Saturday, February 15, 2014

Between the Sheets (Of Dough): Mishi's Strudel Bakery and Cafe

(NOTE: What follows is a thinly veiled work of fiction - thin as a sheet of strudel dough. The characters and incidents depicted are drawn from actual events and have been changed slightly to keep the reader awake.)

Elaine was in a foul mood. The streets of San Pedro, which on a weekday during the rest of the year, were pretty quiet, took on an even bleaker hue in the crumpled-paper strewn days after Christmas. Crumpled lists, crumpled giftwrap, crumpled hopes.

Her winter vacation from the university was dragging on and on; she could not wait to get back to the comforting reassurance of her work schedule, the companionable demands of email, the putting out of fires, small and great, that made her feel useful.

Port in a storm: Spinach Strudel at Mishi's charming
cafe provides welcome refuge from post-holiday doldrums.

It was New Year's Eve. She had been planning to visit Jake up north, and for once in her life, maybe have someone to kiss at midnight. But they had gotten into another huge fight. Elaine thought she had learned her lesson and had made a rule not to date any more writers. They were too neurotic, too competitive - being a writer, she would know. So she stayed home and waited out the second-to-last day of vacation.

Elaine kept to her daily exercise routine, but would head to the gym an hour or two later than she would during the workweek. She drove home after her workout, looking forward to a big brunch of buckwheat pancakes and Italian sausage. But alas, it was not to be.

Usually, Elaine would not be anywhere near home at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, so she never had to search for a parking spot near her apartment at that hour. Today, however, it seemed that everyone had the day off, lining the streets with their parked, not-going-anywhere-until-partytime cars. After circling her block in wider and wider orbits for nearly 20 minutes, she gave up in disgust and ran through the nearby options for breakfast. She decided to finally try that Hungarian place around the corner, the one that was always closed when she got back into town after work. She parked her car across the street - never a difficult thing to do in Pedro's "downtown" shopping district, except when the streets exploded with life during the 1st Thursday Artwalk - and entered the restaurant.

She had been to Mishi's Strudel Bakery and Cafe once before during the previous summer, when she had first moved back to town, and sat drinking coffee and nibbling on a tiny pastry on an exquisitely decorated dessert plate at a sidewalk table in the sunshine. The idea of a thick slice of apple strudel didn't quite appeal to her that day in the August heat, but today, it was time for a late breakfast. Besides, she had earned the right to indulge in some level of decadence with those 26 minutes on the elliptical machine.

Although the traditional sweet strudels sounded heavenly, Elaine, who was always rather diet-conscious, thought that she should have something a bit more substantial for the first meal of the day. She ordered the spinach, feta cheese, and mushroom strudel, which sounded like Greek spanakopita with a bit of Eastern Bloc gravitas. She loved mushrooms, those loamy, musty bits of cellulose that made her imagine what it would be like to eat actual earth.

Despite her self-consciousness over still being in workout clothes, Mishi's had a civilizing effect on Elaine's ruffled mood. She had asked for a cup of blackberry sage tea, one of those overly inventive flavors that Jake would roll his eyes at when she would order it. The only diner in the restaurant, she reveled in neatly blotting excess liquid off the tea bag against the side of her cup, carefully pouring in one sugar packet without dropping a grain of it on the table, and perching the remains of these demurely on the edge of her saucer.

Shortly before the spinach strudel arrived, a portly young man walked in and sat at another table. Elaine tried not to eavesdrop, but as they were the only two customers, it was difficult not to overhear him chatting with the waitress, ordering goulash, and telling the waitress that he ate there all the time. It sounded as if he was running up some sort of tab at Mishi's, perhaps even doing so up and down the block at the mom-and-pop restaurants and cafes that lined 6th Street.

After ordering his food, the young man acknowledged Elaine at her table. She responded with a polite "Happy New Year," with an expression on her face that she knew was less than happy. She had heard him telling the waitress that he had just taken a meditation class at the yoga studio one block over. Elaine took in his too-tight and too-short shorts, a Tyrolean-style embroidered vest, and a couple of Native American stone animal fetishes that swung from a chain around his neck. His body, while generous, seemed taut with youth, despite his apparent girth. He didn't appeal to her physically, but moreover, the affectation of John Lennon-esque spectacles and his nervously gregarious manner sent the needle on Elaine'sWeird-O-Meter flying.

Nothing says that someone cares like a madeleine,
freshly dipped in chocolate and presented
like a yummy jewel.
After a cursory attempt at small talk about how quaint the neighborhood was, the yoga studio around the block, and Hungarian goulash - which the young man admitted he had never eaten before - Elaine decided that she was done talking. She usually felt compelled to entertain strangers, or people who were tending to her, and chatted nervously away with her hairdresser, the lady who threaded her eyebrows, even her dentist. The latter posed somewhat of a challenge, once her teeth cleaning or procedure was underway. But Dr. Branch was capable of talking for both of them, chatting nonstop throughout an entire procedure on music and film, much to Elaine's delight. Thus, she was often relieved of her conversational duty she sat in his examination chair, although she was tortured by the desire to participate in the conversation, while her mouth was being prodded with dental tools.

Finally, the spinach strudel arrived, a compact but substantial parcel of golden brown pastry stuffed with a harmoniously seasoned blend of spinach, mushrooms, and a mild feta cheese. A tiny cup of sour cream, which proved to be more delicate than the cold, stiff paste that Elaine usually found next to a baked potato at a steakhouse. The creamy condiment, pleasantly chilled, but not exactly cold, was just enough embellishment to bring out all the flavors in each savory bite of strudel, which Musette navigated with great delicacy and care.

Once the first few bites sated her initial ravenous hunger, Elaine took her time enjoying the subtleties of the dish, and listened to New Age Shorts Guy tell the other waitress that he lived with his brother across the street. The only building in any direction across the street from Mishi's that could provide a residence was an old building straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, with aged russet-colored bricks, crumbling fire escapes, and a bar on the ground floor called "God Mother's." The name, erroneously split into two words, drove Elaine's inner-"Grammar Cop" up the wall every time she drove past the bar. She imagined what it would be like to live in one of the residence hotels that dotted 'Pedro's downtown area. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to live in one of the residence hotels that dotted 'Pedro's downtown area, and envisioned it as an alternate existence, something between the squalor in "Trainspotting" and the insanity of  "Running With Scissors." 

As she slowed down toward the end of her strudel, Elaine made a mental note to order goulash next time, maybe even actually plan her next visit to Mishi's. She noticed that the large white ceramic bowl that had been served to New Age Shorts Guy, overflowing with a crimson broth and accompanied by a hearty-looking bread, was nearly drained of its contents. As she took her last bite of the spinach pie, Elaine wondered if dessert was a good idea.

It was. She had chosen a chocolate-dipped madeleine, thinking that a perfectly good, but commercially baked version would be served up. The cookie arrived, freshly dipped in a creamy chocolate coating, and dusted with a snowdrift of powdered sugar.

Elaine was touched by the extra effort that it took to present a typically unassuming cookie with such care. This is what makes Mishi's, Mishi's, she thought.

Elaine nibbled on the madeleine as slowly as possible, and drank a second cup of tea. When the bill was paid and the madeleine was gone, she tidied up her place setting a bit, gathered her car keys and backpack, and raising her voice slightly, wished everyone in earshot a "Happy New Year." This time, she meant it.

1 comment:

  1. This cliche-free post brought to you courtesy of Matt Palmer's expert editing skills.