Dinner with Dad

by

05/31/2020

Neighborhood: Upper East Side, West Village

“Hi Jim, it’s Dad, just touching base to see how everything is going and how you’re feeling and how everyone is today. Looks like the first day of spring, the weather is horrible, I’m sure you agree. Give me a ring, let me know how things are going?”

My Dad, Bill, spoiled me for fine dining out. He decides where and when we go. This has been going on for fifty-three years, since I was ten years old. My mother, Mary, passed away almost four years ago, and it’s become harder for my Dad to go on fine dining adventures. Even before Mary died, he had become uncomfortable going out when people stopped dressing for the occasion. But he had persisted pursuing his only hobby because she was still with him. Recently, he’s been less interested in eating out except when he has a date with somebody much younger whom he’s decided to charm and treat. Things will be going reasonably until he starts criticizing his dining companion. “Why don’t you wear fine scarves like my wife did? Why don’t you wear nude stockings and nail polish like my wife did? I can’t stand women wearing no stockings, or yellow or blue nail polish.”

He usually starts in on the women he takes out after two or three dates. Then they dump him, and he wonders why. Sometimes the women set ground rules at the beginning: usually no romancing. When my father touches them even, allegedly, inadvertently, they stop seeing him. My Dad only dates when healthy. He’s 88 years old and has had setbacks: bouts of pneumonia and cancer. He has live-in help, eight hours a day, a lovely woman he picked out from the Visiting Nurse Service who made a side deal with him for $25 dollars an hour, cash, Monday-to-Saturday, 8 am-4 pm. Their relationship is professional. She’s got the short end of the stick. I’ve seen Dad, unobserved by me, with his helpmate, crossing the street into Carl Schurz Park, holding onto her for dear life as if they’re fording a river with a mighty current. The woman hails from Jamaica, and although my Dad would deny it, he treats her like a secret and an indentured servant.

My Dad actually can be charming, but he’s incapable of having an equitable relationship. As long as he gets what he wants, he’s okay. It’s when Dad doesn’t get what he wants that he acts as if he’s brainsick. He often walks the edge of the line, between okay and brainsick. It’s confusing if you don’t know him well because his manipulations can be misconstrued as mental illness. Dad pretty much knows exactly what he’s doing to keep people’s attention focused on him. 

Mom left him enough money to be comfortable, and Dad wants to leave as little behind as possible. He lives alone on the thirty-fourth floor of a luxury apartment building on the Upper East Side, a block west of Gracie Mansion. Dad wormed his way back into the neighborhood years after my mom sold their Upper East Side coop apartment when she had to move into a nursing home, and finally to hospice. After she died, my father moved into another nursing home, one needing the lowest level of care, with one of my mom’s girlfriends. They got separate apartments and started a romance, which failed within a year. Finally, he convinced my older brother, Dick, an attorney, into helping him rent an apartment six blocks east of his coop. Man, does he mourn losing that apartment he shared with my mother.

Anyway, having dinner with Dad this time was different, more like the old days. Gotham Bar and Grill has a new chef, Victoria Blamey, after thirty-five years of Alfred Portale at its helm. We’d dined there many times over the years, but this change was something new. I wanted to try it. Instead of asking Dad, who prefers to make all of our plans, I called the restaurant’s managing partner, Brett, whom I knew, and asked him to call my Dad and to say, “Where have you been? How are you? Please, come in. We have a new chef, and would love seeing you again.” 

Earlier that day, I called Dad, made plans to see him and suggested we go out to eat. He didn’t agree until after Brett called. It was okay as long as it was Dad’s idea to go to Gotham. I can be as manipulative as him, but that’s another story.

Dad was worried that the new chef, Victoria, couldn’t match Alfred’s cuisine, but after Brett reached out to him he wanted to see. I also wanted to go. Dad had taken me to Gotham Bar and Grill for 35 years for get-togethers and family occasions. Sometimes he’d just go with my mom. Later, I’d go there by myself, and sometimes with my wife and family. If I wanted to take my daughter out for a good meal because she was neglecting herself, we would always go to Gotham Bar and Grill because it was reliable and consistent, which is not easily accomplished at a high-end place over time.

When I was a student at NYU, I could also always count on Gotham Bar and Grill’s prix fixe three-course lunch, one of the first double tablecloth lunch places to serve one. It fortified me, along with a glass or two of wine, for the rest of the day. 

That was then. This is now. That phone call from Brett inspired my Dad to take an adventure from his Upper East Side apartment to Greenwich Village, especially as I was coming in to the City and would be staying over at the Wales Hotel with my wife. She had to attend a board meeting and dinner. My Dad is a dyed in the wool citizen of Manhattan and will not leave it under any circumstances. When he feels well, he spends his free time going to the movies, Broadway plays, and fine dining, searching for someone like my mom. So far, no one measures up.

