The Greatest Meal Ever

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memories, plus serious flavor, create unforgettable experience

by josh perilo

in a recent issue of saveur magazine, the cover story posed the question "what was the greatest meal you ever had" to 25 notable writers and personalities. when i read that query, i immediately started scanning through the volumes of my own amazing food memories, some recent and some from long ago. to avoid being influenced by the responses inside, i ran home and began delving into my foodie past. i knew that there had to be one meal that was some kind of epicure lynchpin.

the task became more complicated than i had expected. what constituted an amazing meal? was it the food alone? was it more about the entire experience? did it have to be at a restaurant, or could it be a home-cooked meal?

my mind immediately raced to the last "amazing" meal i had, which was at a restaurant. the night i proposed to my wife, i took us to la grenouille (3 e. 52nd st., 212-752-1495), the old-school french bastion of mid-20th-century haute cuisine. i had toiled over the choice of restaurant for months beforehand. this had to be the meal to end all meals. the cuisine was important, but i knew that this night had to be about more than just a plate of good grub. i wanted something classic. i wanted something unique. i wanted something that we could look back upon and feel lucky about experiencing.

that is exactly what we got. the food was satisfyingly indulgent in a way that modern high cuisine just doesn't get. instead of blowing the diner's mind with food combinations that had never been thought of before, the attention was put on the handful of rich, high-quality ingredients that were used to construct plates with serious intensity of flavor. but the food wasn't the sum total of the experience, as i had hoped it wouldn't be.

for anyone that has visited la grenouille, they know that the room itself is reason enough to go. old-school down to its extremely formal butler service, this is a place that crosses its t's and dots its i's when, it seems, few restaurants even know how to write their own name.

while probably the ultimate restaurant experience of my life, i knew there was an even greater meal from much farther back. all the way back, in fact, to a quiet evening at my grandma and grandpa's house in kansas city in the late '80s. every summer each grandchild would spend a week hosted by grandma and grandpa hatfield, and it was like a mini private vacation for us all. their focus for each grandchild was different, and as soon as they knew i was on my way, grandma florence would make a trip to the grocery store.

i received my passion for cooking from grandma hatfield, and my week every summer in kc was when i indulged my culinary fantasies. chocolate cheesecake, chicken gumbo, wiener schnitzel? i experienced all of the great recipes of the world with her. one summer night, however, she had a surprise waiting for me.

"one of grandpa's friends is a hunter," she explained, pulling a frosty bag from the freezer, "and he gave us several pheasant that he shot a couple of weeks ago."

pheasant. just the arcane notion of eating the flesh of a bird that wasn't from the breast of a chicken made me start to salivate.

"i saved them until you came because i knew that you would appreciate them."

this was a handpicked, specially designed meal, just for me. my grandmother braised the pheasants in sauerkraut, cider and caraway seeds, and served the mixture over white rice. and it remains the single greatest taste i have ever experienced to this day.

and yet, it was so simple. i thought the same thing as i took the first bite of veal kidneys in cognac and mustard sauce at grenouille. the waiter bent in to ask:

"how is it?"

i paused, then said, "it's perfect. it's so simple."

"ah yes," he chuckled, straightening himself back up. "it is like how gran mere would make, no?"

yes. exactly like how she would make.

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