Would you like garden fresh, non-gmo Pomme Frites sautéed in fair-trade olive oil with that?
I guess I don't really enjoy the leisure time activity of "going out to dinner." I know, that's weird, and most people love to linger over a great meal, especially if it's with great company. I'm down with the company part, and I love my friends, but I can't sit still for that long. There's just something I dislike about being elbow to elbow with a bunch of other diners, pretending to not listen to their conversations while they pretend to not listen to mine. Especially while my ass is slowly going numb from the uncomfortable chair I'm sitting in. I hate the waiting, most of all. Waiting for the waitress to bring the drinks. Waiting for her to bring the food, waiting for her to bring the check. It's pretty sad, but most of the restaurants I eat in make you pay for meal before you eat, and I realize that says more about me than anything else.
Anyway, that said, I always have a little bit of trepidation when we're invited out to dinner, especially if it's to a really nice place. I guess I don't get enough value out of an expensive meal to avoid thinking about all of the other things I could do with the money, like buying something I actually need and won't be shitting out in 24 hours. Honestly, I'm just a hick with a college degree. I have one suit for wedding and funerals, I don't like classical music or opera, and I think art that doesn't look like something is a ridiculous concept. All this to say that eating is generally something I do so I don't fall down and die, and that's about it.
Everything I've written so far is really just to lay the groundwork for what's to follow. Not too long ago, we met our friends in NYC, and we all decided to have dinner at this particular restaurant they wanted to try. We said yes not because we love trying new restaurants, but because we love these guys and we don't get to see each other as often as we'd like. If they had asked us to go eat corn dogs out of a dumpster with them, we probably would have said yes. There is one little detail that makes picking a place to eat more interesting, however. They're vegetarians. We're not. And since it was their pick, it was kind of a given that we were going to be dining at a vegetarian restaurant.
I am fine with that. I have nothing against vegetables, in fact some of my best friends are vegetables. I eat very little red meat as it is, so the fact that we most definitely were not headed for a steak house didn't break my heart. I applaud them for their choice, and I'm sure they'll both outlive me, but I could never do it. I eat quite a bit of poultry and a lot of egg whites, so going hardcore no-milk, no-meat, no-cheese would be difficult for me. I wasn't worried, though, and I was sure I could find something on the menu that I could eat, and probably even enjoy.
We met up in the city and walked around for a bit and when it got close to dinner time, we headed toward the restaurant. As we were walking, M told us about it. "It's Korean vegetarian, and it's supposed to be great," she said. "All organic and very healthy." I am a fan of stir fry, I thought. See what a rube I am? I think all Koreans eat nothing but stir fry.
When we were about a half a block away from the place, she said, "Oh, by the way, this is a shoes-off restaurant." Ha-ha, I thought, that's a good one. A shoes-off restaurant. I seriously thought she was joking, because never once in my entire life have I taken my shoes off in a restaurant. Not even that one time I stepped in dog shit in the parking lot of Applebee's.
She was not joking. We walked into the restaurant, and the entire left wall behind the register consisted of nothing but cubbyholes filled with shoes. I'm pretty sure this place used to be a bowling alley. We all sat down on the edge of the single stair leading up into the dining area and took off our shoes. I have to say, there's nothing like walking around in NYC all day and then sitting down and taking off your shoes in an enclosed area with a hundred other people. I was a little self-conscious to say the least. But then I realized that the whole place smelled like garlic anyway, so what the hell. Off came the shoes. I started to take my socks off too, but then realized nobody else was, so I pulled them back up. Close one. When I was younger, I took karate lessons for a year or two in a dojo that backed up against a pizza place. It smelled kind of like that, but with less B.O.
The place itself was so dark I had to wonder what they were trying to hide. It turns out it's all just part of their plan to give you a "total dining experience that brings harmony to the body and mind." Besides the candles at every table, there wasn't much else in the way of light. A few dim overheads and that's about it. I bet they save a fortune on their electric bill. I glanced into the dining room and saw that the tables were about twelve inches off the ground and everyone was sitting on the floor on little mats. Great, I thought. My ass, legs and my back will be aching by the end of this meal. But then I reconsidered because really, most of my meals are eaten sitting on the floor with my food on the coffee table while watching reruns of Seinfeld anyway, so how bad could it be?
Our hostess brought us back to our table and that's when I got my first surprise. The people actually weren't sitting on the floor in some Baddha Konasana Yoga pose for three hours while they ate. Instead, the tables were put in square holes in the floor, and you sat on the edge of the hole with your legs dangling under the table. So there's another thing I've never done -- sat in a hole to eat. Of course, all I could think about was how difficult it would be to clean those Korean sittin' holes, and so I avoided moving my feet too much because I didn't want to inadvertently step in any old dropped food. It turns out that was the least of my worries.
When the waitress showed up and took our drink order, most everyone ordered Sake, but I had a little too much fun the night before so I was not in the mood for hot rice wine. Instead, I ordered an iced tea. The waitress brought out the sake and my iced tea, and put them down in front of us. Then she took my iced tea, which was in a perfectly serviceable drinking glass, dumped it into a bowl, and then put it in front of me. I looked at it in confusion, wondering if I was supposed to just go full German Shepherd on it, or wait for a straw or a spoon or something. I don't know the Korean way. She just smiled, bowed slightly and walked away. Finally, I awkwardly picked up the bowl in both hands and took a tentative sip, trying not to spill it into my sittin' hole. I must have looked as ridiculous as I felt because my wife just shook her head and tried not to laugh.
