The Blue Pearl: circa 1923; circa SS Normandie; circa seafoam green. I daresay that if the lights were any brighter than Hernando’s Hideaway, the decor, if no less nautical-flapper-haunt, would bear its pastiched heritage with less than flattering starkness.
But darkness, friend to the ugly, here swaths diners in martini elegance. (Real martinis: Gin. Olives. Dry. None of this revisionist cosmo-vodka nonsense.) It’s classy, it’s a dive: I wore jeans and a pencil tie; she wore a blazer, ruffles. It was empty at just past 5, mod-Swedish arrangements emanating a Proustian sea-scape as if nereids would materialize, buoyantly swilling cocktails while black-tied tritons languidly proffered silver cigarette cases all around. Jennifer ushered us through the lounge and installed us in a corner table, our seat an L-shaped sofa designed expressly for anything other than sitting up straight.
The menu was horizontal, the text sans-serif — how could it not be delicious. But fondue? It had always been a novelty food, steeped in the kitsch of mid-century America, like Bossa Nova music, faux-wood record consoles and burnt orange. Here? Sullying atmosphere and dignity alike? If only all my preconceptions could be entirely dismissed by the overwhelming rhetoric of pumpernickel smothered with tequila-spiked manchego cheddar ($13). Between that and my strawberry caipirinha (exquisite, strong, $9), the fleeting thought that the price of raw goods served up to me on the disappointingly spare fondue platter (appetizer, never meal) could hardly be more than $3.50 was swept under the rug of gustatory intoxication. I sighed knowingly; she could but savor with closed eyes.
The music changed from bathtub-gin jazz to Bossa Nova: I experienced a brief shudder, then the inevitable sway, swagger, I envisioned the hypothetical greasy-smooth approach with drink in hand, the “Hello, do you come here often?”, the hating one’s self for doing it, but the rhythmic pleasure of it all. My Tilapia Napoleon ($21) arrived, but where the boulanger would put puff pastry the Pearl put delicately thin corn cakes; where strawberries, seared fish; where creme Anglaise, a somewhat scarce, if delicious, garlic-chive cream sauce. Hers was a chopped salad, hearty with feta and olives, simple ($8).
The spare aesthetic of the font was manifest among the menu items as well: macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, seared salmon, pulled-pork sandwich. But fuse them, respectively, with these: lobster, plum Vidalia ketchup, coconut basmati, and apple chipotle barbeque. The commonplace becomes the standard bearer of fusion. Betty Crocker is defamiliarized.
The cachaca was going to my head. I progressed from languorous to decadent — she looked more beautiful than ever. Venetian espresso and bittersweet chocolate. It won a heated battle against the popular favorite, chocolate-hazelnut frangelico, but in the battlefield of dessert fondues, one never loses ($13). The previous pang of disappointment garnishing the savory fondue was nowhere to be found. Pangs of foolishness, maybe, as fondue forks wrangled with rice krispie treats, barely suppressing second-grade glee. Jennifer returned, as our last pineapple piece was smothered and downed.
“Are you two finished?”
“Yeah, but I hate to waste all that chocolate.”
“Do you want a spoon?”
Almost smugly, she sighs, “This happens all the time.”
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