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Novelists in Restaurants Eating Food

Fallon and Byrne, Jeff VanderMeer for The Morning News.

Fallon and Byrne

Continuing our series where we ask novelists to write restaurant reviews that are absolutely not restaurant reviews, the author of the Southern Reach trilogy meets his match in a Dublin brie.

I think it was Odysseus who first said, “Bring me a cheese plate and my life is complete,” although it may have been Aristotle. I can’t remember and am too lazy to Google it. But it was in pursuit of the mighty cheese plate that my wife Ann and I wound up at Fallon & Byrne, in the Temple Bar district of Dublin in late August. Fallon & Byrne was also described as a restaurant housed in a “wine cellar,” and this fulfilled another element of my own personal quest, ever since the week before in Edinburgh and a photo shoot at the international book festival there.

The photographer was a tall, athletic man in his late forties or early fifties who had sized me up and said, “You’re a fantasy writer, so we need a dank cellar.” This begged the question: What kind of fantasy had he been reading? But caught up in the moment and perhaps distracted by trying to unravel the B to A to Z to L thinking behind the idea, I said nothing and tagged along as we tried to find the dankest, vilest wine cellar in Edinburgh.

The first was too brightly lit, the paint too unpeeling and thus unappealing. “Don’t you have anything filthier? Something awful and liquid dripping from the ceiling and dark dark dark? Something much danker?”

Of course they didn’t. These qualities are not high on most customer wish lists. So after a couple of descents into un-dank cellars and restaurant basements—too well-lit, too classy for a fantasy writer—he stood me up against a dank wall instead and we shot it right there on the dank street, interrupted only by a dank drunk who asked if this would be on television and thus, by extension, his own fine dank self. No, this dank photograph will not be on television, I assure you. (Lest you think otherwise, this photographer was a real professional and I enjoyed the whole “ordeal.”)

But something about this experience must have adhered to my epidermis, perhaps even infiltrated to the sub-dermal, and not just for the lesson learned that if you boldly stride into a restaurant and say you need to shoot a fantasy author in a filthy cellar most establishments will be all for it. My thought processes had been subverted in a more general way: Given a choice of a few different restaurants in the Temple Bar area, the Fallon & Byrne stood out by virtue of being in a wine cellar. Perhaps my subconscious—swayed also by the tunnel curling shadowy into the ground in the Southern Reach trilogy, my recent novels about an expedition into a strange placed called Area X, had decided that indeed I belonged in a dank place.

The photographer was a tall, athletic man in his late forties or early fifties who had sized me up and said, “You’re a fantasy writer, so we need a dank cellar.”

If so, those hopes were dashed, as the Fallon & Byrne had no foetid qualities. No uncanny presence. Nothing drip-drip-dripping. No stalactites of dread, mental or otherwise. Instead, it hummed and glowed with cleanliness and efficiency. We chose a rustic long wooden table with an uneven grain, a waiter appearing with a promising promptness. The place was loud, but you could hear yourself speak. Opposite us was the potentially interesting drama of what I predicted to Ann was a first date. The brunette woman sat rigid, had kept her motorcycle jacket on like a beetle carapace, which to me was like wearing armor you weren’t sure you should take off. A husky, friendly man in a nice dress shirt sat opposite her on a stool at their wine-barrel table. He an amiable way about him, limned by nervousness.

Rustic? Comfortable? Yes, on first glance. Along with a mixed cheese and charcuterie board, we first considered their beer selection (middling) and instead ordered a carafe of the Kaiken Malbec Reserve, 2011. An organic wine, full-bodied, with a simple but bold taste and a citrusy finish. A wine that exhibited more complexity the more it got to breathe—satisfyingly robust with a hint of berries. We followed that up later with what I would call a more fucked-up varietal, a terroir that recalled perhaps the more romantic notions of “dank.” Willunga Shiraz-Viognier, 2011, from McClaren Vale in Australia. If you want bold but complex, always go with McClaren Vale. We got the Willunga 2011 because we needed something to fuck up the atmosphere, too.