Gotham expected us by 6:00 pm, and we arrived on time. Dad was jarred by the changed menu. “It isn’t American?” We were taken to his usual table in the back right and up one level, which Dad managed with his cane.

As soon as we sat down, our waiter, John, offered us drinks on the house as per Brett. Dad had his favorite: Black Label scotch on the rocks. We noticed that exposed museum track lighting had replaced the backlit, tented lighting, and the paint color had changed from golden cream to ochre. When our drinks came, they were excellent pours, more doubles than singles.

Near the end of enjoying our drink, Dad growled, “Where are our menus?” A busboy offered us bread, butter, and extra virgin olive oil. Unlike the old Gotham, there wasn’t a choice. We got a plate with two slices of bread on it: whole-wheat sourdough, and pumpkin seed. “You call this bread?” my Dad growled. “Let’s just try it,” I said, and asked for a second plate. It came immediately, with more butter and extra virgin olive oil. My Dad started eating his with butter and stopped complaining.

I ordered pickled Oysters with white chocolate cauliflower purée and osetra caviar; then for the main course I chose Calabrian Lamb Collar with Jimmy Nardello pepper, red kabocha squash, pickled fairy tale eggplant, pea dahl, fried shallot, and curry leaf oil.

My Dad ordered the Petit Salad: trevisabi, baby gem, chicory, with a sesame vinaigrette; and then Spaghetti Nero, with a saucy octopus ragu, charred tomato, and peperoncino. It’s an appetizer, but he asked to have it as his main dish and was easily accommodated.

Extra plates included: Burrata with harroush cucumber, cherry tomato, smoked trout roe and a tomato vinaigrette; and Scallop Ceviche with pickled daikon, granada chili, and corn leche de tigre.

When I tasted all these dishes they were sweet, spicy and hot: piquant American Cuisine, old New York City with a future. 

Nothing’s more American than oysters, and Chef Blamey’s are superb—ice cold, on a refrigerated plate, served on the half shell over ice chips. The oysters were firm and vinegary and the white chocolate cauliflower creamy and fruity. The caviar accentuated the salty ocean shadow of the sea. Superb. Mark Twain would have stopped talking about whatever, noticing their quality, as he downed thirty of them for lunch.

I had never tried lamb collar before. That’s why I ordered it. It’s a melt-in-your-mouth, braised wonder. The Calabrian accent is with tomatoes and peppers, which deepens the redness of the sauce. The red kabocha squash is sweeter than butternut, and the pickled fairy tale eggplant adds a different context of sweetener and brightener. It’s delicious. I could’ve eaten two orders.

My Dad’s Spaghetti Nero with a ragu of spicy octopus made a fine main course. The shards and legs of octopi were perfectly cooked with sun gold tomatoes, which were charred, making them smoky. The pepperoncino must be added at the beginning as the dish is being made, because it infuses it with a background of spice. It’s served married to fresh black ink pasta, making it easy to eat and mirroring the healthy shreds of octopodal flavor.

It reminded me of eating hot calamari with red sauce over pasta at my Italian grandfather’s in the Bronx on Christmas Eve. It was silky soft. The octopi and their rich, briny flavor must have been cooked long and slow like Grandpa’s.

For dessert at Gotham, the three dishes I tasted were dark chocolate, French toast, and raspberry ice. Each was soothing and satisfying in its own way. 

Now Gotham’s dining room has closed as part of our effort to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 infection. I look forward to going back to Gotham when it, hopefully, reopens.

Does Bill blame the virus for the closing? No, he blames Gotham’s owners for hiring a female chef and changing the menu. “How stupid could Gotham be? It was an institution and the owners made a mortal mistake by changing it. It’s not just that they hired a woman chef, but they let her do what she wanted. They could have told her she had to keep the American menu and then she could add on whatever she wanted. Stupid. The owners committed suicide, and that’s how Gotham died…”

***

The author of “Dinner with Dad” is retired from the New York City Department of Education and CUNY, and writes under the pen name of James Arnold Horowitz. He lives on Long Island with his wife and has three grown children.”

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§ 5 Responses to “Dinner with Dad”

  • Tsb says:

    There is something so true to the soul of Manhattan – and the Upper East Side – in this piece— a combination of soul, malevolence, and this other quality, connoisseurship comes close to what I mean. The mixture of familiarity, love, and loathing with which the author describes his dad crossing East End Avenue into Carl Schurz Park, was a high point.

  • John Schwartz says:

    Quite a ride — you have navigated the complex and frustrating relationship with an aging parent better than most…

  • PXM says:

    The food sounded wonderful. It is a shame his father didn’t appreciate it.

  • RW says:

    Still savoring this rich and layered piece– the complexity of the dad, the world of the Upper East Side and, not to be forgotten, the food.

  • Joyce says:

    What a lovely piece. A tough, warm, and uncompromising portrayal of a difficult loved one. And the beautiful descriptions of seafood! I haven’t had any since before the pandemic and now I know what I shall have first when everything is opened again.

§ Leave a Reply

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