Sunday, November 27, 2011

A singular meal

“Good evening,” he said, a lilting accent giving away his foreign upbringing. “And welcome to Palo.”

We returned his smile, offering thanks.

“Is this your first time here with us?” He adjusted my husband’s seat.

Was this our first time? Most definitely. No, we had not dined in the exclusive adult-only five-star restaurant on top of a 14-story Disney cruise ship at night while docked in the beautiful and balmy harbor of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Our friends, Ward and Lisa, were also first timers along with us. We were just over half-way through our week-long dream vacation. Our kids were five stories below us, being served dinner at our regular table in the Parrot Cay, a wonderful restaurant on its own.

“Yes,” we answered, not caring if it was obvious how much we were enjoying everything about our present surroundings.

He knew our names. Once he determined which one of the men was Dave Blaser, who had made the reservation, he welcomed us all by name. Just another simple layer of Disney courtesy.

“My name is Nikola,” he said as he poured Mickey tap water into my glass (we had opted out of the Evian bottled water at $5.00 each). I shifted my gaze to read below his name tag to find out what country he was from. Serbia.

“Kako ste?” I blurted out, spouting the only Serbian I could recall. During my mission, almost half a lifetime ago, I had known a fair amount of Serbian, and could have carried on a decent conversation. Most of that knowledge had now fallen through the cracks of life, making room for more critical information like what bribes worked to get your daughter to practice the piano, and how to do seven loads of laundry on the side of an otherwise crazy day.

“Dobro,” he answered automatically. It took a second longer for him to realize I had just spoken in his native tongue. “Do you speak Serbian?”

“No.” I racked my brain for any more Serbian. How do you say “I lived in Slovenia?” I couldn’t pull it out. “Zivi en Slovenija.” I said, mixing bad Slovene grammer with a random Spanish article thrown in for added confusion. What?

But, he understood. The verb, ‘Ziveti‘ meant ‘to live‘ and the root was similar enough to Serbian. We exchanged a few more pleasantries about that area of the world, thankfully in English. This additional rapport was just another magical coating on our evening. It is a small world after all.

The entire night was marvelous. No, a three-syllable word does not do it justice. Sensational. Incredible. {Insert brilliant-sounding five or six-syllable word here.}

We started off with an entire antipasto bar, rolled directly to our table where Nikola doled out almost transparent slices of prosciutto, plump artichoke hearts, and parmesan cheese that had aged for over eight years, all drizzled with garlic-infused, hand-pressed olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Fresh, warm italian bread accompanied it.

The next course was soups and salads. The caprese salad had a beautiful twist. A perfectly ripe tomato, halved and peeled, adorned with generous wedges of mozzarella cheese amid a plate decorated with basil and oil mixed together and drizzled in the shape of a large tree branch. It was almost too appealing to touch, but one-bite did the trick, and soon Nikola was clearing out plates to make room for the margarita and quattro formaggi pizzas we had ordered. The thin-crusted margarita was perfectly italian. Crunchy crust, obviously cooked in a brick oven. Thin tomato-based sauce dripped off the ends of each piece, staunched occasionally by a stray basil leaf or a slice of mozzarella still trying to melt.

I was starting to get full. Our entrees hadn’t even arrived. I forced myself to abandon the second slice of tempting pizza. The conversation never got dull. When we weren’t whimpering in delight over each bite of whatever we were consuming, we were discussing our next possible vacations together. This was just the beginning for our families. We each had three children. Same ages. Same genders. It was ideal.

Nikola timed our entrees to perfection. My sea bass was a work of art. With each bite, butter and lemon exploded into my mouth and the flesh of the fish simply melted onto my tongue. We exchanged bites around the table so everyone could taste everything.

“You’ve got to try this” should be Palo’s catchphrase. We all must have said it a dozen times that evening.

Long before our entrees had even arrived, Nikola asked us if we wanted to try the specialty dessert: The Chocolate Souffle. And, yes, all three of those words deserve their capitals. It took just under a half an hour to cook one, so if we wanted them, we needed to get the order in then. We had been prepared. We had been told, no, almost commanded, that The Chocolate Souffle was a must at Palo. Essential.