It is a measure of accomplishment for McClaren Vale that we chose a wine for the fuck-up, because we usually do associate that state with beer. Probably the closest experience to being in a dank cellar previous to this occurred on a book tour in the Czech Republic, during which our publisher took us to a beer cave or cavern—a brewery carved into the bottom of a mountain or at the very least a robust hill. In that actually rather non-humid and pleasantly cool place we had encountered heady and dangerous but ambrosia-like beers. After which we were brought for a photo op in a beer spa.

What is a beer spa? A place where you, behind your own closed curtain—parted in this case only by the publisher’s photographer for PR images (?!)—luxuriate in an old-fashioned bathtub filled with spa beer. Even if in this case we were all frantically placing bubbles in strategic locations as the photographer snapped away. In the case of one of our number, the Scottish novelist Hal Duncan, being pickled in beer seemed to revive him after a long night of hard drinking—he emerged from his beer tub in bearded and white toga’d brilliance, looking like nothing more or less than a tattooed Jesus Christ. No one, I suppose, could fault him for having tried to sample the spa beer in his tub.

But then the Czech Republic, even more than Germany, has resonated as fucked-up central for several reasons. On another trip, we visited The Pub with an international contingent of writer-editor friends from France, Scotland, Ireland, Finland, and Italy. The Pub is a high-end chain where each table comes with its own computer-regulated tap, and in our case, in the beer city of Pilzen, the beer comes to the tap fresh and unpasteurized through a beer pipeline right from the Pilsner brewery. In that state, you can drink eight pints and not wake up hungover. Although our Irish and Scottish friends said if a table spigot suddenly appeared in pubs in their respective countries, everyone would be dead within a month.

More importantly, though, after three pints you suddenly become intensely aware of the scoreboards on the walls. These scoreboards not only record the amount of beer drunk at each table in your The Pub, but also in each The Pub across the country. By your fourth pint you really want to beat the liter/ounce score of every other table anywhere. By your tenth pint you might just be an American attempting a Czech accent to your English to tell a family from Montana at the table next to you about some authentic Czech things to do while in-country.

 

But no such luck for frivolity or effed-upness or ridiculousness at our current location in Dublin, alas. As the evening wore on the wine barrels for bar tables that faced us, the movie posters plastering the pillars, and the row of wine bottles on the far wall made us feel as if we were in some Epcot version of Paris plonked down in Dublin. Sometimes a place will reveal itself all at once and in the first glance seem promising, but then offer nothing further—become less vibrant, less interesting. Fallon & Byrne was that place, retreating into a copy of a copy of a French bistro, a facsimile from a movie set, the longer you experienced it.

Maybe the reason we didn’t notice this right away was because Ann had been on the road almost four weeks by then and I’d been traveling for six, so we were past giddy tiredness and into the road-warrior mode. Your body adjusts to the rhythms of travel. You get good sleep. You pace yourself. You find you don’t drink too much because that’s just madness. This isn’t some endless vacation—it’s work. But it is enjoyable work. Like, sitting down in a restaurant knowing you’re in part eating there as a performance, because you’re filing a review that’s not a review. Which seemed appropriate, since we were in a restaurant that was a copy of a million other restaurants.

It was definitely a dank brie. A stinky, misbehaving, sweary brie. A rude and swaggering brie, tossing insults at the Aussie wine. I’d only twice before encountered cheese that aggressive.

While waiting for our food, we lingered over the weirder aspects of the Temple Bar region, including the great patriotism shown to Penn State and the Penn State football team—the banners, the signs in the windows of pubs. The fact Penn State was playing Central Florida in football the next week hardly seemed enough to warrant the embedded level of loyalty. We also expressed for about the fourth time our annoyance with a tourist who had interrupted the practice of a group of what appeared to be Tibetan dancers about to go on stage for an impromptu concert. So she could arrange one of their drums to her satisfaction, with no thought whatsoever for their preparations. As well as rehashing the wonder and bewilderment of coming to a panel at a Dublin convention a day earlier and finding that “signifiers in speculative fiction” had become a discussion, with slideshow, of My Little Pony. (A good panel, actually, and I admit I was ready at first glance to skewer the proceedings.)

