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He embarks on his lunatic quest in the company of Rat, a glamorous and bright lady whose boyfriend has offered to pick up the tab—if they do the 29 restaurants in 29 nights. Off they set in a 1965 Mustang convertible, seemingly used more for its comic possibilities than because of its virtues. From one hotsy-totsy eating house to the next, Stevens and Rat indulge in over-the-top gustatory concoctions prepared by the likes of Bocuse, Loiseau, and the other great heroes of European cuisine. There's no stinting in meals that often dictate a crise cardiaque as the final entry on the bills of fare. The hungry author offers his assured takes on the master chef, the maitre d', and the waiters of each establishment, as well as the cunning of the menus, not to mention the meals. Befitting places where, as the old tag line has it, the elite meet to eat, the chow is emphatically Francophilic. How about a taste of "La Griblette de Bar aux Rondelles d'Oignon Meunier," or a bit of a "tomate confite a l'huile d'olive et gros sel, mesclun d'ici, au gout mediterrane, pommes de terre moelleuses et croustillantes"? After five lines of such, Stevens says, with a straight face, that there "was a simple directness about the menu that was vastly appealing." To add to the mystique, this frou-frou is generally sans traduction.
The food writing isn't quite as nourishing as that of Calvin Trillin, Waverly Root, or A.J. Liebling (to whom Stevens pays appropriate respect); it's more of a lark in the Bertie Wooster mode, and cosmopolitan to a fault.
Blame it on Rat. I do.
She proposed the idea when we were lifting weights. It was a late Friday night in New York and we were doing what we had fallen into a lot that spring—we'd meet at the World Gym, lift, and then go eat. Rat was wearing a black one-piece suit that looked like the sort of thing bathing beauties wore on the Riviera in the twenties. There's a picture around of Zelda trying to look sexy and she's wearing something similar. Only Rat—that was her name, Rachel Kelly, but even her mom called her Rat—hers was all shiny and made from some sort of hightech sports stretchy stuff that was supposed to do miraculous things, like make sure you never sweat or whisk the sweat away from your skin, something like that. I never could get this kind of thing straight, but Rat knew all about it. She was an ex-model who worked for a fashion designer and could explain quite movingly why some grades of wool make you look like a million dollars and others, you were better off cutting a few holes in a big plastic garbage sack and heading out the door. Call it a flair for fashion.
I had never known anybody who worked in the fashion business. I had also never known a woman who was almost six feet tall and could bench-press more than my IQ. Not that there aren't a lot of strong women in the world these days, and most seem to find their way to the gyms of New York. I've seen women in New York health clubs that I'd trade a first-round draft pick for without even knowing what they did in the forty-yard dash. You know what I mean—BIG WOMEN. Strong women.
But Rat wasn't likethem, you see. She didn't look BIG, just tall and lithe, at least until she took off the old University of Wyoming tee shirt she liked to wear, the one with the bucking horse and the slogan "Ride with Me Wyoming," and got down to just that shiny black old-fashioned bathing-suit thing and you saw her pick up seventy-five pounds of curl bar the way my high school girlfriends in Mississippi used to hoist diet sodas.
Anyway, we were working on incline presses and she put it something like this: "What if we went to Europe and ate. Ate a lot."
This surprised me. Not that she liked the idea of eating but the notion of us traveling together. Somewhere in the background there was a serious boyfriend I had always figured to be of the live-in variety. He was a lawyer, I knew, and older, a midforties guy who was a partner in one of the big white-shoe law factories. Rat had talked about how he didn't like it when she introduced herself at firm functions as "Rat" Kelly. She had tried to reassure him, she told me, by explaining to him that all his partners were way too busy thinking about how they wanted to sleep with her to worry about her name.
"I'm sure he found that very reassuring," I said.
"Not really." She frowned. "Lawyers in love." She shrugged.
"Europe?" I asked her how, as we changed weights ferociously. We liked to lift quickly, pyramiding up to a maximum and then working down. This may seem unimportant but it was a matter of great controversy in the gym, where you either believed in pyramiding or you didn't, and blows had actually been exchanged over this subject, though usually by the heavy steroid users and nobody paid much attention.
"I think we should go," she said decisively. "Just to eat." She said this last bit because I was looking sort of skeptical.
We liked to eat and did it a lot. It was really all we did together, go to restaurants and the gym, which made, I suppose, for an appallingly shallow sort of New York nineties-styled friendship. This never bothered me at all. Rat was an inspiration in the gym and a pleasure around the dinner table and neither one of us cared to ask a lot of difficult questions. The truth was, I really didn't know Rat Kelly very well at all. Later, I would think about this a lot, when it was entirely too late.
"Where?" I asked, as she slipped under the bar.
"Start in England. Work our way over to France."
France. Which made me think about the first great meal I ever had.
I thought I could remember every bite, even though it had been a whole bunch of years. I know I swore at the time I'd never forget. I'm positive we had sweet mussels, tiny little things, in a sauce of white wine, cream, and chives. There was lobster doused, oddly, with port and grilled with butter. She had a bouillabaisse and I had grilled sardines, the only time, before or since, I've ever liked the things. I can't imagine why I ordered them, but maybe the waiter insisted or maybe it was because I was excited seeing a name—sardines—on the menu that I actually recognized. It was, after all, my first time in France.
We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide. She was a few years older, an American, but she had lived in France for a while, which seemed very impressive and somehow important. It was late March and not far away there were almost-nude women lying on rocks they called a beach.
I swore then that before long I would come back and eat in every good restaurant in France.
Which, of course, I never did.
Instead I seemed to be drawn to countries with the worst food imaginable, places like Turkistan and Africa, where every day you woke up hoping you could avoid gustatory terror but knowing that before you slept again, horrible things would be going inside your mouth. The best strategy was simply to try to eat as little as possible. But I seemed cursed by an ever hopeful palate. "Termites? Termite larva? Could be interesting. I'll try a handful." This was never a good idea.
But France ...
"Stuart!" Rat yelled. Her face was bright red as she struggled under some impossibly large weight.
I snapped out of my gustatory trance and helped her right the bar. "You are some big help. Like lifting with Carl, for Christ's sake."
Carl was the lawyer Rat called her boyfriend. And he hated gyms and exercise. That much, at least, I knew.
"Three-stars," she said without a moment's hesitation. "Just the Michelin three-stars. The best food in the world."
"When do you want to go?" I asked.
"How about next week?"
The car started on the first crank. This made me very happy and inexplicably proud.
The dockworkers all gave exuberant thumbs-up signs, as if we had just test-fired the space shuttle. Without blowing anyone up.
The engine was about as loud as the space shuttle but with a deeper, sexier growl. In the closed belly of the cargo ship that had brought it over from America, it sounded like a wild beast anxious to escape its cage. I squeezed down gently on the accelerator.
The car leapt forward. The dockworkers applauded.
The gangplank was pitched at a ferocious angle. With my ears ringing with the growl of the V-8 engine, I put on the brakes. Nothing happened. This was not good.
The Mustang leapt down the gangplank. A pair of workers in white smocks jumped for safety. "I can't stop!" I yelled, redundantly. The top was down. That was the first thing I had done, of course. Put the top down.
I steered toward the parking lot next to the docks. It was large and empty and I drove the car in a circle, wondering what in God's name I was going to do. Like concerned physicians, dockworkers in their white coats gathered around as I drove the car in a tight circle. Or at least as tight as a 1965 Mustang would turn.
The workers yelled advice. With the engine roar and their thick accents, I had trouble understanding them. One fellow with long sideburns of the type favored by Elvis in his later years held up his hand and motioned. At first I didn't understand but then it made perfect sense. I could read his lips:
"TURN OFF THE DAMN ENGINE!"
Which I did.
It shuddered to a stop.
"What's the problem, mate?"
"The brakes don't work."
A long pause ensued while they all nodded their heads as if the X rays had come back showing particularly nasty stuff.
"Now, mate," the one with the Elvis sideburns finally offered, "you are buggered but good."
When I finally pulled into the Royal Overseas League, Rat was having tea in the garden.
"So is the car beautiful?" she wanted to know.
I groaned and sank into the uncomfortable wrought-iron chairs. With shaky hands I took a sip of her tea and realized for the first time that my hands were filthy. Rat took one of the linen napkins and wiped off my face.
"You look terrible," she said. "Was car-car naughty?"
This struck me as both a phenomenally idiotic and annoying question, rather like asking a soldier on leave from the Somme, "Was it muddy?"
A young waitress appeared over me. She seemed amused at my condition.
"Beer. I can have beer, can't I?"I asked.
"You can have all the beer we've got," she promised and scampered off.
"El Cid has problems?" Rat asked. For some reason she had always referred to the Mustang as El Cid.
