The Two Best Meals I’ve Ever Experienced

I love to eat. A lot. And I love food: Canadian, Latin American, Italian, Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, Greek, Indian…you name it, I probably love it. There are certain foods that I actively loathe – chiefly olives – but on the whole, I think food is just swell. But the food itself is not the only element with respect to eating: the company and the atmosphere constitute a large part of the dining experience. For example, devouring a pretty good slice of cake with my hands in a hotel room with my husband trumps eating a better slice of cake with a fork in a restaurant. The context made the experience of eating that cake more enjoyable.

In that vein, I present two of the most memorable meals I’ve ever eaten:

In 2004, my husband (then boyfriend), his cousin, his cousin’s girlfriend and I booked an all-inclusive vacation to Cuba*. This was going to be a week of nothing but cold drinks and late nights. We weren’t really too concerned about the quality of food and, it being Cuba, the food was not great: it was badly under-seasoned, often over-cooked and generally pedestrian. We weren’t expecting four-star meals, but we found that to eat consistently well we had to head to the snack bar and order the shockingly delicious chicken salad sandwiches.

The pinnacle of crappy food, however, came on our second-last night. We booked the seafood-themed restaurant and anticipated some yummy food. I mean…we could see the water. How bad could it be? First up: seafood bisque. My husband instinctively reached for the salt and found six hands slapping him away. All of the salt that had been missing in the 15+ meals we’d already had could be located in the four bowls in front of us. Totally inedible.  I do my best never to waste food, but there was no way a second bite was passing my lips. The waiter looked very, very unamused. We ordered another round of rum & Cokes and a small child then attempted to steal one of the Coke cans off the table while his father – clearly an employee – laughed nearby. Oh-kay.

Course two: mystery salad. Lettuce, pink tomato and what we eventually figured out was calamari. Said calamari, however, bore a striking resemblance to a soggy piece of fettucini and thus the term “noodacle” was born.  Needless to say, not much on these plates was eaten, either. The waiter became less and less friendly; fortunately, our rum & Cokes just got more and more delicious.

Course three: the girls ordered shrimp, the guys ordered surf & turf. It never occurred to any of us that they would serve prawns, head and all. Now, I can shell and de-vein shrimp with the best of them; however, I don’t like it when my food comes with eyeballs. I just can’t get over it. Clearly, this was not the kitchen’s problem nor its fault. Eyeballs on my food freak me out. I feel like the food is watching me. My prawn-eating companion felt similarly and we implored our boyfriends to behead our food once and for all. We were likely on our fourth round of rum & Cokes and as the prawn carcasses piled up so, too, did the hysterics.

Course four: dessert. By this time, we were fairly convinced that the entire waitstaff had spat – or worse – in our food, but we didn’t care. We were having so much fun at this ridiculously terrible dinner that nothing could ruin it. Our options for dessert were: tres leches, flan, ice cream or pie. My husband asked what was in the tres leches.
“Senor? Three milks.”
“Okay…how would I eat it? With a fork or a spoon?”
“Senor, joo can eat it however joo want.”
Right. So he orders the ice cream and the waiter writes that down. The rest of us, one by one, order the ice cream. Each order was bookended with “And for jooo?” and “Ice cream. Very good.” After the last order for ice cream was placed, the waiter announced, “Unfortunately for joo, we have no ice cream.”

Well, that was that. We sat dumbfounded for five seconds and then erupted in semi-drunken, totally disbelieving laughter. We re-ordered and raised a glass to the worst – but best – meal we’d ever had.

Five years later, my husband and I went to a resort in cottage country to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. We went not only because the resort looked beautiful, but had a reputation for excellent food. We reserved two spots at the Culinary Theatre where the chef entertained a group of 18 while preparing an absolutely delicious tasting menu. We ordered wine with each course and found that my parents had been kind enough to purchase a small bottle of champagne for us. (Thanks again, Mom!) It became clear very quickly that my husband and I were the most knowledgeable people at dinner with respect to food and it was fun watching the reactions of everyone else to the meal we were served. Some were very excited; most were pretty stymied by the array of ingredients and their preparation.

The menu was as follows:

1: Yellowfin tuna rolls; caramelized sweet potato sticks; fresh mozzarella and tomato slice; tomato mousse w/ balsamic vinegar cube.

2. Japanese soup w/ hamachi, mussels, and poached shrimp served with eel, avocado and roe spring roll, with eel juice.

3. Halibut w/ black bean sauce w/ ginger & chive garnish on a daikon carpet w/ sesame oil.

4. Sea bass encrusted in crostini in bouillabaisse sauce.

5. Seared duck, rhubarb chutney w/ pea puree, pea shoots and fresh peas.

6. Bison w/ foie gras, parsnip puree and brussels sprout leaves. (nb: the hubby *loathes* brussels sprouts, but had to admit that these were awesome)

7. Pumpkin crème brulee, pulled sugar, soft pumpkin cookie and vanilla ice cream.

8. Apricot roll and mango truffle.

Needless to say, we were stuffed after this three-hour marathon of food. But what made this meal so memorable was not just the exquisite food, but watching the preparation and interacting with the chef and his sous chef.  As mentioned above, many of the other guests looked somewhat perplexed by the ingredients and some were clearly hesitant to try new things. We, however, were incredibly stoked to try foie gras and maybe slightly less excited by the eel and its “juice.” (Not an appealing phrase, “eel juice.”) Our curiosity was rewarded, though, with one of the most tasty and interesting meals we’d ever eaten. There is no doubt that this was a top quality meal made with not just excellent ingredients but with care and talent. The chef spoke to us at length about the food we were about to eat and food he’d prepared elsewhere in his long career. His enthusiasm for cooking – and eating – rubbed off on us and made the meal that much better. Even the little touches like “Happy Anniversary” written on the dessert plate in chocolate contributed to the overall excellence we experienced that night. The post-dinner champagne by the fire place didn’t hurt, either:

So there you have it. Two of my favourite meals. They are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of food quality but what they share is an unforgettable, fantastically entertaining and memorable context. As far as I’m concerned, this is what makes any meal great. Ideally, eating is a shared experience and I can’t wait for my next great one.

*This is not a Cuba-bashing post! It was beautiful, 95% the people were warm and friendly and it was one of the most fun trips I’ve ever taken. But the food? Not. Good.

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~ by foodNURD on May 12, 2010.

5 Responses to “The Two Best Meals I’ve Ever Experienced”

  1. I have a new goal in life: to make it onto your “best meals ever” dining companions list 😀

  2. I second Chrissy in the goal. I was thinking a trip up to Haisai would be right up your & Jay’s alley. Or another trip to Cuba – I know some good spots in Havana 🙂

  3. I was thinking what Shaz was thinking. Hasai sounds right up your alley. If only I weren’t a pescavore. 😉

    All of my favourite meals have involved copious amounts of laughter and great company. 🙂

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