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Authors: Charles Blackstone

Tags: #Romance

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BOOK: Vintage Attraction
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Chef Dominique seemed to find this very amusing, possibly even trenchant. “You can say that again,” he said.

Izzy said, of the chef, “He's from Alsace, which was, at one point, part of Germany. We've never actually been able to get him to tell us when he was born, but depending on the occupation”—she put her hand on his shoulder—“Chef, you could be German and serving even more sauerkraut at the bistro.”


Nous disons ‘choucroute,'
Sommelier.
Choucroute
. I'm no Sherman.”

“We can Pinot Gris to disagree.”

“That's good,” I told Izzy. “Did you just come up with that?”

A large woman, moving sideways and wearing what appeared to be a running suit underneath an unzipped fur coat, came over to the table. “Excuse me,” she said, “I hate to bother you while you're having dinner, but you're Isabelle Conway.”

Izzy, gradually looking up from her unfinished burger, and Chef Dominique both nodded. The chef grinned proudly.

“My name is Nancy Podolsky.” She and Izzy shook hands. To Chef Dominique she turned and said, “Nancy Podolsky,” and they touched palms. I thought it was funny that she kept repeating her full name. “Yes, honey,” she said to the ceiling. It was then I noticed she had a Bluetooth headset affixed to her ear. “I'll make sure they have barbeque sauce, and horseradish sauce for the fries, which I shouldn't be having anyway, and can you just wait a second? I'm standing, yes, I'm standing right in front of her.” She lowered her head, setting her sights back on Izzy, whose building exasperation subtly revealed itself only in the rigidity of her mouth. “Can you say something to your biggest fan?”

“How, um . . .”

Did this Nancy Podolsky woman really expect Izzy to put her diseased earpiece into—

“Here, wait.” She slapped a button on the headset, and the device screeched. The noise startled several of those at the table adjacent, but Nancy Podolsky was, it seemed, steeled to the terrible sounds. “Okay, Byron, can you hear me? It's on speaker. Yes, honey, please. I hear him. Can you hear her, honey? Okay, it's okay.”

Izzy tried to put in, “I think you have to—”

“Just say something,” she barked at Izzy. Her bald haughtiness was surprising. Chef Dominique straightened his back.

Izzy took her napkin from her lap and began to fold it into rectangles and then squares. “Hi there,” she said, in the theatrical voice that she used when speaking from the dais at the club tonight.

Nancy Podolsky ripped the Bluetooth out of her ear. It started emitting a series of unrelentingly high-pitched error tones. “Disconnected,” she huffed.

“Well, I'm sure—”

“Okay, okay, how about this. How about a photo?” She drew her cell phone out of her coat pocket.

Izzy rose and asked me to take the picture of them standing in a narrow space that had opened in front of the bar. Amid the mortifying stares of those both chary and intrigued dining around us, I agreed, feigning cheerfulness. “How do I—”

“Just press the button that looks like a camera. And then hold down the round button in the middle when it looks good.”

Chef Dominique sighed. I was the only one to turn in his direction. He took the cocktail straw he'd transferred to his water glass and blew air through it.

“Are you her publicist?” Nancy Podolsky then asked me.

As Izzy's wine got warm and burger cold, I snapped the digital shutter a couple of arbitrary times and returned the phone. Nancy shook her head, as though displeased, after assessing my shots. “Not the best lighting, but I guess it will do.” It wasn't my fault she was trying to use a shitty camera phone for a photo shoot in a basement restaurant.

I suggested a retake, but Chef Dominique shook his head. “She wants a picture with Sommelier, she should pay for it.”

“Excuse me, ma'am?” a waiter interjected, too quietly to be effective, before sidestepping away.

Nancy Podolsky bleated, “I know, I know. How about an autograph?”

“Sure, but I don't have—” Izzy looked at Chef Dominique for assistance. The only thing he offered was thinly veiled scorn.

“Here, in my purse. Here,” Nancy said.

She produced a ballpoint pen, and Izzy grabbed one of the unused cocktail napkins on our table. The woman received the autograph Izzy handed her, as though a subpoena.