I looked around the garden. A young couple dressed in white sat across from us drinking Mumm's champagne. They were maybe twenty at the most and looked at each other with a first-date longing that filled the air with sex. With their white clothes and prim haircuts, the ostentatious champagne, the two could have been period pieces of twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. They spoke in guarded conversation that never steered close to the lust that hung between them—just a little bit of English repressed desire perfectly captured for the ages.
The other tables were filled with the sort of people you'd expect to turn up at a lecture entitled "New Geographic Discoveries in Ancient Turkey," the evening's entertainment at the Royal Overseas League. Through some odd series of events involving an obscure friend, Rat and I had ended up staying at this place, where the Mountbatten lecture hall seemed to await his eminent return.
Looking out over the shaded garden just a hedge away from the lush greens of St. James's Park, I thought back to the motorway rest stop where I'd spent a lot of the hot June afternoon. It had been crowded with scores of tie-dyed Grateful Dead fans jockeying for space with the English version of Hell's Angels, mostly a polite bunch on Japanese bikes that would have been whacked to pieces with baseball bats by real bikers on Harleys in America. The bikers I'd liked more than the Deadheads. The bikers had helped me with the brakes while the Deadheads stood around the Mustang and said "Cool" a lot.
I looked over at Rat. She had a happy gleam in her eye that didn't quite figure.
"We have a little problem," I told her. "With the brakes." I started to explain how at the moment the brake system was held together with a throttle spring borrowed from the saddlebags of a well-equipped Honda rider, but it seemed too preposterous even to talk about. The Mustang, after all, had been my idea.
Sitting in New York it had seemed most important to make the trip in a very American car, and an old Mustang convertible was perfect. That way no one could think we were English—a particularly disturbing notion—or French, which would also be highly regrettable. All of my car aficionado friends assured me we could sell it at the end of the trip for a handsome profit. This was very appealing considering the dollar-to-foie gras exchange rate. Which is how I ended up on the phone to a place called Mid-American Mustang in St. Louis, buying a candy-apple red 1965 Mustang convertible I had never seen and wouldn't see, circumstances being a bit rushed, until I had arrived in Southampton that morning to drive it not so triumphantly off the boat.
For a moment Rat seemed truly worried. "But you drove it here? It made it?"
"Yes. Sort of. But we may die the first time we try to drive it."
"Oh, that's okay," she said cheerfully, standing up. "Come here, I have to show you something."
She stood up, and for the first time I saw that she was wearing a gold lame dress that had been easy to pack because there wasn't much of it. The teenagers drinking champagne stared unhesitantly.
She walked over to the far corner of the garden, where a little iron gate led out onto Queen's Walk and, just beyond that, St. James's Park.
She pointed to a contented-looking golden retriever tied to the fence.
"What's that?" I asked, a sense of dread cascading rapidly through my being.
"That's Henry, and he's ours!"
"Rat." I could still hear the roar of the Mustang's V-8 in my ears. In all likelihood, I had suffered permanent hearing loss. "Where did this come from?"
"I'll tell you all about it," she promised. "Isn't he adorable?"
We left the Mustang at the Overseas League and took the train to the Waterside Inn. There were three of us—me, Rat, and the Dog. That's how I thought of the creature—the Dog. Rat, of course, called it Henry. She called it Henry in quite loving tones that I'm sure would have driven Carl the Lawyer mad with jealousy. But I refused to think of the Dog as Henry. Even though Henry was a name I liked not in the least, Henry was a name, and any sort of name, particularly a first name like Henry, implied a sort of intimacy I had no intention of establishing with the Dog. The Dog was not going to be part of this trip, of that I was certain.
There were three of us on the train because there was no easy place to leave the Dog. This is the sort of problem that people traveling with dogs have all the time, or so I imagined, and one good reason I did not own a dog or intend ever to travel with the same. As far as I was concerned, man had spent thousands of years evolving to the point where it was no longer necessary to sleep and travel with animals, and I felt a certain personal obligation not to let this progress backslide.
British Rail seems to share my canine attitudes. They have a list of regulations that basically outline the hows and whys of dog transport, a long list that boils down to the fact that they prefer all dogs to schedule a session with a taxidermist before availing themselves of the services of British Rail—an entirely sensible position, I felt.
