by Kevin Dicciani
I am not one for fine dining. In fact, you could say, I am not one for any type of communal dining — poor, mediocre or exquisite. For some reason, I just find the whole business of eating in a restaurant parallel to bathing in a public swimming hole. Sure, the instinctual need for sustenance is fulfilled, but to satisfy that urge in the eyes of others is malignantly superfluous and a horrid waste of one’s time and money.
Both the aristocrat and the homeless can be equally sated, yet the former expends much and soon forgets his experience, while the latter remembers every bite. Moreover, when a tie is added to this hoggish affair, I cannot help but imagine as I tighten the knot around my neck that my body is being pushed gently by a breeze blowing through a gallows.
Nevertheless, as I cannot be in a relationship with someone who shares my philosophy, lest two skeletons would be discovered holed up in my apartment, happily deprived for years of sunlight and speech, my girlfriend occasionally banishes me into the drudgery of society.
She — who for the sake of not being hounded by psychiatrists who’ll want to pillage through her reasons for dating a person like me, we’ll call Elisa — dragged me out of the shadows to celebrate the one-year anniversary of our relationship.
Having saved up enough money in the months beforehand to celebrate this night properly, Elisa and I decided, at the recommendation of friends, to go to a restaurant called XIX, located on South Broad Street in center city.
We arrived at the Hyatt at The Bellevue, in which XIX is located on its – guess – 19th floor. Since it’s on the top floor, that makes it one of the highest restaurants in the city, a watermark in the restaurant’s advertising, which is really used as a mask to distract you from the food you’re putting in your mouth.
Elisa and I stepped foot onto the elevator along with a gaggle of politicians who were attending a gala or something else as absurd. The elevator let us off in the restaurant. The doors opened to a dining room with a rotunda topped with a stained glass window, with nearly ceiling-high windows which enchant customers with a romantic view of window washers and New Jersey.
Sitting in the seats, which some may have found informal yet chic, or however you describe semi-coarse upholstery, I found my knees banging against the underside of the table. Had I been relegated to the children’s section of the restaurant? For the money I was paying for that kind of meal, if I wanted to cannibalize a child, I should have been asked at what temperature I wanted it cooked.
The waiter came to our table to take our drink orders. Looking in need of an ophthalmologist, Elisa squinted at the menu and again pointed out that we had seemingly been deceived by XIX’s advertising. On their website, on what we thought was the current menu, one of the entrees was a braised short rib dish. In the days before our visit, Elisa wouldn’t stop yammering on about it, to which I said, “Be patient, we’re only two weeks away from the dinner — a week away, a day away, two minutes away.” But since it turned out to not even be on the menu, I had to say, “Well, what else would you like? Forget about that other dish that was really the only reason you wanted to come to a glorified hotel restaurant.”
On top of that, I noticed a few other items differed from the way they looked on the online menu. When you claim to show diners an “unparalleled experience,” which I equate with a shot of morphine and a striptease while being hand-fed prime rib; and when you can sell white bean and tomato soup for $10, which costs about $1.50 to make, you better have the decency to update your website. The heathens.
I eventually ordered a cocktail called Kentucky Bourbon Orange, a mix of bourbon, orange bitters and elderflower liqueur. The taste was good, but I would’ve had to drink eight of them just to feel something. The same happened with Elisa, who can’t even smell a glass of wine without getting dizzy. She was taking quaffs of her drinks like a vagrant on Skid Row but to no avail. Again, for $12, make the drinks strong.
On to the meals. After trying to order steamed blue bay mussels and being told they were out of mussels (before 7:30 p.m.), I panicked because our waiter, who was looking down at me in my tiny seat like a judge, kept rushing us. To hell with it, I thought. “Give me your completely overpriced crab cocktail.” Elisa ordered the crab cake for her appetizer, the braised veal shoulder for her entrée, and I went with a rib eye, medium rare.
I knew at the moment I saw the waiter bringing out Elisa’s crab cake what kind of restaurant we were at — the kind where, when you leave, you go eat something cheap and disgusting and curl into the fetal position in the dank and fetid corner of a rest stop bathroom, clutching your wallet and crying at your stupidity and the public’s complicity in propagating these kinds of no-brow eateries.
The plate was huge, the width of an oar, with a crab cake on it the size of one pocket watch. And to make it worse, when the waiter placed this half-watermelon-sized dish in front of me, it had more mustard than lump crab meat in it. Are they using one crab back there in the kitchen? I thought. Do they keep plucking off his claws and waiting until they grow back to fix another dish? Chewing on the crustacean, I looked over at the window and the balcony and wondered how I could expedite my fall down to earth.
Elisa’s braised veal shoulder looked more like a soup doused with cheesy polenta, and she said it tasted like someone went wild drowning it in a jar of orange zest. My rib eye, which I ordered medium rare, had the consistency of an armadillo that was dried up and dead on a roadside in Arizona. It had about as much taste as one, too, although I couldn’t rightly tell, not with all the sauce on it. Did I complain, you ask, or send the food back? No.
Elisa managed to eat most of her meal, though she didn’t enjoy it, and I kept sawing away and gnawing at the rib-eye until I finished it, barely satiated but bloated with dejection. Upon seeing that we were finished with our dinner, the waiter asked if we would like to see the desert menu. “No,” Elisa and I said simultaneously.
I only grew more despondent when the check came. I paid nearly $200 – minus the tip – to have a migraine and my girlfriend disappointed on our anniversary; I could have accomplished that by simply forgetting about the anniversary from the start. Then she might have killed me. Still, she would have spared me the pain of XIX.
Ed. Note: Kevin Dicciani, a novelist and staff writer for the Local, has a degree in writing from Syracuse University. Prior to that, he cooked at a restaurant in Roxborough for nine months and then attended culinary school in 2007-2008 at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.