Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Crime and Punishment

To quote Chekhov, I am in mourning for my life in this homey restaurant from Hell. 
Hello, tovariches! Back from Moscow, which was surprisingly grand, unbelievably clean, and easy to handle. My cholesterol count must be through the roof, as I spent ten days eating Russian food. This hearty and tasty cuisine, by the way, is the reason why almost everybody on my mother's side of the family succumbed to heart disease, and where I am probably heading as well. Alas, when in Russia, how can you not have the smetana*?
One evening, after walking enough miles for a Siberian forced march, we saw a cute little restaurant on a corner. Aromas of pasta sauce wafted from it. After all that borscht and varenikes, good old Italian pasta sounded like a swell idea.
So we walk in at around 10 pm, and a very sweet, smiling waitress welcomes us. The place looks like somebody cute's living room, full of tchotchkes. There is a big table with Japanese people and a couple of other tables. It takes her a while to bring us the menus. In general, service has been slow and erratic in Moscow, but not rude. Food always arrives cold and with not much chronological order.
My two companions order first, an appetizer and a main course each. She writes it down. Even though all the menus have an English translation, most waitstaff do not speak English, so like Alan Turing, they need to break the code and make sure that that which we are pointing to in a strange alphabet in the menu is the same thing we are ordering in Russian.
Then it's my turn. I order the tomato basil pasta. I am told: not possible.  She taps on her wristwatch. No pasta of any kind. So I order the fish, which Magnificent Arepa has ordered. No fish for me. No fowl either. No entrees. Apparently, my friends can have dinner, but I'm late to the party. While we are trying to figure out what on earth is happening, the waitress keeps running back and forth to handle the other tables and the kitchen, where I imagine, an ogre of a chef is wringing her neck for letting us in so near to closing time (11 pm).
After much pantomime, we understand that she is telling me that I can only have appetizers. At this point, the universal code for dining expectations is broken. How is it possible that two people at the same table will be served dinner, but not I?  In New York, the hostess would have made a face like she's smelling farts and said that the kitchen is closing in ten minutes, but this was not an option here. Here the option was: some of you will eat what you want, but not all.  One of you will eat what I tell her to eat.
Normally, I would not object to the only-appetizers plan, but the list of offerings was not very appealing. I ordered the herring with boiled potatoes and raw onion (like a cossack, you bet), but the rest was further down the scale of foods that hunter-gatherers in the Steppes eat. Stuff like boiled pork skins or cold vegetables. Nyet.
She brings our bottle of wine and starts uncorking it, still without addressing what is to happen to me. We gesture to her that before we drink, we need to solve my dinner problem. Our facial expressions denote a growing frustration. She keeps smiling, the mousy bitch. So far, she has gently steered me away from food but has not offered alternatives. She simply does not seem to understand what is my problem. I am to have herring. Is that not enough?
So, hungry, or rather quite hangry, I have a tiny little meltdown and I stand up and announce that we are leaving. Some sort of ado ensues and then the waitress points to the pasta carbonara and says that she can offer that.  How a pasta carbonara is faster and easier than the tomato basil one is a question that will haunt me until the end of time. Because of this kind of communication glitch, one spends a good amount of time in restaurants pondering questions along the time/space continuum such as, if everything takes so long, why does it all appear at the table at once? Or, it is possible that they were making the sauce from scratch, ran out of tomatoes, or Einstein was plain wrong?
Anyway, the waitress apologizes. I apologize. We drink to everyone's health. Food arrives. To the waitress' utter amazement, I exchange my hard earned pasta for the fish Magnificent Arepa ordered. By the way, Arepa ate pasta carbonara for three or four consecutive days, once both for lunch and dinner. They make a decent version in Russia.
We finish this food, which is quite tasty, and look forward to our friend's beef Strogonoff.  We wait. And we wait. And soon there is no one left in the restaurant, and the waitress is cleaning up. Then we start getting interesting cues, like the chef going out the door with a huge pyrex in hand (with which I'm convinced he will feed my friend's Strogonoff to his family and/or dog). The Strogonoff never arrives. The waitress smiles without explanation or apology until the bitter end.

*Cream: it's on everything.

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