An Anglo-Indian rail official with a long ponytail stopped Rat as she was strolling onto the 8:05 local to Bray-on-Thames. He was maybe twenty-five and somehow wore his blue British Rail uniform with a certain jauntiness, as if it were a costume he had found in a secondhand store and he was on his way to a party.
"That is," he observed most casually, "a dog, I believe."
"Bet your ass." Rat beamed. "Beauty, huh?"
"This is a problem, I'm afraid."
"Don't be. His name is Henry. I'm keeping him for a family that was going to take him to America for a year but found out that he would have to be quarantined for two months and it would have broken their heart to do that to their dog. So we just agreed to take care of him."
"We?" I mumbled. I had heard this story before. The family had been staying at the Overseas League, and I suppose I believed Rat's story. I couldn't think of any logical reason she would have gone out and kidnapped somebody's dog, and I knew for a fact she hadn't brought it from New York.
"Where are you going?" the official asked. He was suddenly staring at us both, but mostly Rat. On a late Sunday afternoon in Paddington Station we seemed egregiously overdressed—me in a dark double-breasted suit and she in her gold lame something or other. Standing over six feet in her heels with Henry on a black leather leash, Rat looked like a Helmut Newton model on her way to work.
"To some restaurant called the Waterside which will probably be terribly boring but we were thinking about going out later when we came back and we were wondering if you could suggest some place fun. A club sort of place." She blurted this all at once at a stream-of-consciousness pace. It was news to me that we were planning to go out afterward. After my day wrestling with the Mustang, I wasn't even sure I could make it through dinner without falling asleep.
"You like to go to clubs?" the ponytailed train official asked.
"Is the Pope Catholic?" Rat demanded.
He concentrated on this for a moment and then smiled. "I like clubs."
"Great!" Rat made it sound like he had just told her that she had won the lottery. "Let's meet later on!"
He glanced quickly at me.
"It's okay," Rat explained. "He's not my boyfriend."
She said this with the dismissive tone of a big sister explaining the presence of a younger brother.
The conductor's face brightened—and then fell when Rat added, "My boyfriend is in New York." She paused, seeing his disappointment. "And New York is a long way away. We'll have lots of fun. Where should we meet?"
He hesitated for a moment, as if wondering if he were the victim of some cruel practical joke, a Dating Game prank.
"There is a place," he finally said, lowering his voice as if passing on state secrets, "that we could meet. It is in Soho. Manitoba Coffee Shop."
"Great! Around midnight, maybe a little later," Rat said, and then she held out her hand. "Rat Kelly."
"Vetrham. Vetrham West."
I introduced myself and we marched on board—me, Rat, and the Dog.
It was a local commuter train, with bench seats; more of an overgrown subway car than a grand long-distance express. Everyone seemed to be reading one of the London tabloids—the Daily Mail or Sun—and the headlines screeched of a fresh U.S. bombing attack on Iraq, the first for President Clinton.
"I feel better when we are bombing them," the very tall young man across from me said without a hint of a smile. He was maybe thirty and had an unfortunate haircut that seemed to involve a pair of shears and an oval bowl. With his reddish nose and angular features, he reminded me of a military recruit on his way to his first posting.
"Them?" I asked, not because I didn't understand but because I was startled and had to say something.
"Iraq," he explained, a bit exasperated. "Our Bedouin brothers. Rug merchants to the stars."
"You feel better when we're bombing them?" I asked.
It was not a subject I really had an opinion on. I had to admit that it certainly didn't bother me that we were bombing Iraq.
"Should have marched right into Baghdad when we had the chance. The best thing that could have happened to them. Put a Marks and Sparks right smack on Saddam Avenue. Bloody marvelous." He laughed.
"What's Marks and Sparks?" Rat asked.
"Where you didn't get that dress, I'll tell you that."
"Am I suppose to be offended?" Rat asked pleasantly, stroking Henry's head. I had to admit that Henry had taken to train travel with great equanimity, and I wondered if he was an experienced sneaker-on of trains.
"Complimented, most definitely," our friend with the bad haircut said, smiling broadly. He arched his eyebrows and whispered urgently, "Hung 'em up by the lampposts."
"What?" I asked, startled.
"That's what Saddam did to everybody that opposed him when he came up. Those fundamentalist-type, junior-grade ayatollahs in training? Drove nails right into their heads. While their families watched."
He said this with a certain glee, eyes widening in appreciation. Rat stiffened and, I suppose, so did I.
"Nip that stuff right in the bud. Marvelous." He said this slowly, for dramatic power, no doubt. He was a great performer.
