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By Laine Doss
Dining alone is scarier than intensive psychotherapy all your worst fears are forced to the surface. Am I conspicuous? Are people staring? Am I hogging more than my fair share of space? Does my waiter resent me? Do I look like a loser? What should I do with my hands? And most metaphysical of all, in this yawning absence, this silent hour, do I really know who I am?
Women particularly, in our post-feminist age, still rarely go out to eat alone. Even when traveling for business, we mostly order room service, subsisting on tepid burgers and soft-boiled eggs. As for me, I've dined on my own at very posh restaurants precisely twice in my life, and both times, the experience was surreal and dreamlike. And ultimately wonderful. At 19, in San Francisco, I once got gussied up and took myself out for an expensive, leisurely meal at a well-known Polynesian-themed restaurant. The odd thing is, I remember every bite I ate (crab Rangoon, pepper steak), exactly what I was wearing (a cream-colored silk skirt), and even what chair I sat in (the great, balloon-shaped butterfly chair in the corner). The waiters looked after me, bemused and solicitous, not sure if I was a whore, a crazy heiress, or just another lost soul.
There's a strange sense of "last meal"-ness to the experience of dining alone, an intensity and focus, as if at the end of it, you're going to quietly fold your napkin and go throw yourself off the nearest bridge. But in that void of white tablecloth and empty chairs, you have no choice but to pay attention to your food (which may be why the Guide Michelin surveyors famously work solo). You note the feel of table linen, the sheen of flatware. You study the four furled pink rosebuds in the glass vase; absorb the murmur of waiters and wine stewards as they pad around behind you; notice the precise, measured way your wine glass is refilled. The light from high windows turns your pinot noir the color of a liquid blush. Eating alone slows time. It almost, but not quite, conquers it.
Sitting with me, myself, and I on a recent evening at the Restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach feeling a little bit smug and not at all lonesome I wondered why I don't do this more often. For one thing, your final bill is half what it would be if you were eating with somebody else. You can hie over to the snootiest places with the best chefs, get waited on hand and foot, and nibble the most delectable morsels. When you dine alone, that glass of good champagne is within reach, and nobody is going to judge you for ordering it. You can say "yes" to the half ounce of osetra (at the Restaurant, it's $75); you can OK the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings. You consult with no one but your own conscience and maybe the wine steward. My friends, it is bliss. I'm strongly urging you to give it a whirl.
The Restaurant at the Four Seasons is a fine place to take your first solo flight. Chef Hubert des Marais is one of our great celebrity chefs; at the tender age of 31, a little over a decade ago, he was fingered by Food & Wine as one of 10 Best New Chefs in America. During his long stint at the Four Seasons, des Marais has put in a splendid garden at the resort, where he plucks fresh herbs and tropical fruits for his "Southeastern Regional" menu; he's been known to purchase fruit too from local residents' backyards. Des Marais frequently goes sea fishing with resort guests and cooks up their haul, and he seemingly has more southeasterly regional ideas than he can shake a stick at. The seven-course tasting menu, for instance, changes daily. The night I was there, my waiter said he'd worked at the Restaurant for ten years and couldn't remember seeing any dish repeated more than once or twice.
The à la carte menu is laden with tropical touches: avocado and sunchoke, banana blossoms, basil pesto sorbet, alligator pears, hearts of palm. You'll find guava and passion fruit reductions, boniato fries, and Old South standards like red-eye gravy polished to a new gloss with heirloom tomatoes. The best representation of Chef Hubert's whimsy, though, is in his tasting menus. You can choose three-, five- or seven-course tastings ($65, $85, $105, respectively), with or without wine pairings ($85, $115, $150 for a three-ounce pour with each course). Go with the pairings if you dare (my waiter, probably worried about my blood alcohol level and the ever-industrious South Palm Beach cops, advised me to drive home along AIA and advised me, please, not to go over 35 miles per hour).
After settling in at a window-side table overlooking the sea, nestled in softest linens, my brocade back-pillow adjusted, my handbag perched on its very own padded stool at my feet, I decided on five selections. The meal would begin with a crab and leek fritter amuse bouche. There was chilled grilled summer tomato soup with a morel mushroom dumpling to follow. Then a piece of annatto-basted Florida mahi mahi with yucca frita and fresh passion fruit reduction. A pan-seared Peking duck breast with caramelized peach and red curry vinaigrette came next. Then tenderloin of bison with braised beluga lentils and roasted figs in truffle jus. The evening would conclude with a chocolate and orange parfait on cocoa nougatine and a scoop of coconut ice cream. I planned on espresso afterward, to accompany the little tray of sweetmeats.
The service at the Restaurant is beyond courtly. It's in fact so pitch-perfect that it made me glow with pleasure. Every server, from the bread man to the wine steward, uses your name (your last name, that is, as in: "Welcome to Restaurant, Ms. Shepherd." Or "May I pour you more water, Ms. Shepherd?" Or "Pardon my reach, Ms. Shepherd."). I was offered newspapers and magazines (the solo diner's first resort, which I refused). My napkin was placed in my lap. My chair adjusted just so. I was visited by a headwaiter, a waiter, a wine steward, a food runner, a bread server, and a table busser, all of whom cared deeply. My flatware and service plates were changed and updated with great precision. It was a terrific performance.
As for my five courses, one was ho-hum; the rest were stellar. The tomato soup was mysterious and smoky, topped with a petite, warm morel dumpling and mined with emerald-green herbal infusions. It was flecked here and there with the most delicate little basil and oregano sprouts, dusky, peppery, and sweet. A 2002 Echelon chardonnay was served with it. But the second course, mahi mahi, fell completely flat. The fish had purportedly been basted in annatto, a subtle flavor that I certainly couldn't detect, and the fillets were perched on mealy, dry yucca fries. The wine, a sauvignon blanc from Robert Pecota, was the one pairing I didn't find convincing. Even so, when the mahi was followed by rare duck breast with a grilled peach, all was forgiven. Here was a dish I'll remember forever: the duck breast pink and moist and fatty, set against a perfumed, warm peach flecked with lots of cracked pepper and coriander seeds, topped with a tiny sprig of flowering mint and surrounded by a moat of red curry vinaigrette. It was the perfect iteration of summertime. The Alderbrook pinot noir served with the duck had unfortunately gone off, but when I pointed this out, a new bottle was opened with great bustle and profuse apologies. And the new pour was delicious with what I had left of the bird light-bodied and exuding warm cherry and spices.
The most tender, dreamy, and luscious tenderloin of bison was brought out next, on a bed of tiny dark "caviar" lentils alongside melting roasted figs in a bottomless, velvety truffle jus. What a superb bite this was the textures of the meaty bison and sweet figs set against the fragrantly earthy lentils. Along with it came my favorite wine of the evening, a smooth, rich, round and very drinkable 2002 Italian Campofiorin Masi that made an ideal accompaniment for this aromatic dish.
Dessert was lovely to look at, better to dig into an expensive-looking square of rich chocolate that seemed to emanate light, perched on a buttery nougat and festooned with tall, dark chocolate squiggles like a lady's hat. A strip of orange marmalade flecked with fresh mint separated dark from light: a tiny round of refreshing coconut ice cream to take the edge off the chocolate. The Quady Essencia orange muscat served with it ("Orange and chocolate always compliment each other so well," the steward confided as he poured) was delightful.
By the time the tropical fruit gum drop, the butter cookie, and the chocolate candy arrived, I'd lost any trace of self-consciousness. I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment. Clearly, I belonged here, sipping my cup of bitter espresso, savoring the deep and luxurious easiness of my own company. I was someone I could do this with again, sometime.