Friday, July 25, 2014
A Rare Reunion Over Dinner At Tomas Bistro.
Chris Christopher was the last of my school chums to have a strong effect on my life’s direction. By chance, he and I sat in adjacent desks for what was the first college class for each of us. We were strangers to one another. And the professor was a little strange, too. Dr. Harlan Shaw was an old guy wearing a beard, a turtleneck sweater, and a peace medallion. It was fall 1968, and the man fit the stereotype of a college professor perfectly.
And then, with my usual clumsiness, I knocked over a cup of Dr Pepper. It fell into Chris’s lap. If I had been him, I would have stayed as far away from me as I could for the duration of that course. But instead we wound up close friends, enough so that a year later we co-founded a new chapter of a national fraternity, Phi Kappa Sigma. Three years after that, I was the best man at his wedding.
In the summer of 1970, Chris and I were walking across the campus of LSUNO (as UNO was called then) on our way to have lunch at Burger King. Chris was highly amused by a book just published by his former history professor, Dr. Richard Collin. “The New Orleans Underground Gourmet,” was the first critical guide to the restaurants of New Orleans ever published. It had just come out, and should shortly turn the world of dining in New Orleans upside down.
I found Collin’s book fascinating. I was still working at the Time Saver and had enough money that almost all my meals were in restaurants. But I didn’t really have a clue as to what dining in New Orleans was all about. This book opened up that world for me. Two years later, still in Collin’s thrall, I began publishing my own restaurant reviews, in a column I still write every week.
That same spring, Chris lived in the dorm at UNO. He decided it was time to rent a house. It sounded good to me, too. The two of us and three other guys–all fraternity brothers–took over a big house near the campus and moved away from home. I was nineteen, and from that moment on I was independent of my parents.
I faced a big change that summer. After two years, I was at the end of the road as a math major. I didn’t have the gift. Chris was quicker to change majors, from history to drama. He learned that LSUNO was about to launch a new radio station, and they were looking for people to be part of a new communications degree. Radio had been a mania of mine since I was about ten, and this possibility thrilled me. I changed my major to the new communications department, then got myself hired onto the original staff of what would become WWNO-FM.
Doing radio and writing about food became the two strongest pillars of my professional life, as they still are. If I hadn’t soaked Chris with a Dr Pepper, who knows what I would be now?
I hadn’t seen Chris since right after Katrina. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area, after a career in the Navy, then another one doing the same things for the Navy but as a civilian. Divorced, two grown-up daughters, remarried during the past year to a Chinese mathematician named Yuan. We exchange e-mails about things like that and jokes.
He is in town now to celebrate his mother’s ninetieth birthday. “Care to bend an elbow?” he asked. How about dinner with the wives, I said, using the little bit of Russian I remember from the two years of courses in that language we both took.)
Tomas Bistro is on my mind. I was there a couple of weeks ago, and found the new chef and his new menu excellent. Chris brings not only his charming bride, but also his beautiful twenty-eight-year-old single daughter. If only Jude had met her two years ago or so!, I could almost hear Mary Ann, ever the arranger, thinking.
Chef Jonah Nissenbaum was champing at the bit to send us a chef’s tasting dinner, even if he had to make special versions for Chris (who still doesn’t eat seafood after all these years). Tommy Andrade, the owner, was also hip to this idea, and had the first bottle of wine open. Well, it’s Chris’s mom’s ninetieth.
We started with two salads: one a little amuse-bouche of crisp crescents of variously-colored vegetables, the other a panzanella salad with the elements of a Caprese but the chunks of bread in between. It was surrounded but stripes and dots of dressing that must have taken longer to lay down than the salad itself.
The pattern was now set: familiar ideas would be presented in original ways and in appetizer portions. Oysters wrapped with thin potato slices and fried. A popover filled with crawfish. What could only be called blackened pork belly. Bouillabaisse with only one piece each of the seafoods and a half-cup of broth. Grilled fish with a little salad and a ring of sauces that looked like confetti.
All great eating, and we are all groaning with fullness. Just one more thing, says the chef. Ah, dessert! No! Steak and frites! Where would we put it? We find a place. We all think the fries are too salty, and then agree that it isn’t the only dish with that problem tonight. But that was the only complaint voiced.
The dessert is ingenious: cannolli shells filled not with cold, sweetened ricotta, but creme brulee, baked per order. I wonder how they kept the custard inside the tube.
The conversation wanders all over the place, from reminiscences to loose strings. Mary Ann, who agreed to join me for balance at the table, has a delightful evening. Italy is a big topic; Chris spent a lot of time there in the Navy, and Mary Ann never gets tired of the country.
And Tommy Andrade looks on, happy with the nearly-full dining room at Tomas Bistro, which is really going places lately.