Sunday, October 18, 2009

Junior's Deli, 10/18/2009

The cold that inspired my current obsession with soup and hence, this blog (one must suffer for one's art) has put me on an unending quest for anything that will alleviate my discomfort. So far, only copious amounts of sleep and a hot liquid diet have worked.

After two weeks, I have not yet taken my dose of Jewish penicillin. So at the suggestion of my sister Jolene, who is a walking Zagat Guide, it's off to Junior's on Westwood Boulevard I go. Armed with William Saroyan's "One Day in the Afternoon of the World," I sit at the counter. I'm still not used to eating alone in a restaurant and having a book, even if I never open it during the meal, makes me feel less conspicuously alone.

I'm thinking of the last bowl of matzo ball soup I had, at Canter's, everyone's favorite all-night deli. I imagine a bowl of buttery chicken soup, with a nice, fluffy matzo ball floating in it. Out of curiosity, I ask the server what the soup of the day is. He tells me it's lentil and offers a sample. It's very tomatoey and light, not the usual hearty brew that lentil soup tends to be. But the tomatoes make it a little too zingy for this evening, and I ask for the chicken matzo ball soup.

Another option is kreplach, but I don't remember what that is.

"It's a kind of dumpling?" I ask the server.

"Yes, but with beef," he replies.

"What do you like better?"

"I'd get the matzo ball," he shrugs. I nod, asking him for rye toast on the side.

When I was growing up, soup was an afterthought, a gesture made at the beginning of the meal or eaten only when fighting a cold. The fine family of Campbell's products taught me all I needed to know about classic American cuisine, with alphabet soup, chicken noodle, and both chowders, New England and my favorite, the controversially tomato-based Manhattan.

I never went out of my way for soup. But this particular bout of whatever I have has killed my normal appetite for food and all that seems appealing is heat, flavored with herbs and some form of meat.

The soup arrives and old Willie S., who has been my constant companion all weekend in his library binding, is going to have to wait. The steaming bowl requires the use of all my senses to navigate the experience. I ask the server what the yellow knob on top of my matzo ball is, thinking it some sort of unexpected garnish like ginger or extra matzo dough.

"It's chicken, chicken," he says reassuringly, perhaps remembering my quizzical reaction to beef dumplings in chicken soup.

Chicken it is, big moist chunks of it. The bowl is also overflowing with numerous stubby lengths of green celery - it's practically a salad. The hallowed matzo ball takes up three-quarters of the dish, floating in the steaming broth like a fat man in a hot tub. A confetti of thin noodles is nestled underneath this porous hulk, taking the soup to the next level of comfort food. Carbs be damned. Eating this is the gastronomic version of donning sweatpants after a long buttoned-up day at the office.

I'm distracted from my OCD tendency to baste the matzo ball in broth as I'm eating the soup because it's perfect, not too salty and spiked liberally by me with black pepper. When the rye toast arrives, I butter one piece but abandon that in favor of dunking it into the flavorful soup.

My busy but solicitous server passes quickly, pausing to ask, "You like the soup?"

His remark is not a perfunctory, "Is everything tasting good? (as the grammar gods flinch) or the more generic "How is everything?"

I say that it's great. I was impressed with the fact that he actually remembers what people order.

I've noticed a correlation between the sometimes antiquated nature of a restaurant's bill of fare and the attitude of its staff. My experience has been that the more traditional the dishes offered, the more genteel and caring the servers tend to be.

It's almost as if they are stewards of not just your dining experience, but of another place that in this increasingly hurried world, we are constantly searching for. Whether that place signifies relief from a sore throat, the stress of a busy day, or a respite from the superficial gestures and words that often take the place of actual human connection, it's all the same. And you can often find it in the simplest of things - like a good book, a warm smile, or a bowl of really good soup.

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