The Bistro, 246 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. (213) 273-5633. Open for lunch Monday-Friday; for dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet Parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $50-$100.
The captain looked pained. He sighed. He gave the smudged glass a dirty look. He reached for it. He said, "I can't remember a night when so many things have gone wrong."
"If only he knew how wrong," said the Reluctant Gourmet, glancing at me in a significant fashion.
It had been one of those evenings that seem jinxed from the start. We had come in, looked at the table in front of the piano and asked for a quieter spot. It is not that pianist Joe Marino is not delightful; it is just that I'd rather be delighted from a distance. Alas, all those other tables were already spoken for. So we took our seats, placed our orders and sipped our wine while we waited.
And waited. And waited. We amused ourselves by looking around the beautiful mirrored room and guessing what was changed during the recent renovation. The restaurant looks much the same, but it is brighter, like a painting that has just been restored by removing layers of old varnish. The most obvious difference, other than the advent of live piano music, is that the old blackboard menus have been renovated right out of the room. But a closer look reveals that the mirrors are no longer frosted, flowers abound, and everything has been made so much lighter that the room simply shimmers.
An hour and 10 minutes later some of the glow was gone. We had depleted the carrots, celery, olives and radishes on the table and eaten our way through two baskets of cheese bread. We had debated whether the elderly man entertaining the young blonde at the next table was her father. By the time it became clear that he was not, my companion was starving. "What," he demanded of the captain, "has happened to our food?"
"We have to grind the hamburger meat sir," the captain replied, gently kidding a committed carnivore who had been unable to resist the lure of a $17 hamburger.
"For a salad?" said the RG.
The captain looked horrified. "Do you mean to say," he asked, "that you haven't gotten your first courses?" We shook our heads and he fled into the kitchen.
Suddenly things speeded up into a sort of fast-forward parody. Plates came flying out of the kitchen. Less than a minute later the RG had a salad sitting in front of him. "It's a wonderful salad," I said, savoring the perfect balance of the dressing. The RG frowned. "It's a good salad," he admitted, "but why did the waiter have to tell me that the food was so late because they have a new pantry person who makes salads very slowly?"
"Because," I replied, tasting my own cold eggplant terrine, a simple but pleasant dish in a fresh tomato sauce, "most people would probably believe him."
The RG shook his head while I tasted my guests' dishes: nicely grilled peppers, beautifully arranged on the plate, and a lovely spinach, bacon and goat-cheese salad. These had been on the table less than 5 minutes before the main courses arrived, and I watched in dismay as my half-eaten eggplant was borne away.
"It's just one of those nights," I said to the RG. He looked cross. I told him about a recurring dream I have, left over from my days as a waitress. It is a very busy night and I have too many tables. One of them is filled with people who keep calling out, "Miss, Oh Miss" as I hurry past. "I'll be right there," I keep saying reassuringly, but somehow I never make it. Night after night I wake up with the sinking feeling that the table is still sitting there, still angry, still unfed.
This story left the RG unmoved. He ate his hefty hamburger (good meat, no bun), and devoured the French fries which came cozily snuggled into a napkin. He watched me eat my halibut (a respectable, but unexciting piece of fish), taste the baby salmon (equally unexciting) and nibble around the edges of a plate of rather pasty pasta topped with chicken in cilantro sauce. (The new menu has added some modern dishes to the staid continental favorites of the past. This dish would have worked better had the pasta been less cooked, the cilantro just a bit more forceful.) He noted with some asperity that our wine had never arrived. "They are clearly having a bad night," I said. The RG gave me a knowing look. "You're being very tolerant," he said. "It must be because you are remembering the last meal we had here. The service was perfect and you fell in love with the place."