Editor's Note:

By Tom Shroder
Sunday, October 12, 2008

When I think about the restaurants described in this issue, I get an anticipatory thrill. A great restaurant experience is not just about the food; it's about the theater of it. The dining room is the set, the chefs and waiters every bit as much performers as the cast and crew of a Broadway show. Going to a great restaurant is like waiting for the curtain to rise. Better, because if you're really lucky, you're not only the audience -- you're the star.

The greatest restaurant experience of my life wasn't even supposed to involve a restaurant. On a visit to New York years ago, I had arranged to meet my stepbrother, Hank, when he got off work after 11 to go to a midnight concert.

I scarfed down some dogs at a street stand around 8 p.m., then killed time, stretching the three-mile walk to meet Hank into a three-hour wander (and I've never found a better aperitif than aimless trekking through city streets). All I knew of Hank's job was that he worked like a dog for not a lot of money, sweating long hours in a cramped, sweltering kitchen where the normal modes of communication were curses and screaming. I hadn't realized that his employer was one of the most celebrated French restaurants in the city, a place I never could have afforded to visit as a customer. Hank had alerted the front room staff to my arrival, and the maitre d' showed me quickly through the elegant dining room, past walls lined with spectacular murals, into a tomb-like kitchen straight out of the Inferno. Everything was battleship gray and slick with grease. Great flames erupted from burners interspersed with counters where men in white toques and smocks furiously slashed raw food with long knives. I immediately began to sweat.

"Stand here," Hank said, guiding me to the only small section of counter not in use. I assumed he just wanted me out of the way, but as I stood there, one chef after another glided up and, with a slight flourish, placed a dish containing his specialty before me, straight from the fire. It was a parade of subtle tastes and elegant textures that melted as they slid across my tongue. By the third or fourth plate, I was moaning with pleasure. "Good timing," Hank said. "The souffles are just coming out of the oven."

Good doesn't begin to describe it. This was the pure essence of food as art, consumed not in a fine room on a white cloth, but in the steaming cauldron where it was made, before those who had sweated to make it. To a man, they turned to watch as I lifted my fork, carrying its precious cargo of lighter-than-air dessert to my mouth. Oh. My. God. I closed my eyes. "Thank you," I whispered.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.

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