrance in the place.

So I laughed in his face and said, "Hey, buddy, this place smells stronger than I do, so you need to keep your fat yap shut."

Before us were the flutes of Champagne he had ordered, their fizzy scent of celebration insistent in the face of our mutual disappointment.

Complain as I might, the bubbly beverage absolutely refused to desist.

And that was nothing compared to the heady aromas in the main room of the restaurant, whose centerpiece was a long table jammed with desserts -- tortes, strudels, cakes, crystal bowls heaped with whipped cream, strawberries fat as toddlers' fists.

From the blog of LN Kitchen: "[S]trawberries should not be the size of a child's fist, unless you hate the flavor of strawberries."

My hapless date might just as well have confessed, "I'm allergic to pleasure."

Oddly, I've dated men who were allergic to pleasure, and for some reason they didn't even sneeze around me. This dude later said he was also allergic to peanuts, but I just laughed and rubbed a Snickerdoodle into his skin.

I once watched a young man bark orders to a manager about when a certain course should be served, the one that would accompany [a marriage proposal]. The manager nodded silently, placidly, at this amateur show of nerves, as if burping a baby.

And, so typical of the aristocracy, he remained silent even after the young man spit up all over his coat.

That was the pleasure that kept Café des Artistes alive so happily for so long. It was a meeting place for occasion, brimming with the echoes of doting mothers and dashing fathers, side by side with the customers' young best selves -- the ones whose dearest dreams, whether formed in the Old World or the New, were gilded by the wonders of snowflakes and ballerinas and schlag.

My dreams are actually haunted by powerful, gilding ballerinas, who really would make great villains in a James Bond film. Because in small doses they're magical, but stick them in the bar of a classy restaurant and now you've got split-legged jetées kicking insistent champagne onto your halter top.

Such precious elements, each so powerful in the instant, that fade so quickly.

Disappearing, vaporizing, leaving behind barely a trace of what was.

And that, I should have told Mr. Pansy-Nosed Asshole, is why I douse myself in so much fuckin' perfume.

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