We perused the menu and I found something with the exotic and fairly non-specific name of "vegetable and mushroom wrap" that didn't sound too bad. When the waitress returned, everyone placed their orders for appetizers and main course. I order the Vegetarian Dumpling soup as my appetizer. We hadn't even been sitting for 20 minutes and my back was already killing me, mostly because I'm afflicted with drummer posture, and sitting on the edge of this hole with no back support was just like sitting on a drum stool, so I fell into it naturally. The bad posture, not the hole. It took a while for our food to arrive, presumably because the chef was outside somewhere hunting all the wild vegetables required, so we had plenty of time to chat and catch up. Luckily the people sitting back-to-back with us were speaking what I think was probably Korean, so I didn't find myself inadvertently listening to their conversation, which was most likely about the idiot white boy behind them drinking his iced tea from a bowl.
It turns out that Vegetable Dumpling soup was just that. Dumpling, singular. It was very tasty, but in my opinion, the only time a single swallow of anything is worth ten bucks is when it's been aged in a oak cask for 20 years.
When the food arrived, everyone got their meal immediately except for me. And that's not to say mine didn't come out with the rest; it did. But mine apparently had to be built on-site. With chopsticks. The waitress had a bunch of piles of random stuff spread out and proceeded to make my vegetable and mushroom wraps right there on the tray she had carried the food out on. Everyone else waited politely for her to finish, but after the first minute or so I told them not to wait any longer because it looked like maybe the construction wasn't going as planned and it was time to call the building inspector and shut the whole project down. They were having none of it though, so they waited. Finally, she managed to build all three wraps and get them more or less together and serve them to me. I thanked her politely, and everyone started eating.
Except for me, that is. I had wraps. I had chopsticks. i was confused and unsure. Was I supposed to use the chopsticks or just pick the things up with my fingers? Luckily they were fairly small wraps and I'm pretty good with the nunchuks, so that deadly talent transferred well to the chopsticks, which also sound deadly but really aren't. CHOP! STICK! HYAH! Right? No? It's just me? OK. Anyway, I stabbed one of the wraps with a chopstick to hold it still while I sort of lifted it up and bent my head forward and took an experimental bite. It was really good, in an uncooked spring roll kind of way. The wrap was a little doughy by design, being steamed and all, but the dipping sauce was amazing. Each one was about the size of a White Castle slider, and because I eat like a pig without taking a breath, my main course was gone in about four minutes. If I hadn't decided to dick around with the chopsticks instead of using my hands, it would have been under two. I was done, and everyone else was still plugging along. My wife hadn't even started eating her meal yet because it was so hot. Whatever concoction she had ordered was sitting in front of her in what appeared to be an actual dog bowl. It had a wooden base with a hole in the top, and resting in the hole was a sizzling stone bowl full of rice n' things. I could feel the heat coming off of it in waves. I still don't know if she was supposed to eat it or if maybe I was supposed to roast my doughy wrap over it like it was a campfire.
After a little while, my second bowl of iced tea started working on my bladder, so I decided to hit the bathroom. It was then that I realized I was about to walk into a NYC bathroom -- in my socks. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't picture a urinal, guys drunk on sake, and socks mixing in any way that could possibly be good. Would I be walking in piss puddles while my 100% cotton, highly absorbent gym socks (I am nothing if not fashionable) worked as designed? I thought I might be.
But no, this restaurant had thought of everything. The bathroom was a single room with a toilet and a sink, and is another thing I hate about restaurants in NYC. Aren't there regulations that require a certain number of shitters based upon total occupancy? I'm just saying that serving spicy, high-fiber food to 100 people and having only one toilet seems like it would be a recipe for disaster. I've been in that situation and it's not fun. There's nothing quite like frantically banging on the bathroom door while you're clenching your sphincter to keep the turtle from poking out. Conversely, sitting on the only pot while someone bangs on the door and screams at you to hurry up is also a ton of laughs. Neither of these would probably count as an experience that "brings harmony to the body and mind."
To avoid having people walk into a piss puddle with their socks on, they provided a pair of communal slippers outside the door. So what you had to do was put on a pair of slippers that roughly ten thousand people before you had slipped their disgusting feet into, and then go into the bathroom, where you can stand in front of a urinal and splatter piss on them. When I got to the door, I could see that the slippers were missing, so that meant the room was occupied. I waited for a few minutes, and finally a guy shuffled out of the bathroom and kicked off the slippers. You know that uneasy feeling when you sit on a public toilet seat and realize that it's still warm? Kinda gross, right? Well, it's even worse when you have to put your feet into warm slippers before that happens. I slid my feet into the slippers and could instantly feel the Korean foot fungus migrating through my socks and attacking the flesh between my toes like it was the Han river offensive. Luckily, I was able to get rid of my iced tea before any door banging began. I did, however, have to pass off the slippers to another poor bastard when I came out of the bathroom. I wished him good luck and headed back to the sittin' hole.
I got back just in time for dessert. We were all pretty full, so we had ordered the little sampler platter. I'm not sure what I ate, but it was pretty good for gluten-free, dairy-free, free-range something-or-other. After we were finished and took care of the check, we hit the road toward Franklin Lakes, and I counted my blessings.
All in all, it was an interesting experience for this country hick, but I was very glad to put my hiking boots back on.
Next time, I'm just eating corn dogs out of the dumpster.