Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Dude and Catastrophe: A modest success!

Eight o'clock in the morning, January 1st, 2007, saw the doors of the Dude and Catastrophe swing wide open for all the world! Well, in truth, I simply unlocked the front door from the inside and got the thermostat going against the twenty-degree weather, but symbolically I am sure you take my point. It had been Ray's idea that we open on the first day of the new year — I am not sure if he meant for this tidbit to make a lovely talking point later, or if it was based on a misunderstanding of the tax code. Either way, I had on my finest cardinal vest (a cashmere bordering on sweater-vest, with lovely antique scrimshaw buttons depicting the countenances of early American presidents), my green oilskin apron, and the proper old black tie in half-Windsor on a white shirt. I was barkeep incarnate. Not one man in a million could be helped against the desire to order a pint and a pie from me.

Back in the kitchen Auguste, the Frenchman I'd found to prepare food throughout the day, cursed artfully to no-one in his passionate mother tongue. I had fully expected that my modest kitchen staff would be of Latino extraction (and had even taken a mild refresher in that Gatling gun of a language), but Auguste had been the first respondent to my advertisement, and his references were beyond compare. In truth, I found him substantially overqualified to prepare my traditional menu of scotch eggs, fries, burgers, fish, pies, pasties, peas, and the occasional stew. For his audition meal, he took stock of the pub's meager pre-opening larders, and prepared from scratch a morue frite en sauce chaud-froid with fat little pommes souffles. How could I resist this anti-pretentious take on fish and chips? Rather than presenting a trendy modern "deconstruction" of a classic dish, he had reverse-engineered it into its likely nineteenth-century roots. You don't fiddle with the things in your pocket at the end of that interview — you take the man's hand firmly and lead him to his locker.

Food aside, the place was bedecked with a modest assortment of my collected art and found trophies (viz: deer skulls, wonderful old stenciled mechanics' admonitions, petrified leather cleats from my track and field years, and the like), and the espresso machine steamed away like a happy little truckless train. Tables had been set with baskets of HP sauce and other vinegary condiments; a Crewe Alexandra "greats" video showed on the back-bar television (a behemoth wood-paneled relic from the cold war, which sat heavily on the strong old counter). The lights were low, with hurricane lamps glowing here and there like fireflies keeping to themselves among the corners and rafters of the quiet, sound-absorbing room.

Now, despite the myriad experiences from which the outside observer might remark that I had taken little or no intellectual benefit, I have been served well by the following consistent observations upon the nature of our fellow selves:

1) No reasonable person wishes to be slapped on the head,
2) No reasonable person will deny himself a plate of steaming, buttered spaghetti noodles, especially when said dish is proffered by a voluptuous nude maiden of a personally favored ethnic extraction,
3) No reasonable person sets about town at eight o'clock in the morning on New Year's Day.

At best, I expected a few patrons might wander in after lunch, still blinking in disbelief at the stamina of their hangovers, and asking for coffee laced with "that small something which reclaims the body for the sake of the mind" (or vice versa — I can never recall that pithy little bit of drunkards' poetry). For several hours my nil expectations bore the invisible fruit of success. This is known in the trade as a "soft launch."

Around about noon Téodor dropped in, bless him. The last I had seen of the lad it was eleven o'clock on the evening before, and his scotch-scented deportment had suggested that once the new year did arrive, it would likely be cornered into a one-sided conversation about television chefs, cookware, and electric guitar music. How fortunate are the young, who can draw their sabers up the necks of their champagne until the gophers resume their somnolence beneath the navy blue sunlight which blankets the vegetable pastures, yet still wolf down brunch with full pleasure and no fear of peristalsis or malheur.

To his credit, he did seem utterly relieved that no one else was in the place. I silently thanked him for appearing the slightest bit vulnerable to the ravages of a night on the rails, and asked if he'd like a little something to absorb whatever was left of his roiling seas. His wraparound sunglasses firmly in place, his chin in his palm, he weakly motioned with his free hand for an omakase. I carried the order around to Auguste, with special instructions that the guest needed a bit of a fog cutter.

Auguste's "prairie oyster" (huitre dans le merde) is simple but effective. First, he splashes a tablespoon of olive oil into a pint glass, swirls it around, and pours out anything that isn't residue. Then, with the glass at a forty-five degree angle, he slides in an extremely fresh, orange egg yolk, careful not to break it. Down the same chute are poured a careful jigger of brandy, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, four vigorous dashes of Tabasco, a squirt of ketchup, a dash of celery salt, and a penny. It is taken all in one quick gulp. I purposefully indulged a bit too much one evening just so that I could witness its effects, and I must admit I wish I'd found this recipe much earlier in life. Absolutely invigorating, and, like a fine helicopter ride, it sets one back down on the tarmac so smoothly you'd swear you'd never gone risking everything in the first place.

From there Auguste timed forth a lovely menu of shirred eggs with smelt and flamed pastis, crumbed potatoes, rough planks of buttered "thieves' toast," and Turkish coffee. Over the course of the meal it was a pleasure to watch Téodor spring back into successive stages of animation and well-being. There is something about the French system of eating, there is a logic to it that cares like a mother for even a stranger far afield. The Germans have their shiny shoes, and the Chinese have electrical engineering students raining off of high rooftops, but give me the French any day.

From that first customer things have grown steadily and quite satisfactorily. In future installments I hope to jot down for you a few pleasant little accounts of the days and nights at the Dude and Catastrophe!