Altogether, then, a flawed but intriguingly different and readable first outing.
It is the eve of City Tastes, Washington, D.C.'s gourmet gala featuring the delectable handiwork of the city's culinary stars. Renowned restaurant reviewer Chas Wheatley expects to fill her biting Washington Examiner column with reports of a sassy soupe en chamise or a poor palourde en beignets. But when chef Lawrence Levain's heart/b>/b>/b>
It is the eve of City Tastes, Washington, D.C.'s gourmet gala featuring the delectable handiwork of the city's culinary stars. Renowned restaurant reviewer Chas Wheatley expects to fill her biting Washington Examiner column with reports of a sassy soupe en chamise or a poor palourde en beignets. But when chef Lawrence Levain's heart suddenly stops the night before the event, everyone is quick to name his soaring cholesterol as the culprit. Except Chas, whose discriminating senses smell murder.
Armed with her saber-sharp pen and critic's eye for things amiss, Chas circuits the restaurant scene, doling out biting reviews and delicious recipes, while probing into Lawrence's untimely demise. With a dollop of help from her loved ones at home and a soupcon of advice form a secret admirer at work, Chas's tastebuds lead her down a dangerous trail of revenge and murder, where her next bite could be her last.
Altogether, then, a flawed but intriguingly different and readable first outing.
Laurence Levain's knees have been aching for the last hour. A chef's knees are the first thing to go; he knows that well. But, at forty-two, he refuses to worry about such things. Laurence still has his wiry, athletic good looks; his restaurant's stars keep shining brighter; and he's just finished turning a tub of flour and two dozen pounds of smoked salmon into ten thousand dollars' worth of pasta. He's not about to let aching knees spoil his satisfaction.
Outside Chez Laurence, November winds are slicing through Washington's darkness. Inside, the kitchen looks like spring. Laurence stands alone, massaging his legs amid hundreds of salmon-pink and herb-green stuffed pastas laid out like a patchwork quilt ready for stitching.
On the menu, these pasta squares are listed as Les Nouilles en Quilt Multicolore, and they're priced at twenty dollars per single four-inch piece. Familiarly they're called Laurence's quilts, and this world-famous pasta is one of the reasons people in Washington say that the only dinner reservation more difficult to get is at the White House.
"Nobody would ever taste such pasta again if I died," Laurence boasts to himself as he stacks the quilts in the walk-in refrigerator. He's alone in the kitchen not only because it is late Sunday night, but also because tomorrow night's CityTastes gala requires that each chef prepare his signature dish without assistance. What's more, Laurence has never allowed anyone to learn the secrets of this paper-thin, translucent pasta. For years, other chefs have tried to duplicate its transparency, its ability to hold fillings in place as if they were stitched like cloth. Laurence'squilts look like patchworked fabric; his imitators' squares are merely ravioli.
Laurence is tired. Exhausted, in fact. He wipes the sweat from his chin and lurches from a sudden wave of nausea. "I should have eaten something earlier," he chastises himself. He tends to feel faint when he stands on his feet the whole evening without food.
"I'll grab something at home," he decides. "After a good, stiff, relaxing drink." Hurried by the thought, he stops briefly to comb his hair, then leaves the kitchen mess behind for the dishwasher and buttons his heavy coat for the walk home.
By the time Laurence arrives at his apartment, just a few blocks away on Massachusetts Avenue, he is no longer alone. He takes off his coat, trembling from the cold. "Calvados will warm us up," the chef promises his companion, pouring two small glasses of the apple brandy that, as orange juice is to American kids, has been a part of him since his Normandy childhood.
He hands one glass to his guest, who's still wearing coat and gloves and examining Laurence's wall of awards. Laurence picks up his own glass as he always does, thumb and forefinger grasping it by the rim. He salutes his companion and tosses back the calvados in one gulp.
The companion, not feeling nearly as friendly, refuses to join the toast but instead responds with a few sharp words. Laurence is disconcerted, holds up a hand in a placating gesture. It doesn't work.
"You have no right to go public with this," the angry guest hisses. When that gets no more than a shrug from Laurence, the anger turns to begging. "Please don't do it. It will ruin me."
"You're overreacting," Laurence says placidly, without suggesting any compromise. "But let's not argue. Take off your coat and make yourself comfortable. Whew, I smell of fish. I've got to take a shower and find my heart medicine. I feel like shit." He pronounces it "sheet."
While Laurence has always been known to be obsessively neat, for the second time tonight he is sloppy. In the bathroom he strips off his clothes and drops them in a heap on the floor, then steps into the shower for a scrub that lasts hardly a minute. He wraps himself in a burgundy silk dressing gown and returns to the living room, ready for one more attempt at peacemaking and another drink.
