SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench in summer travel plans, birthday parties and for me, my anniversary dinner plans. (Considering the toll this virus has taken globally, trust me - I consider myself very, very lucky.)
My partner and I have a tradition of going out to a fancy, schmancy dinner every year for our anniversary. With shelter-in-place restrictions keeping restaurants closed in much of the Bay Area, that wasn't really an option.
The price for the five course prix-fixe menu is $100. It's not cheap, but at $50 a person, it's still less than we would have spent on a special night out for a "normal" anniversary.
Picking up the meal kit was easy. We breezed across the Bay Bridge while listening to a mix CD I made for my partner when we first started dating. (Cheesy? Yes.) We pulled up at Lord Stanley on Polk Street, hopped out and retrieved the food in under 60 seconds. Nothing could bring us down.
Until we started our journey back to the East Bay, that is. Multiple wrecks meant a 45-minute backup just to get on the bridge. (Just like the good ole days, eh?) All the more time to listen to this eight-year-old CD mix, in which I included not one, but two Drake songs. (Embarrassing? Yes.)
When we got home, I unloaded all the ingredients into the fridge to keep them cool until we needed them. All the elements of each course are carefully packaged in separate little containers, some compostable, some not. I felt a little guilty for all the extra plastic, but I washed and saved all the little plastic bins to reuse later like a good Californian.
The kit comes with detailed instructions for reheating and plating each course. Reading through it all, I was relieved that prepping the meal wouldn't involve much cooking at all - good news since the traffic mixed with my highly questionable music taste was contributing to some early onset hanger. Only some elements needed to be quickly reheated, but mostly it was a matter of assembly.
We decided to take things slow and draw out the dinner to maximize the tasting menu experience. We opened a bottle of wine while we prepped the first course: morel and porcini mushrooms with avocado spread, onions and herbs on house pita bread.
The elements came in four containers. We reheated, assembled, garnished and served it on a cutting board, exactly as specified in the three-page instruction booklet.
To be honest, I was a little skeptical at this point. It was basically fancy avocado toast and my attempt at fancy presentation missed the mark by quite a bit. (It's really hard to make mushrooms look pretty, ok?) But once I took a bite, I was wowed. If this was a take on avocado toast, it was the best one I'd ever had. Or at least top three.
Next came a spin on potato salad, with horseradish creme fraiche and English peas, topped with trout roe. The dish was light and fresh and even easier to assemble - no heating required.
To my surprise, the third course also didn't require any cooking or reheating at all, even though it involved meat. The dish, organic lamb leg with parsley, Kashiwase cherries and pecans, was meant to be served as a room temperature salad. Room temperature lamb leg may not sound super appetizing, but this one was actually pretty good. The cherries were juicy and sweet. The dressing was tart and tossed with a generous pile of fresh herbs. It was like a holiday feast, but in the middle of spring. (Does that make sense? I don't know, I'm not a food critic. Just roll with me here.)
The fourth course was my favorite: cured and smoked salmon with broccoli di ciccio and hazelnuts. The salmon came wrapped in a thin cedar sheet to be briefly reheated in the oven. The fish was so smoky and flavorful, I could have eaten the filet alone and been happy. But it was even better served alongside a hazelnut emulsion, something I can only describe to you as savory Nutella. (Told you I wasn't a food critic.)
Despite the fact that the meal was advertised as a "light dinner for two," we were pretty satisfied at this point. But I always make room for dessert, which in this case was an nontraditional peach melba. Instead of ice cream, a sliced peach was topped with a vanilla cream and a tart raspberry sauce. It was the least impressive of the five courses, but still a nice note to end the meal on.
If you've ever eaten dinner with me, you know that what comes after the meal is the debrief. I love to talk about food almost as much as I love eating it. The debrief in this case was pretty simple: the food was delicious and a nice break from all of the home cooking we've been doing. Was it the best anniversary dinner we've ever had? No, definitely not. We missed out on the ambiance of dining out and having each course lovingly described by the server or chef. And usually when we go out to eat, we don't have to do the dishes afterward.
But we're about 70 days into these shelter-in-place orders and it seems like every day has just blurred into the next: a routine of wake up, work, cook, clean, rinse and repeat. There have been no drinks with friends, dinner parties, trips to the beach or pretty much anything else to punctuate the existential dread of living through a pandemic (not to mention reporting on it every day).
On one warm evening in May, I got to drive into San Francisco, pick up a gourmet meal and enjoy each course as slowly as humanly possible. Talking about each element of the food - the smokiness of the salmon, the juiciness of the cherries and so on - gave my partner and I something else to immerse ourselves in that had almost nothing to do with COVID-19. It gave me a really, really tasty distraction. For that, I am thankful.
And I'll probably still be dreaming of that salmon even after this is all over.