Friday, June 8, 2012

Dining with the 1% & D-Day

Last night, I more than tithed myself to pay for dinner for two at Z-Space Steakhouse; it cost two to three times what I paid for Beijing duck in the original Beijing duck restaurant. The food was very good, but not extraordinary. The service was strange, punctuated by a couple of highly awkward moments, which I will describe below. I have often walked by this city's fancy restaurants--many are alongside or near the park, which abuts my neighborhood--and I have wondered who the clientele are.

Their fancy cars are parked neatly on the sidewalk--BMWs, Audis, and more VWs than you can count. The lousy Chinese drivers are generally directed by men, usually dressed in paramilitary uniforms, who bark their parking directions like drill sergeants. (My favorite is the place with the men in FBI vests and garb, who in other seasons or different weather are sometimes dressed in knock-off 101st Airborne uniforms replete with American flag arm patches and a scraggly version of the official insignia.) For the less-connected, perhaps less-educated sociopaths who could not join the vast police forces or actually join the PLA as a drill sergeant, I guess this a great job, but in their Napoleonic great coats come January, it does not seem so to me. At this place, the parking attendant was dressed more like a bell-hop or chauffeur, which struck me as more normal and classy. Maybe the Chinese elite like bumping up over the curb (kerb in British English) before eating some pricey hot-pot and feeling like they are storming the beaches of Normandy. Z-Space, if it does one thing really well, parks cars in a genteel manner.

Aside from a lanky ShiDaFuZhong student in her uniform, I saw nobody I could place so I guess you could say that I have no more idea about who these diners are now than I did yesterday afternoon before this impulsive extravaganza. I asked my dinner partner if they were government employees and she smiled, "Maybe relatives of government employees." "Maybe they work in the banks?" I pushed, but this topic was done.

Later, snuggled on our own banquette just far enough apart to keep others from feeling uncomfortable, we did wave, like baseball fans at a stadium, to the cameras on the ceiling in lieu of kissing one another. We did not discuss whether they were necessary, although I assume we were not being listened to. Being watched is just part of life here.

Our table was the one nearest the excellent pianist and violinist's stage. The only other couple that I could see clearly from this vantage point was lounged, er, positively slouched, in such a leisurely fashion on their plush banquette, looking at an IPad together and casually drinking their red wine (starting price per bottle about 350RMB) that I could only deduce they were regulars. During the dinner, the only other patron who we watched with joy was a little girl, who pulled herself up on to the stage after the musicians had left and peered into the innards of the grand piano with glee and fascination.

As I watched my dinner partner struggle with choosing the right fork and deciding how to hold it, I imagined my unsympathetic mother judging her over some future dinner and my defense: "But Mom, she grew up with chopsticks." Instead of the gigantic white napkin on her lap, she used the Kleenex on the table to dab at her lipstick and then left it crumpled on the table. A server noticed this and came back a minute later with some silver tongs, squirreling it away on a silver tray. How well-trained! "So un-ladylike!" grouses a voice in my head that sounds surprisingly like the woman who raised me (so well).
N.B. When you go to a mid-priced Chinese restaurant, you always have a little package of tissues that you can slip into your purse or pocket after the meal is over. If you are eating meat, especially any number of concoctions that include gristle, fowl heads and necks, or fish-bones, it is not impolite to pile them on the table in the area around your plate, soiling the linen if you are eating in such a fine establishment.
I had blueberry juice and she had cucumber lemonade.
I am smitten and we (both, I hope!) passed a couple hours easily in each others company here. We did not order wine. She does not like the way she feels after imbibing the red stuff and I was feeling a bit Scotch after seeing Kobe beef for more than 1000RMB on the menu. The servers did a half-decent job of filling the water glasses when they were drained. In their defense, my unquenchable thirst for water at fancy dinners is legend in our family. Many times, my father has embarrassed me, the way that fathers do, by announcing to a pretty waitress or a too-busy-to-care waiter, "My son is a waterite." (I think it was a Sniglet from a 1980s Word-a-Day calendar.)

You can see that table was well-appointed. The candelabra--its middle stem stuffed with monogrammed ribbon--was elegant. The featured prix fixe meals for this month were listed on a menu-ette that stands, in the picture above, behind the aforementioned box of Kleenex. Each of the three choice meals was linked to a European country's cuisine--French, Italian, and Spanish. The prices seemed to be relative to how well their economies are doing. Naturally, I should have assumed, despite any obvious indication, that this bottle of fine olive oil was for display purposes only, but the bread was good and the butter patties were gone so I cracked the seal. This sound attracted the attention of a passing waitress who reappeared moments later to explain that my mistake would cost us 100RMB, but we could take the bottle with us at the end of the meal. We had a good laugh over this indiscretion and talked about how we would not leave the bottle on the windowsill, but would hide it away in a dark cabinet. The waitress was gracious and soon appeared with demi-bowls of olive oil infused with ten year-old balsamic vinegar (from some opened bottle in the kitchen.

The advising chef, Clement, is an acquaintance of mine. He is French and a lovely man, who loves his job. Among his responsibilities are carving the beef table-side and improving the menu. He came out three times during the evening to chat with us. The first time, I said, "This is our first time here." His response made us chuckle later. He said, "I can see that."  Did we look like kids in a candy store? Were we improperly attired? We had made an effort to dress up a bit. Perhaps, he meant nothing and was struggling for the right thing to say in his second language.

The second time that I spotted him, I motioned him over and said that it was my dinner partner's birthday. He said, "Do you want a cake?" We were full and tried to decline, but between the three of us and our three separate languages, the message was not adequately conveyed. We sat there for five minutes and he reappeared, talking with the Chinese manager off to our left. "Can you wait twenty minutes?" Again, we tried to decline graciously and, again, the message was not received. We bantered about how what we were really celebrating was D-Day and he said, "But isn't that July 4th?" I smiled and reminded him about Normandy, 1944, being different than the Declaration of Independence, 1776. He laughed at himself and said in his French accent, "Oh, yes, I have heard of that. There is some cheese there or something." I might have smugly thought, "There would be Germans in Cherbourg if it was not for Omaha Beach." He could, of course, have been thinking, there would still be British regulars in Virginia if it was not for deGrasse and Rochambeau.

Not sure whether we were waiting for a cake or not, we motioned for the waiter and I paid the bill on a table-side credit card machine. We got up to leave and were told, "Don't leave. You have a cake coming." It came out with Clement and we thanked him again. It was tasty and too big so we carried the bulk of it away...along with our olive oil.

The following evening, which was the real D-Day and the real birthday, I lead a two-hour educational discussion at The Culture Club about a History Channel special on Sun Tzu's Art of War. I have spent some time studying this book and own a very nice copy. The blurb says:
“The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” So begins The Art of War, a meditation on the rules of war that was first published in China. Historians don’t know the exact date of the book’s publication (though they believe it to be in the 4th or 5th century); in fact, they don’t even know who wrote it! Scholars have long believed that The Art of War’s author was a Chinese military leader named Sun Tzu, or Sunzi. Today, however, many people think that there was no Sun Tzu: Instead, they argue, the book is a compilation of generations of Chinese theories and teachings on military strategy. Whether or not Sun Tzu was a real person, it’s clear that “he” was very wise: The Art of War still resonates with readers today.
The film talks extensively about the mistakes and successes of several important campaigns. I chose to show it because of its extensive review of D-Day--the blunders of Hitler and the successful strategy of Eisenhower.

I also chose it because it uses weichi (the Game of Go) as a way to describe the thinking of Sunzi and his subsequent followers, who include Colon Bowel [sic], Robert E. Lee, Mao Zedong, Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh. I spent an hour speaking with my college adviser this week (I am missing my 15th college reunion) and he has reignited my interest in learning Go. I have already played hours of Capture Go at and joined another website that will send me a weekly email with training exercises.

Dwight David Eisenhower's letter to his troops who he threw on to a beach with no place for them to run and nothing to do but fight to live appears to the right. On D-Day, I think always of Frank Whelden, the quiet old man whose wife was my fourth grade math teacher and who, himself, ran the bookstore at The Fessenden School. As a budding history student, I interviewed him about his experience in the 82nd Airborne. These men were amazing. We ought to pause to honor their sacrifice.

This post is dedicated to the Clendenning-Poiniers and gourmands and foodies everywhere, as well as the men and women who gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy, especially the 101st Airborne.

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