Laurence fills two clean glasses with calvados and carries them to the nubby white sofa. He hands one to his companion. But the guest, still upset, spills half the calvados.
"Could you get me a towel?" The guest's tone is whiny, impatient.
"Sit still. I'll find one." Laurence sets his own drink down on the coffee table and goes to the kitchen. He returns with a towel, detouring for the calvados bottle. He refills the spilled glass and once again proposes a toast. This time the guest joins him, saying: "To your health."
The two drink down the calvados, both shivering from the impact of the eighty-proof brandy. Laurence's shivering doesn't stop as he returns the bottle to the bar. Instead, his tremors continue until he collapses to the floor and stops breathing.
The guest sits, riveted, on the sofa, staring at Laurence twitching and jerking for a moment as the body resists its fate. All motion stops.
Despite everything, the guest's first instinct is to aid Laurence, and to rush to the dying man's side. Stopping short, though, this silent witness never touches Laurence, merely stands immobile for several minutes watching death take over.
At last, the observer turns toward the door, then, with hand on the knob, stops. Something must be done. The guest turns back and pockets two of the four used glasses, rummages through Laurence's bedroom for a moment to find a few things, then arranges them in the living room to set the scene before leaving.
Clams. They were what worried Georges. I had ordered the clam fritterspalourdes en beignetsand today was Monday. It was lunchtime, and the fish delivery wouldn't be until the afternoon, so these were bound to be leftover from Friday. A cold snap like the past weekend's can cause last-minute cancellations and leave the kitchen full of expensive perishables. Marcel Rousseau, the chef and owner of the newly relocated La Raison d'Etre, must have put the clams on the list of specials to get rid of them before the new shipment arrived. I would find out.
Georges, the eggplant-shaped maŒtre d', busied himself straightening perfectly aligned silverware at the tables around me. I could see that he was anxious. In fact, the entire dining-room staff kept a wary eye on my table as I sipped my Sancerre.
Being a restaurant critic, especially for Washington's newest and fastest-growing newspaper, the Examiner, means that restaurateurs scrutinize every bite I take. And I was lunching alone, which apparently made everyone doubly nervous. The tension was so electric that I was afraid it would cause static on my tape recorder.
It's a strange life, being a forty-eight-year-old perfectly ordinary (and slightly overweight) medium-height, vaguely blond, green-eyed woman who creates a clamor just by eating lunch. I never make reservations under the name Chas (short for Charlotte Sue) Wheatley, and can often get by unrecognized, but not today.
I try to look unaware. I never order fewer than three courses, which I eat at a leisurely pace, sipping a glass of wine and observing the dining room openly rather than hiding behind a book. I don't take notes, but sometimes I use a tape recorder to whisper a few details.
When I come alone, restaurateurs know that can mean very good news or very bad news. It means their restaurant is being reviewed. Even more, it signals that I finished tasting my way through the menu on previous visits and now want to concentrateon a particular dish or on the flow of the service around the dining room, on something I loved or something I hated before. In either case, my solitary meal is no fun for anyone.
Today's visit hadn't started well for Georges. I arrived at the same time as the secretary of defense, and Georges rushed to greet him as I stood a few steps behind. He was obviously about to usher the secretary to the best table in the house when he did a double take and registered that I was there. Reviewer panic set in.
Not one to lose his aplomb for long, Georges glanced at his seating chart again and led the secretary of defense to the second-best table. Such are the balancing acts of Washington. And such is the outlandish kowtowing to restaurant critics.
Nor was that the end of Georges's tests of diplomacy. La Raison d'Etre's entrance was beginning to crowd up just as he was leading me to my table. When we were halfway through the dining room, Reginald Lonsdowne, the new Republican senator from Mississippi (who used to be the old Democratic senator from Mississippi), stopped me, thus delaying Georges as well.
"Chas, honey, you look perfectly beautiful today with your hair swept up like that," Lonsdowne oozed.
"Nice of you to say so," I replied, trying to sound sincere.
"You know, it's lucky I ran into you," he went on. "I was thinking of calling you, as it happens, to ask if you could recall the name of that Thai restaurant in Chicago you wrote about, the one where you described the entr‚esI remember it exactlyas 'looking like a tropical garden just after the mist has evaporated.'"
Phyllis Richman has been the Washington Post food critic for more than twenty-two years. She's the author of the Agatha-nominated Washington bestselling dining books including The Washington Post Dining Guide. She been an award-winning syndicated columnist and food editor and serves on the executive committees of the James Beard Restaurant awards and the Julia Child awards. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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