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8 April 2023

What makes an unforgettable meal? The time, place and company – and the butter

The cannellini and chard on toast roars with garlic, but that alone cannot explain its magic.

By Pippa Bailey

Last night I had a meal I’ll remember, if not for the rest of my life, then at least for many years of it. The occasion was that I was not, for once, spending my Tuesday evening sending this magazine to press, the Easter Special having given us a break from our publishing schedule. What better reason to spend a small fortune on small plates?

It was the first night this year that it was warm enough to venture out without tights – or so I optimistically thought, appraising the weather from inside. I walked the 15 minutes to the restaurant in strappy sandals and sunglasses, my nails and handbag a cornflower blue that matched the sky.

Waiting for me at the bar was a lovely man – the kind of man who, despite our having had an extensive conversation about how we wouldn’t have the olives because he doesn’t care for them, added when I was done ordering: “And the olives, please.”

The beer was served in ice-cold glasses and the wine was orange; no one drinks rosé in N5. The menu was, of course, one of those that is written on a blackboard and changes daily – within an evening’s sitting, even. Burrata and grilled padróns became ricotta and grilled padróns, and eventually feta, cucumber and something else I can’t remember, courtesy of the aforementioned beer and wine, as the night wore on.

The menu listed only the barest ingredients of each dish in a way that makes you fear you are about to be served the most boring meal of all time – mackerel, cabbage – until, bam, heaven. “Spelt, peas, courgettes, basil” turned out to be the best risotto I’ve ever eaten – and given I’ve not eaten meat since I was 15, I’ve eaten a lot of risotto. We were not halfway through “cannellini and chard on toast” before I suggested we order a repeat; it roars with garlic, but that alone cannot explain its magic. The only problem with “chocolate and hazelnut cake, coffee cream” is that my date is a fast eater, and so I am not convinced I quite get my half. Or perhaps I am simply sad it is over so quickly.

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[See also: The surprising delights of monotonous meals]

I am often struck, listening to the podcast Off Menu – on which celebrity guests choose their dream starter, main, side dish, dessert and drink – by how often the selections are not about food alone, but about context, in the way that Coke tastes better out of a glass bottle on a hot, thirsty day. They don’t just want cacio e pepe; they want that particular cacio e pepe they had that day with that person in that place.

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The last time I was in New York City, in 2018, I went to Del Posto, a classy Italian restaurant in Chelsea with a sweeping staircase and a grand piano that was never not being played. I could only just about afford the set menu – as a special treat, and at lunch time, when it was two-thirds the price of dinner. I remember nothing of the meal apart from the bread and butter – perfectly whipped and salty – which I think of near weekly. I looked up Del Posto ahead of a return to NYC this summer to find it has permanently closed.

Perhaps, I say to my father, it’s for the best: so giant had that butter grown in my mind that it would almost inevitably disappoint on second tasting. He tells me, from the chair next to his hospital bed, about how on a visit to Manhattan in the Eighties he would walk along West Broadway to his hostel each night in time to catch the sun setting at the end of the same street crossing through it. And about a bar, somewhere along it, where he sat in the window and ate an unforgettable salad.

We recall together a trip to Venice, when my youngest brother was a toddler who knew only the word “boat” (you can imagine how that went). And how we found, on the last night, after days of overpriced tourist fare, the restaurant. None of us knows where it was, or what it was called, or even what we ate. But we remember them stacking chair on top of chair to raise my brother up to table height, and how he ended the night covered in chocolate.

I had another memorable meal recently – in Bali, the night I received the phone call to say my father had been diagnosed with leukaemia. It was pouring with rain, and, having ignored the entreaties of “Miss, taxi?” every five metres, I arrived soaked to the skin. I sat alone, and drank passionfruit margaritas, and ate oseng oseng and gulai pakis and perfect, buttery paratha, and tried not to cry. Between bites, I texted friend after friend, “My dad has cancer”, though I was too overwhelmed to deal with their replies, as if saying it over and over would make it more real, less shattering. I wanted to eat forever, even as my stomach turned.

[See also: In east London I find a freshly baked croissant worth rising early for]

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This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats