As a food writer and critic, he's eaten out 4,000 times all over the world. But his most dazzling evening was the one he spent basking— feasting, even!—in the glow of fresh food and young love.
Consider food memories. In my capacity as food writer and restaurant critic over the past 25 years, I have dined out more than 4,000 times, give or take a few dozen street vendor hot dogs. Clearly, one man's cognitive refrigerator cannot store so many victuals. Consequently, I have always found it difficult to answer the question (and I am asked it incessantly), "What is the best meal you ever had?"
Recently, though, I decided to take up the challenge. I spent days scanning my old restaurant reviews, revisiting dozens of meals on the miles-long professional buffet. I flagged 30 stellar finalists—then changed my mind about half of them. I soon realized I had to expand my search from "best meal" to "best dining experience," because a great dinner isn't just about a procession of plates. The more you bring into a dining room—your appetite, your curiosity, your companions—the more you'll take away from it.
I considered my dinner at the legendary Taillevent, in Paris, which began with beluga caviar and Dom Pérignon and progressed to foie gras terrine, custard-stuffed squash blossoms, and an astounding tarragon-infused fricassee of fresh cod that I have tried and failed to re-create many times. I recalled an all-seafood dinner at Le Bernardin, in Manhattan, where I first tasted sea urchin roe, so delicate and briny it was like dunking your head under an ocean wave. I remembered the many incredible pastas I consumed in rustic, family-run trattorias in northern Italy. Great reminiscences and meals, all; still, I had a feeling something was missing.
Then a quote came to mind, something I had read some 30 years before. It was from the late New Yorker editor and writer Clifton Fadiman: "When one is young and has little money, it is prudent to spend that little on the unnecessary, the emotional dividends being higher."
Sure enough, this advice held the key. The moment I stopped dissecting all of those expense account spreads, there it was, the trophy winner, right in front of my nose all along.
Recklessly, I bid adieu to my editor and hopped a tramp steamer, for reasons both romantic and pecuniary. Enhancing the romance part was my girlfriend of three months, Anne de Ravel, a 23-year-old administrator at a language school in Washington, D.C. Taking a cue from me, she abandoned her job and packed a sea bag. Though her name trumpeted her nationality, one could peg her as French from the far end of a long, smoky bar: She was exceedingly feminine in movement and dress, polite and reserved, with a Gallic upturned nose and a passion for food. I was smitten.
Our destination was the port city of San Sebastián, in northern Spain. We had little money but youth and energy to burn, and our strategy was to scrimp on hotels but splurge on food in this proud capital of Basque cuisine. We got right down to business, strolling along narrow, bustling streets, mapping out our assault. That first evening, we found ourselves on a cement pier that extended far into the wide crescent bay. A dozen fishing boats bobbed below, their crews hauling up the mooring ropes for a long night at sea.
Toward the end of the pier we spotted a tiny restaurant called Bar Sebastián. A couple of teetery tables had been placed outside, so we took a seat. A young waitress, maybe 16, took our order for a bottle of Banda Dorada, a bone-dry white wine from nearby Rioja. It arrived frosty cold, perfect after our walk on a warm fall afternoon. We leaned across the table and shook hands in giddy triumph. I had no idea what Anne was thinking at that moment, but I was hopeful that this celebratory meal would be the first of many.
We lingered over green salads and dense whole wheat rolls that I drizzled with olive oil so sweet, earthy, and viscous it was nearly unrecognizable to my stunted American palate. There were but two main courses on the laminated menu, so we ordered both in no particular order. "Gambas a la plancha," or pan-fried shrimp, were made using that same lusty olive oil along with a wheelbarrowful of whole garlic cloves. Being accustomed to faucet-rinsed, flabby, tasteless white shrimp—standard American cocktail party fare at the time—I found these so startlingly tasty and addictive that I devoured them shells and all. When I realized that Anne had been little more than a spectator at this exhibition, I called for a second platter.
The next offering was a simple grilled tuna steak—"caught this morning," our waitress announced. Of that there was no dispute. Over the years as a restaurant critic, I have consumed enough tuna steak to fill a Chevy Suburban. While many of the more refined renditions were prepared with flair and technical skill, none was as flapping fresh as this. A trickle of parsley and lemon vinaigrette was all the seasoning it needed.
A short time after sunset, we spotted the fading lights of the fishing boats as they dipped over the ink-black horizon. We ordered espresso and flan—a fitting punctuation to a meal that, still today, I yearn to rewind and taste again. Our waitress, sensing that something special was transpiring at our table, set out two glasses of sherry. I toasted Anne, my culinary coconspirator and future wife.
Afterward, we strolled the beachside esplanade, charting our three-day search for the best Basque meal in the region—not yet aware, on our first day together in Europe, that we'd just had it.