But eventually our thoughts turned always back to the cheese plate. Interesting fact about cheese plates: You can be a cheese snob on a limited budget, if you make such a board your meal. Even when strapped for cash, I’d rather go for that option than any other.

When it came, I noticed first the Italian cured meats, including a spiced salami that damn near obliterated the wine before I airlifted it off to the side. But that was just prologue to the cheeses: four, waiting delectable upon that long wooden board. The side of quince just kind of quivered there, safe amongst us heathens, to whom the thought of jiggle-texture is anathema to the whole experience.

It was a very good cheese plate, but such a plate gets better if the waiter actually tells you what is on offer. Which this waiter did not. Repeatedly, even after being asked directly. “Oh, this? I forget, but it’s what the chef chose tonight.” Well, that’s a relief. Little flies or midges hovered almost drunkenly over the plate, but they were also unable to tell us about the cheeses, despite clearly coveting them.

Without the anchor of actual names for these cheeses, I can tell you that upon that plate were some cheeses. A brie? A white cheddar? A blue cheese? Yes, veiny as my dead grandfather’s hand, and thus a blue cheese. But the provenance obscured. No certainty except that a sixth cheese sense proclaims, “These are authentic.” Perhaps not the epic cheese plates we’ve had in Washington, DC, or in Nantes, France, but well above average.

Especially because of the brie.

It was definitely a dank brie. A stinky, misbehaving, sweary brie. A rude and swaggering brie, tossing insults at the Aussie wine, which, stoic, held its own. I’d only twice before encountered cheese that aggressive.

The most recent time had been in 2011 at a pub called The White Horse Tavern in Newport. I sat there by myself, in the middle of a book tour, and I ate that whole goddamned cheese plate, stinky and all, and downed a good dark beer in that low-key yet sumptuous place and then I hiked what came to 15 miles down Newport’s famed row of mansions and back into town on blistered feet. Part of it through a raging thunderstorm, part of it over bridges and part of it in strange heat, and some of it walking by what I can only describe as a desolate cult’s abandoned creepy compound. That’s the kind of experience that’ll stick with you, my fortitude only possible because of that amazing cheese plate. (Or at least that’s the tale I tell.)

The time before that was in Paris in the legendary European humid-dirty-sock summer of 2006. We met our friend the writer, artist, and scientist Eric Schaller—and I’m using the term “friend” loosely for this particular anecdote and possibly those other descriptors too—along with his artist wife Paulette at our mutual hotel. They helped us with our luggage up to our hotel room and then we went out and spent hours seeing the sights.

When Ann and I returned to our room, however, there was a very odd, pungent odor. I couldn’t find the source anywhere. Finally, I discovered the culprit: a camembert lounging under my pillow. I must admit, being more than a little drunk, I assumed that this was some French custom of which I was unaware.

In a panic, I put the cheese in the clothes closet. But we could still smell it. I put it outside of our room. But we could still smell it. I put it on the landing a half-floor below. But we could still smell it. Finally, too tired and drunk to deal with the issue any longer, I put it in the elevator, hit the button for the ground floor, and went to bed—where I couldn’t sleep, wondering about the reaction several floors below. Had the door opened and the concierge seen the cheese just lying in wait in the elevator? Had the cheese been removed, or was it going to wander up and down the floors all night? By then, this cheese had acquired a definite personality, almost a kind of cheese consciousness in my mind. Man, that was one hell of a cheese, I’d think later, as if we’d had all kinds of adventures together.

Perhaps we had. In any event, friend Schaller let me traverse another three countries on that book tour talking about how the French sometimes left a stinky cheese under your pillow before he confessed to his crimes.

