Tuesday, January 05, 2016

January 5, 2016--Snowbirding: Adieu to Balthazar (Concluded)

Early-Bird Special

Ten days later, with my mother still very much alive—actually quite recovered with many months and possibly many more years to live (so said her team of doctors)--after catching an early afternoon movie at the local Regal Multiplex, the 3:00 p.m. show of True Grit, which we were surprised to see played to a house two-thirds full of seniors with no one munching on anything and no one talking to the screen in a loud voice, still with no return tickets to New York and no plans to purchase them—Alice suggested that rather than eating leftovers at our rented condo by the ocean, maybe we should try the Chinese restaurant, the China Diner, at an adjacent shopping plaza.
“But it’s not even six o’clock,” I whined.  “No one eats dinner that early.  Other than my mother and her friends.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alice said, “Half the people down here eat at this time.  You know that.  We’re hungry, right?”  I sheepishly nodded, “So stop pretending we’re back in Greenwich Village and let’s see if we can get a table.”
“There should be no trouble with that,” I offered in a mocking tone.  “It’s so ridiculously early.  For God sakes it’s still daylight.”
In fact I was quite wrong--there were no tables inside and even all the seats at the sushi-bar-like counter were occupied.  “This must be at least a decent place,” I said, “to be so busy so early.” 
Alice looked at me as if to say, “You’re so naïve.  We’ve been here long enough for even you to know about early-bird specials.” 
But there was an empty outdoor table, and even though it was situated virtually in the shopping plaza’s parking lot, and since we were in fact hungry, we slid into the last available seats. 
“I’m sure we won’t run into anyone from New York.  It would be terrible if the word got out that we’re having dinner this early,” I said, and, just in case, slipped lower in my seat and hid my face behind the plastic-sheathed menu.
“You’re being silly,” Alice said, “Just look at the specials.  They sound quite good.  There’s steamed sea bass with scallions and ginger and one of your favorites, Singapore Chow Mei Fun.  Though I wonder if they’ll use enough curry.”  She looked around at our neighbors as if to indicate that considering the age of the other diners it would likely be tamer than I would prefer and am used to when we order it at the Big Wong back in New York’s Chinatown.
The waitress appeared, smiling broadly, to ask if she could bring us something to drink.  “Just tea and ice water,” I said.  “I see you have pu erh tea.  It’s our favorite.”
When she returned with our beverages she asked, “When did you get here?”
“A few days ago,” I answered. “Why do you ask?”  It seems like a strange question.
“I mean this afternoon.  I mean here this eve-n-ing.”  She pointed at her watch and the table.
“Oh, you mean at the restaurant.  I don’t know.  Maybe 15 minutes ago.”
She smiled broadly, “That good,” she said, “Still early-bird time.  You can have soup or an egg roll with your order.  No charge.”
“But we don’t want that,” I said, “We’re interested in the steamed fish and . . .”
“It all comes.”
“What comes?”
“Before six you get soup or egg roll.  For free.  It comes.”
“Thank you.  That’s nice.  But we just want the sea bass, the Singapore noodles, and also some Chinese eggplant with mushrooms and water chestnuts.”
“No soup?”  She scrunched her face in a look of puzzlement.
“No, just that,” Alice said, sharing the responsibility for our seemingly unusual order.  Actually, our mutually-agreed-upon decision not to participate in any Florida freebies.
“You can take home later,” she persisted.
“We’ll be fine.  But thank you for suggesting that.”
The dinner turned out to be quite good.  Not exactly Chinatown quality, of course; and, as expected, the Singapore was a bit tame for me, but it was much more than just respectable.  Not what one would expect at a Chinese restaurant called the China Diner in an unprepossessing shopping mall right next door to a nail salon.
As she cleared the table, the waitress seemed happy that unlike the other customers we had eaten virtually everything on our plates with chopsticks, not forks.  Smiling broadly, she asked if we wanted the pistachio ice cream that came with the dinner.
We both rubbed our distended stomachs and simultaneously said, “No, but thank you very much.”
“You sure?” she asked, again looking puzzled, “It comes.  No charge.”
“Really, we’re stuffed,” I said.  “Just the check, please.”
As she turned to get it for us, a 70-something woman at the next table called out, “What about us?  We want our ice cream.  Pistachio.  I love pistachio.  It’s my favorite with Chinese food.”
The waitress, once more taking a long look at her watch, responded curtly, “You had the soup, yes, and the egg roll, no?  Both.  I make exception for you. You just get two. Not three.” 
The woman, ignoring that, more insistently demanded, “I want my ice cream.  Pistachio.”
“But you had egg roll and wonton soup.  I told you it comes with either one.  But you wanted both so I give to you.”
“What about them?”  She waived her bejeweled finger in our direction.  I was cringing, sorry I no longer had the menu behind which I could hide.  “You told them they could have pistachio.”
“They had no soup.  No egg roll.  Neither.  Not even one.”
The woman tapped her husband on the arm.  It looked as if he had fallen asleep over his dinner and when she poked him he jolted into consciousness, mumbling something I couldn’t make out.  In an even louder voice she broadcast, “She says they didn’t have the soup.” 
“The what?  What did you say?”
“She says they didn’t have the soup or the egg roll.  And now she says we can’t have ice cream.  Though she wants them to have theirs.  Talk to her will you.”
But before he could, to our great relief, the waitress said, “I’ll bring you two orders of ice cream.”  So as not to be misunderstood, she wiggled two fingers in their line of sight.  “Two.”
“Morris doesn’t eat ice cream.  He has cholesterol.  So bring two scoops for me.”  The waitress, expressionless, nodded and turned abruptly to get our check and their two scoops of pistachio.  She had clearly seen it all.
Witnessing this exchange, I wondered again about the wisdom of eating so early.  But the food had been excellent and I sheepishly said to Alice, “If we come back for another dinner, we should be sure to arrive after 6:30 and take our chances that they’ll still be open.” 
“And,” Alice said, “we’ll remember to ask them to make the Singapore Chow Mei Fun spicier.”
To that I wondered out loud, “But what will we tell everyone back at Balthazar?”

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