It is a concept that was introduced to me by my colleague Phil, who while recalling a dinner that we both participated in, described it as the best he had ever had. This struck me as one of those hyperbolic statements one sometimes makes in the competitive company of peers, but after contemplating his superlatives for a moment, realized it was true, and then adopted that same experience as my own best meal of a lifetime.
It was at the end of a corporate training and business planning session with our company’s European representatives in Barcelona, Spain. After a week of sponsoring activities and meals for them, we unexpectedly became their guests when the contingent from Sweden insisted on taking us all to dinner. They informed the restaurant management of their intent to spend “an obscene amount” and that the staff should be prepared to deliver the finest they had to offer. The Swedes seemed to know their way around the local offerings and selected a broad range of seafood and Catalonian specialties. It was presented over the span of several hours and accompanied by select Spanish wines. The group was happy and satisfied with the week’s efforts, the mood became festive, and warm personal relationships were built over the course of this meal, which was probably the very intent of our Swedish hosts.
This dinner, enjoyed in 1998, stood the test of time as “best in lifetime” for many years.
Recently, I enjoyed another such dinner, this time a family occasion. A family gathering, but one with an undertone of anxiety. After nearly ten years, my partner Poldi was to meet her ex-spouse Viet, and his new wife, Lam, in Saigon.
Poldi had only recently worked up the resolve to return to Viet Nam. The difficulties and stresses of building a $50-million-dollar garbage recycling facility had contributed to her suffering a stroke there in 2009, and she had worked long and hard since to erase many bad memories. However, the promise of seeing two of her sons who had moved there, and memories of the good times with local friends, the high energy and friendliness of the Vietnamese people, and lingering affection for a place “where life spills out onto the streets” eventually enticed her back.
Viet worked to make the reunion as easy as possible. He arranged for us to meet at a very nice restaurant on the Saigon River for dinner along with Lam’s mother and sister and Poldi’s sons and their girlfriends. The owner of the restaurant, a celebrity chef, and her partner, both personal friends of Viet and Lam joined us.
Poldi was greeted with a bouquet of yellow Calla lilies, accompanied by introductions and nervous smiles. We took our places at the table in this beautiful open-air setting overlooking the river and Viet, the bilingual link between all of us, made a small speech welcoming us, acknowledging the effort for us to be there. He went on with small stories to help put us at ease, but it was the arrival of the dishes of food that helped the most. With this as the backdrop, I’ll describe the meal we experienced.
The food was Vietnamese, in classic and novel preparations, created by the owner-hostess-chef. First up, pickled pig’s ear strips which Lam expertly rolled in rice paper wrappers with cucumber and fragrant herbs and offered to us to be dipped in nuoc mum sauce, that strange brew of fermented fish and flavorants, essential to Vietnamese eggrolls and many other specialties.
Arriving next was a salad made of finely sliced sticks of mango and mystery vegetables and fruit. It was presented with “fish hair”, something that looked like shredded wheat strands, which added both texture and flavor to the salad.
We started in on the salad, but were interrupted by the chef, who wanted us to try her “shrimp ravioli” (my term) while they were warm. This was her invention, tiny packages of mashed shrimp and other ingredients stuffed into rice paper squares and fried with a wonderful glaze that captured the unique mix of sour-sweet-spice that imbues so many Vietnamese dishes.
A large plate of specially prepared pork leg arrived. The skin had been treated in some way to seal in the flavors and become crunchy and textured but keep the meat inside moist and flavorful. They were artistically cut into strips where we could access the meat around the large bone. It was delicious.
I don’t know if Viet had done some homework to find out what wine we liked, but in a country that must import it, he had succeeded in selecting a Cabernet that was satisfying yet unobtrusive to the broad range of flavors we were tasting.
The mood at the table shifted from its initial formality as Poldi’s boys joked with their step-family in Vietnamese. Lam’s mother, their step-grandmother, told us through Viet how she knew them to have good hearts. It was clear she was very fond of them, and they of her. She gave full credit to Poldi for having raised such good sons.
The warm reception and sincere efforts at kindness touched Poldi and she felt the tension slip away and allowed her past hurts to slip away with it. Something had just transformed around this table of mixed family and friends.
The dinner continued. We were presented with tender fried squid slices and then skewered shrimp, fresh from the river, and larger than your hand. Removing the shell took a bit of work, requiring a maneuver to pull off the hood, then unwrap the segments from the legs. Once exposed, the reward was many bites of the freshly grilled meat.
The shrimp peeling left us with a mess on our hands. A bowl of warm water, with cleansing herbs and lime slices was delivered and we dipped our fingers into it. We were warned that another dish was on its way.
I had been careful to pace myself, so that I would be sure to get a taste of everything, but I was unable to muster the capacity for the bowl of fried rice (with fish hair!) Fortunately, this was the final dish before dessert, plates of pomelo and pineapple. I find the pomelo to be an “uninspired grapefruit”, but Vietnamese pineapple is the best I have tasted. I was able to enjoy it all. In the friendly table banter that had evolved to this point, I learned that I had passed inspection: I could manage my chopsticks!
And as with the famous dinner in Barcelona, this one wrapped up with the promise of new relationships. Despite the separation of language, some sentiments come across needing no translation. The respect and kindness were obvious from Lam and her family. And with only a little help from Viet, I was able to convey to the hostess that this was now the best dinner I ever had, exceeding all others I had experienced across the world.