Enough time had passed since our entree platters had been removed to just tickle the tops of our appetites. Though, even if we had been truly full, we were quickly becoming experts at eating more-than-generous portions.

With flair, Nikola adjusted a thin rolling cart containing our desserts near our table. On top sat four rectangular white plates. Each was centered with a white ramekin overflowing with The Chocolate Souffle. On one side, two miniature pitchers held vanilla bean and chocolate sauces. On the other side, a perfectly round sphere of vanilla gelato floated on a ceramic resting spoon. Steam emanated seductively from the ramekin.

After presenting us each with our platters, he removed Dave’s plate to use for demonstrative purposes. With the fork tines away from him, he gently prodded a small opening in the top of the souffle. Mist stole its way out in a puff. He picked up the vanilla bean sauce and pour an ounce into the hole. The entire souffle responded with a sultry bulge.

We all smiled in our own sinful anticipation of what was about to come. I gently poked a hole along the cracked lines in the surface of my souffle. Poof. A pocket of bottle fog crept out. I couldn’t decide which sauce to apply first. So, I chose both. I raised my small silver spoon and penetrated the opening I had created. Ecru cream poured out of the small container and was quickly swallowed up by the darkness inside. Milk-chocolate sauce followed and my spoon grappled around for a perfect mixture of vanilla bean, chocolate sauce, and chocolate souffle. I pulled it out with a perfect, delectable mass.

I blew on it slightly, looking up to see all three of my dinner companions doing the same. We shared a silly smile. Kids in a candy shop had nothing on us. And then...

Mmmm. How can something be crumbly and so moist at the same time? I swirled the sodden morsels around in my mouth, absorbing each burst of flavor. No need to say, “You have to try this” to anyone now. We were all equally drawn up in food euphoria.

Over the next too-rapidly passing ten minutes, we sat enjoying our souffles. I relished in each bite, pouring more sauce intermittently. Eating each bite slower than a bank teller returning to the long line of customers after her ill-timed break. It was simply sumptuous.

With each swallow, I tried to capture the entire essence of the evening. That day had been one of the best so far. We had started out eating breakfast with Mickey, Minnie and all their friends. We had gone for an amazing catamaran ride out to a secluded bay to snorkel. The ride back to the boat had been a highlight. All six kids were laughing on the catamaran ride back. Lying on their stomachs on the stiff netting watching the waves splash up all around us. Standing up surfing and trying not to get knocked over when we hit a particularly large swell. The sun beating down on our skin, warming us; the perfect contrast to the wind in our hair. Upbeat music blasting from the ship’s stereo. Now, we were all showered, and dressed up to the nines. Our children, who had been fed and taken care of by other people, were now all comfortably watching Cars 2 in 3D in the huge theater seven stories below us. The view was a dark, lulling ocean and blinking harbor lights. I had seen a sign that afternoon that read, “There is a better life out there, it just costs more.” I had laughed at the time, but I felt I knew what it meant. This moment. This was what it meant.

And, suddenly, I didn’t want it to end. I looked down at my souffle, and even though I was absolutely full, I wouldn’t not have eaten the last bite even if I had room. I had to save it for later. To let it linger in my memory. To know that it was still there, unfinished, waiting for me. Waiting for the next time.


Wendy said...

Makes me want to go on Disney cruise now! I was thinking the whole time that the punch line would be that the souffle was spiked with vodka or something and you'd all gotten unintentionally drunk.

Lisa Andrews said...

You brought a tear to my eye. Seriously. You made me miss the cruise far too much. That was a perfect day and you captured it beautifully! Can't wait to go back someday with you and get to finish up The Chocolate Souffle.

Ward said...

We were definitely "whimpering in delight", great storytelling Jennie! We are ready to go back!

GrGrGr said...

Jennie, Did you get the recipe?
Great writing!!! You should sell it to Disney for their publicity.
Love you lots. Mom and Dad

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