Given enough time in a cooking or in any other occupation in a professional kitchen, the subject of “The Perfect Meal” will come up. Everyone mostly agrees that they’ve only had one, or maybe two of these unicorns in a lifetime of searching, reading and working towards that ascendance into something damn near unrepeatable, as glorious as the most beautiful sunset, as memorable as the most beautiful woman, as unspeakable and awe inspiring as a sky full of stars, flickers of light representing different moments in time, a glimpse into the distant past of our universe.
The Perfect Meal must, in my own opinion, follow a certain set of guidelines. Not rules, for that would ruin the moment, but some general paradigm of events. It should be unplanned. You should stumble upon it as you would after a lifetime of searching for the holy grail, only to find it upon a beach, exposed in the sun as only you could see it. It should be an experience – a combination of food, environment, appreciation, aspiration, and an ambiance that is unique to the situation.
The Perfect Meal can be anywhere. On a beach, in a distant land or in your own backyard. It can be enjoyed alone, with perfect strangers or with the ones you love most. When it happens, you must be prepared to appreciate it in all its glory, be willing to throw your phone off a cliff, curse a date or temporarily abandon a friend. Anyone who can’t appreciate the moment is not your friend but someone you should rid yourself of, if not for a lifetime, then at least for the duration of that experience.
I’m lucky in experiencing two such meals. I’ve spent a lifetime in border moments, experiences that almost, but not quite, make it. There were the fish tacos in Baja, Mexico, served by a small Mexican woman out of the back of an ancient International Truck. There was a hot dog on the back of a tailgate in Southwest Virginia, unexpectedly smothered in hot sauce and homemade chili. There was a pig roast in Costa Rica on New Years Eve, with crispy fried pork fat and seasonal fresh fruit enjoyed in bare feet while Howler Monkeys threw rocks at us. So many others.
My most recent Perfect Meal met all the criteria. I was with my wife and son. We just happened to stop by the restaurant just as they opened. The Chef, Aaron Deal, happened to be working the line himself, as I found out later he usually does at that time of day. The restaurant was empty. The wait staff was knowledgeable, the premises immaculate and the menu perfectly simple.
I’d worked with Chef Deal before, not directly, but as one of the hordes of cooks who volunteered to help with the Chef’s Tour. Chef Deal proved to be all the things a chef should be: Humble, but proud of his ability and his food. Appreciative of fine ingredients, but willing to accept and delight the senses with unexpected twists on the ordinary.
Our early lunch was simply transcendent. Being a guest at a restaurant with an eighteen-month old toddler with his own agenda can be very difficult and overwhelming. The River and Rail restaurant simply caught us in its spell and made us welcome. The staff seemed to appreciate the curiosity of a child who has spent most of his waking life in a kitchen and allowed him to explore while we enjoyed our coffee and Laura tried a Stout Beer, which paired perfectly, as the waitress said it would, with her fried chicken. My Iced Tea was worth the trip, but the Chef’s representation of a Philly Steak Sandwich blew me completely out of the water. Perfectly cooked, perfectly marinated bottom round grass-finished beef was the star of the show, with a radish slaw that complimented every bite.
I am a fried chicken snob. More than a snob. I am unashamedly scornful of most attempts at fried chicken. My grandmother and my mother made the best in the world. Until now.
This chicken was so succulent, so crunchy, so well seasoned and so perfectly fried that I was speechless. I had no idea what to say. I stammered through some awkward words of appreciation to the Chef, nearly embarrassed by the way my wife and I had thrown ourselves at the food.
Be prepared: Your Perfect Meal may be just around the corner. It may even be as close as River and Rail. Happy Hunting.