 

One thing about knowing you’re doing a restaurant review, even if it’s not a restaurant review, is that you feel compelled to sample more than just the cheese plate. Especially if you’ve become best friends with the wine and want for no other. The remnants of the defeated stinky brie was still giving us the ectoplasmic finger along with the revenant of the elevator cheese when we ordered mains. A square-jawed menacing fellow in a fisherman’s cardigan who was hugging his barrel whilst having a delicate tea and crumpet looked askance at that. Such pigs! To devour a cheese-and-meat plate and then order mains. Must be Americans. Meanwhile, a woman in her fifties sitting on a barrel stool behind square-jaw swatted her much younger stud cakes on the ass, oblivious to us, standing there serenely radiant.

There were other people in Fallon & Byrne, but I won’t be telling you about them. You won’t get even a leftover crumb of detail. Not a trace of the really interesting ones. I’m saving them for the fiction. Because there’s a curious thing that happens in the modern era: a kind of oversharing on social media, blogs, and online magazines. You lose for the fiction that defining moment, the unique mannerism, some unsettling, laid-back look…because you’ve already shared all of them elsewhere. Except often you don’t know what you’ve lost until too late, when what should be fresh emerges stale on the page.

 

For some reason, after that point, that scowl from square-jaw, the whole evening floats comfortably into the present tense. Even the circling flies.

The waiter definitely thinks we are piggish lushes, but we are on a mission, buoyed along by the wine. Our mission includes an expedition through slow-roasted beef with mustard and cracked-pepper onion gravy, creamed potatoes, and roasted garden veggies. Our mission also includes poached flaked salmon, whole baby veggies, within a pink peppercorn dressing. Followed by mixed berry tart. (Mixed feelings about the mixed berry tart, to be honest.)

This is not a restaurant review. The Valkyries could burst forth from the bathroom in chariots led by winged hippos, all of them, hippos too, singing a Justin Bieber song, and it’d go in.

Within a few bites, we know it’s really all comfort food, elegantly presented. It’s dressed-up meatloaf in a faux French bistro, too well-lit, with barrel tables that should be more worn and weathered.

The waiter leaves us alone for long stretches during our exploration of the mains. “He’s so handsome he doesn’t need to really work at it,” Ann says, leaving me somewhere between a nod and a quizzical raised eyebrow. The bathroom, I find, includes a body lotion dispenser. I discover much later a scribbled note in my blazer pocket, also about the bathroom. But I can’t decipher it. “Lentil cabbage ham hock salad stinker,” I think. No idea what that means, but never mind—in it goes. This is not a restaurant review. The Valkyries could burst forth from the bathroom in chariots led by winged hippos, all of them, hippos too, singing a Justin Bieber song, and it’d go in. And so it has.

The food’s not bad, even if the beef is too tough for something that’s apparently been in a sauna for eight hours. But, really, the worst thing is that there’s nothing unexpected about it.

We pay the bill after some reluctance on the waiter’s part to reappear. I notice the woman in the motorcycle jacket has finally taken it off and is having an animated conversation with the man opposite her. On our way out, I ask if they would mind a couple of questions since I’m writing a restaurant review for a New York-based website called The Morning Blues. This is what I’ve gleaned or half-remembered or filled in from the short missive in my inbox from my editor, so I hope it’s true.

They are on a first date, which seems to be going well. She’s been to the restaurant. He has not. He’s not impressed with how expensive the wines are, “being Italian,” although frankly Ann and I thought the wine prices were fine. They too had gotten the cheese plate. They too didn’t know what they’d gotten because the waiter hadn’t told them.

The act of questioning them in a semi-official capacity has lent them both a glow, perhaps of validation. They seem more animated, more cheerful, as if we’ve added an important detail to the story of their first night out. Of course, I might be wrong. They might’ve just been polite, hoping we’d get out of their faces a bit quicker. A writer’s job is to add motivation to what can at times just be a random selection of facial tics.

But eventually we do leave, stumbling out into the Temple Bar district. The streets are wreathed in lights and Penn State banners, and quiet groups of people hug the wall as they walk through the night all around us.

A comfortable, cheery, fun place. But not dank enough by far.

Fallon & Byrne Wine Cellar, 11-17 Exchequer Street, Dublin 2, Ireland. Telephone: 01-472 1010. Hours: Monday to Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.