"Beautiful scarf," he observed casually to Rat. It was a long, soft thing. "That's the stuff the baby Jesus would have loved to have been swaddled in, you can bet on that."
Rat and I looked at each other. Neither of us said a word. Nor did we say anything until he got off at the next stop, South Hall.
"Mad," Rat whispered, as if she were afraid he might over-hear.
"Well," I said, "he does have a point. A very upscale sort of nativity scene, but I could see it." I felt her scarf.
"Polyester," she announced petulantly. "A very fine cut of polyester."
The bleak suburbs of London rolled past, rows of block council houses. Flashes of well-tended gardens squeezed in between the rows made it only more depressing. The soft light of an English summer cast the red brick in a warm glow. These places would never look better, and on a December afternoon when it was getting dark at 3:30 and pools of ice lay in the cracked asphalt sidewalks, it would be hard to imagine a more cheerless and despairing scene.
We were heading to the Waterside Inn, about forty miles outside of London. It was a creation of the Roux brothers, the pair that had helped teach London what it was like to eat great food. I had been dreaming about their duckling cured in tea, a Roux rendition that was supposed to be extraordinarily lean and delicate, two hard things to come by in a duck.
Everyone who knew the Waterside talked about its tranquil riverfront setting and described the place as a perfect country haven. But since leaving London we had been traveling through what looked to be the set of A Clockwork Orange, a failed industrial landscape where despair rose like heat waves from every street.
This was when Rat decided to tell me what apparently she had been waiting to tell me since that first day in the gym.
"Stuart," she began, in an excited tone that I was learning to fear, "I've got this idea of how we should do the trip."
"Umm." I was staring at the page-three girl of the Sunday Mail. It always amazed me how the English could take pasty and pudgy girls of the sort you saw lounging around every corner tea shop and celebrate them as pinups. This was probably a very healthy tendency, all in all—praising the everyday instead of some unlikely ideal.
"I think we should eat in all of the Michelin three-star restaurants."
"We are," I said. "Tonight the Waterside, and tomorrow we've got reservations at La Tante Claire. That's it for England."
"No, I mean all the restaurants. In Europe."
I smiled, even though the Dog had begun to chew on my ankle. It was a lunatic notion.
"On consecutive days," she added.
"Rat, I am going to kill this dog. Or leave it at the restaurant. I'm sure some rich stockbroker will take it home to his overpriced flat."
"All the three-stars on consecutive days. England first, then Belgium, Germany, France, Italy. There are only twenty-nine."
It did have a certain appeal. "That's ridiculous," I said, which, of course, it was.
"I sort of have to."
"Eat in all of them."
"This is a mandate from God?"
"Carl," she corrected. "He promised he'd pay for the whole thing if I ate in all of them on consecutive days."
She shook her head.
"I thought he didn't want you to leave New York?"
"Of course he didn't. We had this huge fight. But if I eat in all twenty-nine nonstop, he pays."
"He likes to challenge me. Particularly with things he thinks are sort of demeaning."
"What a delightful relationship. And why is eating in all the three-stars demeaning?"
"On consecutive days, sure it is. Who could actually enjoy that?"
"I could," I said without hesitation. Then thought about it for a moment and added, "I think."
"I think it sounds terrible," she said brightly. "But we have to do it."
"Let me ask a silly question. Why does Carl like to propose demeaning challenges?"
"He's a sicko, obviously. Which means that the next question is going to be, Why is he my boyfriend?"
"You're right. That is the next question."
"Look, it's not that complicated. New York City is full of strange and twisted interdependent sick kinds of relationships. Should it be that odd that I happened to find myself in one? You know what it's like for a girl to come from Wyoming to New York?"
I thought about this for a moment. "No."
"You meet the most unbelievable creeps imaginable. I could tell you first-date stories that would stop your heart with sheer horror."
We both laughed. There was something in the back of my mind that was going off like a yellow caution light, but I figured I would just worry about it later.
The Burnham stop passed by and the train thinned out and then there was more green than junkyards and brick and it began to look like the countryside England likes to advertise.
"Good," she announced. "I knew you'd like the idea. We'll leave for Brussels the day after tomorrow."
"Don't worry. I'll take care of everything."
She jumped up, trailing Henry by his leash. I looked out the window and saw that we were at Bray-on-Thames.
"Dinner," Rat said. "Everything depends on dinner, right?"
I followed her and the dog out of the train.