The words made my heart sink. Out to dinner? I twisted my lips downward into a pouty face.
I didn't want to go out. I was already going out on Sunday night for a $40 wine tasting/food pairing multi-course dinner at Riva in Santa Monica, and knew that the indulgence would be a significant one. The kind that makes one want to avoid rich, heavy foods and alcohol for the next week. Or month. Or year.
"I'd sort of prefer eating in on Saturday since I am eating out Sunday and Thursday nights. I can make scallop risotto again?" I wrote back, hoping the lure of the bacon-dressed risotto would change my dad's mind.
On Friday night, the topic came up again. And then again on Saturday morning after my high school's 5K charity alumni race that I was semi-forced to participate in -- my first race since cross-country Midwest Regionals in November 2004. I was nervous and grouchy before, and when it was all over, and I realized that I still sort of "got it," I was elated and ready to celebrate with a meal out -- just like my parents and I did after track meets in HS. Back then, a PR (personal record) in the mile was all the justification we needed to go out for Chinese food at my then favorite chain, PF Chang's.
Since all our palates have improved considerably since my awkward HS track years, we opted to celebrate my 19:53 5K (sadly, over two minutes slower than my college best) at 230 Forest Avenue restaurant in Laguna Beach instead. 7:30 pm reservations were secured, and despite my earlier protestations, as the day wore on, I became excited about getting all dolled up for a night out in the Southern OC town.
Our evening at the open-air, modern space on Forest Avenue began auspiciously with an order of the proscuitto wrapped shrimp with tomato, mozzarella, herb pesto and young basil ($12). The large prawns required steak knifes to cut, and a bit of a balancing act to create the perfect, all-inclusive bite containing all the components of the dish, but our efforts were rewarded as soon as the complex combination of flavors hit our tongues.
"Oh wow." My mom said.
"So good!" I concurred, already thinking about how I could recreate it at home on Father's Day.
"I'm just going to eat mine off the plate." My dad announced to no one in particular, using his generous slab of fresh mozzarella as a sponge to mop up the extra basil-infused oil and syrupy balsamic vinegar that danced across the rectangular plate.
Despite my desire to use my piece of warm French bread as a mop as well, I busied myself with a much more laborious task -- deciding what I was going to order for my entree.
It was a tough call. The Chilean Seabass with baby spinach, roasted cipollini onions and smoked bacon, served over chevre goat cheese mashed potoates and a blackberry pinot noir butter ($32) was an immediate contender. As was the special Copper River Salmon entree that came with a corn taquito and some other things that I didn't commit to memory because I was too focused on doling out a flirty smile while our cute waiter Max was talking. There was the always swoon-worthy hazelnut-crusted Alaskan halibut with papaya relish, a duo of sauces, sweet potato mash, and yam and taro chips to consider ($28) as well, and finally, the pan-seared day boat scallops with butternut squash porcini risotto, sweet corn nage and white truffle oil ($29).
"I need some help." I said to Max, staring up at him with big, wide eyes.
He smiled, tilting his black-rimmed glasses back onto his nose with authority. "What are you deciding between?"
I nibbled my lower lip. I could hardly say I was considering four different entrees. While my parents are fully aware of my complex mind, I didn't want Max to see just how deep my complexities go. I quickly eliminated the salmon because my dad had barbecued it the night before, and nixed the halibut as well since I'd already had it there twice.
"I think the seabass and the scallops." I said finally.
"The scallops are my favorite thing on the menu." Max responded without hesitation.
I grinned. That was the answer I was looking for. I'd wanted the scallops, but as usual, needed confirmation from the waiter (or a similar authority) that what I wanted was in fact the right thing to want. His approval immediately tempered the anxiety in my head, and I was finally able to sit back and enjoy the dry punch of our bottle of Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc, while happily rehashing the morning's events with my parents.
After an in-depth discussion about how the "popular" kids from HS find me acceptable to talk to now, my order of the highly-acclaimed scallops arrived at our table with a prodigious tuft of fried leeks over the top. The presentation was impeccable -- and the scent wafting up from the plate, intoxicating.
"I can smell the truffle oil!" I gushed to the waiter.
Max nodded. "Enjoy." He said with a wink and turned on his heel to let us dig into our generously portioned dinners.
"Oh Diana, you have to try this broth." My dad moaned, holding up a spoonful of the saffron-rich tomato-based liquid from his Cioppino ($32).
I made a face. "That's okay." Despite our blood relation, I wasn't keen on slurping up soup out of his spoon.
"No, you have to try it." He insisted, holding it out across the table for me to take.
After a moment's hesitation (involving some neurotic rumblings about the cleaninless of his mouth), I took the spoon and quickly sucked the liquid up before I had time to reconsider.
My eyes shot open in surprise. "I can taste the saffron!" I enthused.
He grinned. "Isn't it good?"
I nodded, and then set about destroying the art work on my plate. While the truffle oil is slightly overpowering, the dish is the type that one would expect Jamie from Season 5 to whip up on "Top Scallop." The over-sized scallops are crisply seared on the outside, yet pliantly buttery on the inside, and pair well with the tender bite of the squash and porcini risotto. I immediately understood why Max was so smitten with the entree, and when he passed by our table mid-way through the meal to check on our status, I rewarded him with a Siskel and Ebert two thumbs up. (The wine had fully kicked-in by this juncture in the evening.)
My mom was equally in lust with her hazelnut-crusted halibut, which she declared was the best they'd ever prepared it. After stealing a few bites from her plate (just to make sure...), I came to the same conclusion. It is divine -- a bold portrait of colors and textures that is not only visiually pleasing, but assertive and complex in flavor, as well.
When my dad finally reached the bottom of his seemingly endless bowl of lobster, shrimp, scallops, Manila clams, greenlip mussels, calamari and salmon, I took advantage of my parents' state of post-delicious meal bliss with one final request.
"Do you think we can... uh... get the... uh... chocolate croissant bread pudding ($9)?" I asked, looking into both their eyes with the same puppy face I used when I was a child and wanted ice cream or a can of Coke.
"You know, for SugarBomber." I clarified, when their faces contorted into looks of pain. "I need to keep my dessert submissions coming!"
My mom broke down first. "Of course we can."
Max smiled when I put in the order for the restaurant's most popular sweet ending, and his obvious approval assured me that I'd chosen well yet again.
The warm chocolate-studded bread pudding with bourbon creme anglaise and vanilla bean ice cream was the perfect night cap to a near-perfect meal at 230 Forest Avenue. I was glad that my dad and mom surrendered their forks half-way through our consumption of the succulent bread pudding, and lost in the moment, I devoured the rest without given a single thought to my impending meal at Riva the next night. I was in high school again, and the extra calories and fat grams didn't matter. The celebration of my sort-of comeback mattered. The time with my parents mattered. And the new memories that we made that night -- laughing and eating way too much, mattered.