The snowstorm’s silver lining

So yesterday I had the first free day, all to myself, that I’ve had in a long time (usually I’m on duty with a brilliant and bonny toddler boy). So once the snow was shoveled off the driveway, I gave myself a little treat:

Friday, December 1, was the first day that Starker’s opened for lunch (oddly, I had it in my addled brain that it was a few days earlier). I believe they were open noon-2pm; I meandered in there around 1 and finally floated out at about 2:45.

There were a quartet of businessmen and a few shoppers finishing up their meals in the dining room, but otherwise the place didn’t look too busy (the streets were still pretty icy, even though the sun was shining). I asked the hostess to mention to Chef (and new owner) John McClure that a fellow eGulleteer was dining, and would love to say hi if he had a spare moment.

Soon, Chef John was out at my table, very cheerfully sharing his ideas behind certain menu items, the challenges of his first day open for two meals, and generally being a wonderful ambassador for his restaurant. Stress seems to agree with this big friendly bear of a guy, and his overflowing passion for his profession was utterly charming to witness.

Mark, my waiter (and SR veteran of about a year), followed John’s geniality with a blend of excellent table service (just as good as you’ve come to expect from their dinners) and friendly conversation ranging from food to art to travel… the other diners had finished not long after I arrived, so the two of us pretty much had the entire dining room to ourselves.

Since I was only having lunch, I didn’t want to drink too much… fortunately, Starker’s has expanded their already huge wine service to include a selection of wines by the glass. I selected a Pinot Grigio (I think it was from Oregon, but I forgot to note the winery); if I recall correctly, there were at least four others to choose from.

Soon, a lobster and shrimp thermidor appetizer arrived at my table, piping hot, crusty, and lightly herbed so the two shellfish flavors shone. This was my first thermidor, and I had to really force myself to eat it slowly (and not lick the little shell dish it came in!).

I nibbled on my Farm-to-Market ciabatta, enjoying the Vince Guaraldi trio music and my single red rosebud, peeking down onto the Plaza and watching the holiday shoppers slip-n-slide from store to store. It was all very jolly indeed.

John himself served me my lunch plate… I feel so honored! I’ve chosen the Shrimp Po’boy, grilled shrimp in a spicy smoky remoulade (with maybe a tang of lemon?) on a toasted hoagie with tomato slices and bits of lettuce, accompanied by a salad (butter lettuce, and a soft red-leafed lettuce, with sweet tiny grape tomatoes and dry spiced onion bits, with a gentle vinagrette).

The only off note in the whole meal is the tomato in the sandwich: it’s unripe and crunchy and just not right when there’s snow on the ground. John comes back out and joins me for another visit, and when he asks me if there was anything I wanted to say about my lunch, I gently bring up the tomatoes. He leans back and laughs loudly, “I know!” and I feel like I’ve passed a little test. He knows perfectly well that the tomatoes aren’t ripe, but he says that the lunch crowd, with their hamburgers and such, really expect a slice of tomato and he’s gotta put one on there. He’s got another supply of ripe ones coming in soon, though, so don’t let that put you off if ripe tomatoes in December is your grail.

Otherwise, the sandwich is wonderful and messy and fun to eat. The spice isn’t overwhelming, just right for a chilly afternoon. I happily chow down on it while Chef John tells me where HE likes to go out to eat (Rm. 39, bluestem, Le Fou Frog, and, to wrap up a long day’s work, JJ’s). I am treated to stories about ice cream, New Orleans, military kitchens, and a surefire method for a night of free drinks at a bar. Oh, and a plate of snickerdoodles (his grandma’s recipe!) and a cup of excellent French press coffee.

Of course, not everyone will be able to enlist the chef and the waitstaff as entertainers (then again, most of us plan ahead enough to bring our own dining companions). But today I’ve been treated to a nourishing meal, both for the belly and for the soul. I’ve had a glimpse into a passionate chef’s busy life (and vicariously enjoyed my waiter’s safaries to Kenya and Chicago). I am sated, and I leave Starker’s Reserve with a big ol’ grin on my face.

A day later, as I write this, it’s still there.

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