“That's great, honey, but, I don't know, could you maybe write something funny? Something about wine. Ooh, I know. I know. How about ‘I'm drinking Champagne and you're not'? That would be so terrific.”

“Except she's not drinking Champagne,” Chef Dominique growled.

Izzy's eyes begged him not to make this even more unpleasant than it had to be, but Chef Dominique, it was quite obvious, really wanted to tear into this woman for some reason. “I think you've wasted enough of her time,” Chef Dominique said then. “How about you just get the hell out of here?”

Izzy appeared horrified. “Look, if you want me to—”

The manager shouldered in, handling ameliorating take-away packages. With an affected flourish, Nancy Podolsky snatched the brown and white paper bags from him and stomped off.

“The mediocracy drives me crazy,” Chef Dominique said to the manager, who smiled wanly and turned away. Mediocrity? The chef took a sip of water, and blotted his forehead with a corner of his napkin. After a moment, he excused himself to find the manager and speak to him.

“Sorry about Chef,” Izzy said once we were alone. “He shouldn't have done that.”

“Does that kind of thing happen a lot?” I gestured in the direction of the balled-up napkin, on top of which leaned the cocktail straw, as though a child had been recently sitting with us. The chef hadn't even bothered to push in his chair before he left. “People coming to the table like that?”

She shrugged and fastened a lock of hair behind her ear. “Dominique's just drunk and being overly sensitive. He doesn't usually mind if fans bother me, as long as they make an appropriately big deal out of him first. I just wish he'd think about my reputation before getting hysterical.”

“You didn't even get to finish your burger.”

“You know what? I've had enough of Dominique for one night, if not one life. You want to get a drink somewhere else? Just the two of us?”

“Yeah. Let's.”

Izzy and I said polite but fraught good nights to the chef in front of Marina City, and she hailed a taxi. It was only a dozen or so blocks to the bar Izzy suggested, and we probably could have walked, yet I didn't object. I was happy to follow along, enjoying the ride, literally and figuratively, wherever it took us.

We chose an open table at Bijan's by the window. Almost simultaneous to our ascent, a harried-looking Teutonic cocktail waitress presented us with menus. Izzy excused herself to the ladies'. Once she was out of the room, I illuminated my Timex with Indiglo and took an inconspicuous glance at my wrist under the table.
Tempus fugit
—it was already after one in the morning. I was surprised at this late hour I was still conscious. I'd subbed an eight o'clock for Berkal, my grad student officemate; taught my own classes; drank wine through the tasting and vodka at dinner; and hadn't even once needed to mask a yawn behind a gulp of water or dissembling smile. But for most of the evening, I'd largely only needed to be responsible for a third of the conversational momentum. There was no falling asleep at the table now. Izzy and I, here, were officially on a date.

Since deciding I needed to be on her television show in order to win her heart, I'd learned, via Google, about Izzy. I knew she was thirty-two. She had, intrepidly, moved from Southern Illinois to the city to take a job working the fine-dining floor at Bistro Dominique, a position that came with a starting salary four or five times what I picked up at UIC, even after all these semesters of parsing flawed introductory clauses and indicting generalities. Within a few years she'd seen her picture on the covers of
Wine Spectator
and
Cellar Temperature
, been profiled in a
Times
feature on rising young enological talent across the country, and received a James Beard Foundation
Outstanding Wine Service award years ahead of many of her significantly older and more experienced colleagues on the shortlist. All of this had brought Isabelle Conway unparalleled acclaim, and made her the object of food and drink bloggers' relentless, gossipy scrutiny. She'd want to know things about me, too. What would I share about myself?

There really wasn't a lot to tell. These days, I mostly taught my English composition classes, languished in my office, and drove home in the Mustang I'd had since undergrad with a seemingly bottomless pile of papers to grade. I'd Foreman Grill some chicken I'd eat alongside microwaved frozen vegetables. A glass of warm Côtes du Rhône in hand, I'd watch the evening's
Vintage Attraction
rerun, recasting the day's failures with more fruitful outcomes, not in a classroom with my indifferent students but at a dinner table, with someone else, someone who'd get me, who'd inspire me—Sommelier Isabelle Conway.

