A halibut nearly broke up my marriage. Not intentionally, I suppose. He was dusted in porcini at the time and presumably unaware of the havoc he was creating around him. Still, the indisputable fact is that if he had never been born – indeed, if the whole halibut phylum had never evolved – my wife and I wouldn’t have been in the middle of this terrible row.
It was the spring of 1997. Sonia and I were taking a weekend trip to New York City to celebrate our tenth anniversary. No kids, no Palm Pilots, nothing to stand in the way of a romantic getaway in the Big Apple. Sonia booked us a room at the Palace Hotel, run by Leona Helmsley, who at the time seemed like the least appealing hotel developer imaginable.
I was in charge of restaurants. Then, as now, I was completely food-obsessed (although I prefer the term “big-boned”). Going to New York for me was like stepping into Willy Wonka’s edible garden. I just wanted to run around tasting everything in sight. It even had its very own chocolate river called the Hudson.
But where to start? This was 1997. There was no Eater. No Instagram pics. Back then, the Internet really was a series of tubes with a butler named Jeeves fielding questions at a roll-top desk and sending answers back in longhand. It took me hours to gather even the most basic information about the New York dining scene. I started with best-of lists from New York magazine and the Village Voice, cross-indexed those with Zagat, and then stress-tested the results with several law school friends who lived in Manhattan. It was the kind of triangulation that would have made Ben Bradlee proud.
In the end, our big celebratory dinner came down to a tough call between Aureole, Chanterelle and a new upstart called Jean-Georges. After much to- and fro-ing, I finally decided on Aureole – Chef Charlie Palmer’s flagship – which at the time occupied a romantic townhouse in midtown.
It was a soft spring evening when we arrived. Dusk was just beginning to settle and the lights from the townhouse beckoned us inside where the cozy dining room was filled with smart-setters drinking martinis and trading witty bon mots. I felt like Ma and Pa Kettle stumbling into the opening montage of Manhattan.
We were given menus, but I barely opened mine. My research had turned up two can’t-miss dishes – the duck breast with vanilla-kumquat gastrique and the butter-poached lobster with baby leeks. I’d explained to Sonia on the train coming up that the plan was to have one of each. Done and done.
Our waiter appeared.
“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Chessen. Happy anniversary.”
I was so nailing this.
“As you look over the menu, I just wanted to let you know about our specials this evening.”
I was about to tell him not to bother but decided to let him go. Didn’t want to be rude and may as well get the full experience.
“We have a grilled veal chop tonight that’s really wonderful.”
Outwardly, sanguine nonchalance; inwardly, foot-tapping: A veal chop? You think I came all the way to New York to order a piece of meat I could grill at home? Please.
“And then we also have a very nice porcini-dusted halibut that comes on a bed of Swiss chard.”
I started to say thanks, we’ll just have the duck and the lobster, when my wife closed her menu and said the seven words that’ll be etched on my brain forever: “The halibut sounds good. I’ll have that.”
The blood rushing to my head left me incapable of forming words. Are we ordering three entrees? Because we’re still getting the duck and the lobster, right? I mean, after everything I went through there’s no way she’d order the halibut because it “sounds good.” Right?
I don’t need to dwell on the ensuing ugliness. She accused me of caring more about a stupid piece of fish than I cared about her. I accused her of caring more about a stupid piece of fish than she cared about me. I said maybe I’ll just get the veal chop then – as if that would make clear that her insane behavior could lead to the complete breakdown of the social order. But she called my bluff – fine, get the veal chop, what did she care? I beat a grudging retreat and got the duck, but the damage had been done. The dinner was ruined.
We’ve probably shared the halibut story with dozens of people in the past twenty-three years. I’d say seventy percent side firmly with Sonia. If she wants the halibut, let her get the halibut. What’s it to you? Most of the rest, while recognizing my issues, think Sonia could have been more sensitive to how important this was to me and the work I put in. Exactly two people backed me completely (well, one plus my mother).
I’m happy to say I’m a lot more relaxed these days. Sometimes the first time I see a restaurant’s menu is when I sit down to eat (ok, not really; I wasn’t raised in a barn). But I’ve learned not to put so much pressure on every meal. If the same situation came up today, I’d definitely order that third entree. Eventually, with more therapy and support from my loved ones, I aspire to become the kind of person who wouldn’t blink the next time someone at the table calls an ordering audible.
As a step on my road to recovery, I’m ready to admit something I’ve never publicly admitted before. The halibut was the best thing we ate that night.