He was an old critic who ate alone at a corner table and always gave a different name when he called for reservations. At first he had not wanted to write about restaurants. He had argued with the editor that it was foolish and not a thing for a man to do. He had said that people ate what they ate and that to know what one truly liked was a hard thing. After many days and nights of trying the food and thinking, truly thinking about what was in it and what was not, then you knew. Then only a spoonful of marinara sauce or the smallest pinch of crust from a raspberry tart would tell you if the chef was a fool or a man to admire. No critic could give you that.
But that had been a long time ago, before the woman and the light in her eyes when she spent his money in the malls. So he had eaten and had written about what he had eaten and it was not so bad at times. He wrote of buttery camarones and zesty gazpacho and effete guacamole without cojones, and his pages danced with words like ambience and bastion and succulent. But then had come the night at La Testosteroni and the thing that had happened there.
When he thought of it he felt cold and remembered. You know the proud fine way you feel when a waiter whom you trust tells you of the day’s specials and raises his eyebrows at the last one. It is his way of telling you and your woman that this will be the dinner of dinners and the beginning of an evening that will end as evenings should. He had trusted Alberto and loved him, though of course nothing was ever said between them, not even on the night when poor Scott had passed out at the table and had fallen with his face in his cavaletti and the small shells and the fresh tomato sauce with basil had run out of the plate. Alberto had only nodded to the busboys and they carried poor Scott out between them. So he trusted Alberto.
But when the meal came he knew something was wrong. The salmon a la stimpirata was dry and without its flavor and the cauliflower soup was not from the garden but the can and not even the strong good Nouveau Ranch Red from Cypress Mill could wash away the sick feeling of shame and betrayal.
The woman knew it too and could hardly look at him. She was not like some, like the ones who sense a man’s hurt like sharks smell blood in the water.
“It was not so bad,” she said.
“No,” he said, but he knew she lied.
“I have had better,” she said.
“Still, there is the dessert.”
“What is for dessert?” He could not look at the chalkboard on the wall.
“A white chocolate cheesecake. And they have the fine dark mousse that you like. Remember in Lisbon?”
“In the mountains?”
“Do you want to be alone and come to me later?”
“No. I must write the review.”
“But what will you say?”
So she left and he sat alone at the table. She had eaten only a few bites of the cheesecake. He thought about finishing her cake but ordered his own instead. He needed a separate piece. Then he sat and watched the last couples leave the restaurant. Nada. Nada. Nothing had been succulent or zesty or fine and he did not feel like people-watching.
“Nada. Nada,” he said.
The waiter heard him. “Nada is off tonight, sir. She only works Mondays and Wednesdays now.”
There was no reason to stay. After a while he left the restaurant and walked back to the office in the rain.