Following the waitress's departure with our cocktail orders, Izzy asked, “So, what exactly is a conceptualist?”

It took me a bemused second to recall that I had included “conceptualist” among my other occupations when I signed my first e-mail to her this afternoon. The eventual need to define the term for a date wasn't a surprise. My Nerve.com girls, after a couple of dirty martinis and the opening statements, when things began to slow, frequently probed for clarity the vague occupation I'd listed on my profile. I'd produce my Rhodia, the pumpkin-colored pad in which I jotted my ideas, and share my favorite entries:
I Have a Beef with You: civil procedure and steakhouse. For the Hitchcock fan who has a predilection for overly salty meats: Pork by Porkwest, where even the menu comes wrapped in bacon. Rawwwwr: hipster vegan, chic raw foods, screaming Howard Dean mascot. Sushi bar-meets-strip club: Pandora's Bento Box
. Nobody in recent romantic memory had received this with anything to suggest we might be kindred spirits. “So,” one of the sharper ones once asked, “‘if you have no intention of starting the business, what's the point? What do you hope to achieve?” I had no answer.

This time I left the notebook in my messenger bag. “Picture a tiny space,” I told Izzy. “Like a New York bar, something you'd find in the East Village, but really concealed, hidden to keep the tourists away. Maybe like only ten tables, mostly for two people, and a bar, but with only four or five seats. And all the tables have little tea-light candles, nothing bright anywhere, everything soft . . .”

“Romantic,” she finished. “That sounds like a perfect place for wine.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I actually came up with this one tonight, during the tasting. When you talked about the Zinfandel and the lava cake.”

“Dimly lit, people sitting close to each other,” she prompted. “What kind of food?”

“It's a dessert place. Little pastries, petit fours, macarons, and hazelnut tarts.”

“And port,” she added. “Do you have a name for it?”

I beamed. “That's pretty much how I always start.” Remembering the instant it came to me, a moment in which I was gazing up at Izzy's electric performance, swirling my glass of Zinfandel offhandedly, almost finally, nearly, maneuvering with precision, brought a similar pulse. Her rapt eyes and mouth further swelled my heart. The captivated attention she paid made me feel as though she were one of the audience and I the one mesmerizing the room. “The naming is the best part,” I was able to tell her in a steady voice.

“So, what is it called? The suspense is killing me.”

“Monogamousse.”

Delight and adrenaline coursed through my roughened romantic pipes, which had, until tonight, lain dry for months. Izzy began to smile, really smile, not just widening her mouth out of courtesy. Whereas my Internet dates might have privately dismissed me as being entirely frivolous, a half-wit, I had finally found someone who'd receive a performance like this and might just think I was a genius. And an e-mail had brought us together.

“Not bad,” she said. “So many restaurants today seem to have everything
but
a brilliant concept behind them.”

It was all I could do not to get up and throw my arms around her. I wanted to kiss her.

“Wine could definitely work there.”

“How?”

“Dessert wine is very sexy,” she said. “I could see a delicious tawny port pairing quite nicely with that beautiful hazelnut tart. A couple of small glasses of port—and you'd only need to serve a little bit, in keeping with the diminutive charm of things—and tarts? It would be love at first bite.”

“That's not a bad slogan,” I said.

“Yes, it is,” she said.

“You're really good at this,” I said, “and you've gotten me thinking. Not just about Monogamousse.” I pushed my drink aside, clearing a narrow space between us, and laid my hand on top of hers. I pressed with the assurance that only this much booze could instill. She looked down at what I was doing, but didn't comment, as though I'd made no more serious of an overture than to reach for a packet of Splenda. Then she flipped her palm to touch mine. With our fingers interlaced, I stared seriously into her eyes. “How come there's never a pen around when you find yourself sitting across the table from a wellspring of inspiration?”

She looked away. “I've always wanted to be somebody's muse,” she said.

I paid the check. Outside at the intersection, we waited for the light to change so we could cross the street and hail a southbound taxi. It was freezing out here. I moved my toes and heels and clenched my calves to keep warm. Bouncing around amplified my buzz. We held hands now. When we became still for a moment, I leaned forward to kiss her. She pulled away.

BOOK: Vintage Attraction
11.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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