Risotto is a Restaurant Dish. That’s how I feel about it, at least. A Restaurant Dish is something I would never make at home - something that requires too much effort, especially since my version will never be as good as a professional’s. And really, who wants to stand over a pot, stirring rice constantly for an hour, when there are so many low-maintenance carbs you could be enjoying?
But recently, I saw a recipe for risotto cooked in the oven - and I knew it was my ticket to rice. I happened to have four parmesan rinds in the freezer, waiting in the wings for their star turn as the base of the broth. I sautéed three different kinds of mushrooms in olive oil, butter, and garlic, to go on the side - because this recipe tells us that vegetables should go on the side, not inside, the risotto.
There’s a phenomenon in home cooking that needs a name. The moment when you make something for the first time, meticulously adhering to the recipe (or, if you’re a different kind of person, taking extreme liberties), and you finally sit down to eat it. There should be a word for that first-time feeling, when you know it’s never going to taste that good again. It might even remind you of a dish you’d actually be served in a restaurant.
That feeling has become my most reliable source of thrill in quarantine. I found it the first week of lockdown in March, with a short rib noodle soup that called for 10 onions. Then there was sourdough (followed by sourdough pizza, sourdough breakfast pizza, sourdough crackers, and sourdough waffles), mapo tofu, hummus made from dried chickpeas, chili colorado, chickens roasted in every conceivable way (in buttermilk, in gojuchang, grilled whole instead of roasted), beans! So many different pots of beans!, chile crisp and salsa macha, and perhaps my favorite dish, ghormeh sabzi - the Persian lamb and bean stew that involves two pounds of herbs and four hours of cooking. It was so good that I am afraid to make it again.
My personal cooking thrills aren’t limited to the first-time feeling. I’ve gotten probably too much satisfaction from making detailed shopping lists, repurposing leftovers with a certain crafty smugness, and planning multi-course dinners to approximate my favorite restaurants, which, before the pandemic, felt like an extension of my Brooklyn home.
But here’s the thing. My apartment is not The Fly, no matter how much I think I’ve nailed a rotisserie-esque chicken. My dining room table is not St. Anselm, even if I did figure out how to make a facsimile of their fried mashed potato. My kitchen is never going to be Birds Of A Feather, despite my attempts to perfect my silky tofu-to-pork ratio. My living room is not Lighthouse, and no amount of grilled escarole on top of tahini can change that. I’ve made a hundred burgers at home this year, but I’d always rather be eating one at BK Jani.
And then there’s the thrill that I wouldn’t even, can’t even, chase within the confines of my own home: going out to a new restaurant for the first time.
It’s my version of a blind date. It starts with figuring out the best time for both of our schedules - I love a Monday night restaurant outing, but is the place open then? The same nervous excitement hits me every time I arrive: Will we have chemistry? The first impressions come fast - from the host and the server, the menu and the art on the walls, and the first sip of a cocktail or a glass of wine - or maybe even from the perfectly-chilled water.
But the greatest thrill of the unknown comes from the food itself. My kitchen, where I wash and chop and mince and boil and sautée and fry and just hope all that work pays off, is far away. In a restaurant, I have people with far greater skills and talents to thank for the final dish that arrives at my table.
I miss the people whose vision and determination and creativity and drive is the very reason that restaurants exist. I also miss looking around the room at fellow diners who are also on their first dates with restaurants - or maybe their third, actual, date. I miss watching bartenders expertly making cocktails, catching quick glimpses of the action in the kitchen, and seeing everyone else in the restaurant working together to create an experience I would never be able to replicate at home.
Every day, I am a little more optimistic that the future will be here soon, when I can be closer to all people, without putting anyone’s health at risk. I’m already imagining the future conversations in my own head: Should I try a new restaurant for dinner tonight? What about going back to an old favorite? Something in my neighborhood? What about that place that pivoted and has now pivoted back? Or... I could make dinner tonight. I could even cook something new.
Sure, that might be a thrill, I’ll think to myself. But I’m going to a restaurant.