What in the world was that? Ahead of us on the dark road (night falls before five o’clock this time of year, and there are few houses to break the gloom), six red lights appeared, arranged in a triangle: three-two-one. A Christmas tree? Some unknown traffic signal? They moved along ahead of us at cruising speed for a mile or two as we followed the creek. But at the stoplight before the bridge, we caught up to them, and saw that they were lights on the back of a large fuel truck.
Only an emergency would bring such a rig out on a holiday night. It preceded us, over the falls, into the town parking lot where we were bound. “I bet it’s going to the restaurant,” I told my wife. “It could be a long night.”
Gastronomically, upstate is a desert. There is a college town with kid places: bars, ethnic stuff. There is a fish market with a good seafood restaurant attached, hung with stuffed sailfish and sharks. In one of the old Jewish destinations (the only Jews who still come up here are Hasids), there is a bakery that makes good bagels. Otherwise the lone and level sands stretch far away — except for this restaurant.
The story of its founding has become a local legend. Once upon a time there was a young man who wanted to be a chef. His parents were already in the business — they owned a pizzeria — but his father, with the willfulness often attributed to the Irish, but proper only to the Italians, refused to help his son. The son approached the local rich man, heir to a cement-mining fortune (just about the only fortune ever made in the county). With help, he bought an 18th-century stone building, originally a tavern, then a wreck. With sweat equity he restored the roof and sealed the walls. He opened for business, and in the first month was visited by the restaurant critic for the New York Times, who, delighted, gave him four stars.
He had a lot to learn. His wines at first came from jugs. When a skeptical guest questioned the wine steward (like the chef, a teenager), he said, “We have white, red, and rosé — what else do you want?” In defense of the chef and his team, this was the end of the Mad Men era, when Americans drank mostly cocktails. So he learned, but he also had what cannot be taught — a flair for the work.
Skill and talent will take you far in the world. We acquire skill by learning and practicing the basics until we have mastered them; talent is the aptitude that smoothes the path of mastery. The angles are true, the engine runs, the books balance. Flair is different, and extra; it is the quality of daring, play, or wildness that adds the shimmer of an overtone, or of heat lines rising off a road on a hot day. Flair when you see it makes you step back and nod. Attitude is often considered, wrongly, a marker for flair. But flair resides in the act or the thing itself. An artist with flair can be a long-haired maniac, or dull as dirt. But when you meet his work you step back in appreciation.
The menus at the restaurant were arranged like partitas. There could be five courses — amuse-bouche, soup or appetizer, entrée, cheese, dessert — or sometimes seven — soup and appetizer; I forget the seventh. One night one of the entrées was a banana risotto with squid. Banana risotto with squid! It sounded like the punch line of a joke told at the Culinary Institute of America. I looked back at it three times, until I felt I was being dared to order it. I did, and it was a home run. The chef whiffed now and again, but his batting average was much higher than Ty Cobb’s.
Small businesses are a labor of Sisyphus, and restaurants belong in a special circle of Hades. Starting up is famously murderous, but the long haul can be a killer too. Another favorite restaurant of mine, this one in the city, lasted 24 years, then, with the suddenness of a chase scene in a silent film — the economic downturn was one of the bad guys — it all ended; the owner moved out of town and is looking for work as a waiter. Something equally drastic unfolded upstate. For a while the chef had a store in a house across the way that sold little goodies and tourist items; then he rented that out. In the stony bowels of the old tavern he also had a bistro, with a cheaper menu. Then that closed. Then everything closed. Gossip, the sewer of malice and envy, supplied details, but I did not want to know. I am idealistic enough, and childish enough, to wish to remember the chef only at his best.
Children and work are all that most of us ever achieve, and both offer foretastes of our end. Children survive us, but they move away and become themselves, not our own dear creations. And work ends with retirement, or failure — the little interment before the big one.
So it was pleasant — no, it was great — to learn that the restaurant was reopening, for three holiday nights. True, they needed a fuel delivery at the last minute, and there was a slight whiff of gas in the main room. So we ate in the bar. But the carrot pasta pinwheel was as good as ever, the shrimp cocktail was one shrimp nestled in an endive stuck in a plaster cup decorated with Cupids, the venison was another homer. Gossip, now friendly, burbles about some possible new deal. Who knows? Sooner or later the restaurant will go dark for good, and there will be nothing like it again ever, except in memory, which will go dark too. But for now, it was good to be home again.