Nasty Pudding I had dinner with my ex the other night. Don't get excited. I have dinner with my ex all the time. I like my ex. We've made the daunting transition from failed long-term relationship to promising long-term friendship, a first for me. Virtually every woman I've ever had anything to do with, current ex notwithstanding, has vanished into a black hole, from which neither light nor news nor the gravity of affection can escape. Evidently. That's how the hard facts stand. My current ex is, thus, the significant exception to this ironclad law of vanishing former inamoratas, a law that requires me to accept not merely clean breaks?or smooth cuts from a fast knife, depending on how you look at it?but exile, flight, tracelessness. Absence. Unreality. I wonder at times if I ever actually dated any of these fugitives, these bolters, these disappearing acts. I can't prove it, in most cases. The evidence is thin. The trails are haggard, weed-choked. Experience, where all my prior exes are concerned, does not persist; it tends to fade into lore. They split, and I take no action.
So I had dinner the other night with my ex, who recently moved into a charming new studio, snug and pleasant, in Brooklyn Heights. Good for her. She's adored Brooklyn Heights forever. At night, she can walk down the street?the narrow, tree-framed, enormously quiet street?and gaze across the harbor at the gridded lights emanating from skyscraper windows, at black slabs of architecture heaving up like vast illuminated obelisks from Manhattan's lower tip, their surfaces slotted with yellow squares. Then she can turn back to the dark and gentle low-scale environs she now calls home, can turn back to 19th-century frame houses and streets named after fruit and the occasional stranger studying his dog while his dog pisses on an embattled flowerbed. What reassurance can be found, in these wonderful contrasts: the big bright town, the small dark town. What a formula for optimism?Life hums, just over there!?and also for repose, because over here, it doesn't hum all the time. Such balance would put a hop in anybody's step, provoke in anybody shivers of belonging counterpoised with the simple joy that a break from belonging can be taken, safe in your small safe corner and hidden from breathtaking hullabaloo, but watching nonetheless.
Dinner, then. Here's what you should do when dining with your ex: You should try not to squawk like a loon on dope. Conversations are key if you and your ex are to ford that rushing, hazardous creek that divides onetime passion from recriminationless buddydom. Anything you can do to keep from steamrolling these vital chats with anxiety, hatred, sullenness, rage, defeat, etc.?this is a smart move. Nobody you once shared other stuff with wants to share a meal with you when you're behaving like a fidgety jabbering fool, a rank parody of former love, his teeth wine-stained, his fingers nervously drumming the tablecloth, the relentless wheeze of his frantic commentary, on himself, causing the candlelight to flicker absurdly, casting mad shadows on the walls as his eyes wheel and his asscrack sweats and the soles of his feet go clammy. Dandruff on his shoulders and his ulcer (if there is one, and there might be) percolating. He consumes an entire loaf of bread. He salts excessively. He screws with the silverware. No surrounding melodrama, no minor gesture on his periphery, no new pair of customers ushered to their table?none of this evades his jittery attention. His guilt vibrates. His vanity trembles. His postromanticizing personality is a badly loaded gun, a rusty old gun loaded badly, with a dirt plug crammed up the barrel. Trouble. A problem. Perhaps doom.
And then dinner arrives. Noodle Pudding, on Henry St. just down from the Clark St. subway station, is the Bar Pitti of Brooklyn Heights. That appears to be the idea, anyway. The name, obviously, is horrible, a mistake, perhaps the worst moniker ever doled out to an Italian restaurant. It's an advantage, though, that dippy name, because it lodges in a person's mind. "What the fuck is the name of that place? You know, that trattoria in the Heights... Stupid fucking name..." Negative reinforcement, but it clearly means something to the proprietors. They have the right idea, by the way, for a restaurant in this neighborhood, otherwise distinguished by an alarming number of establishments so bad, so gloomy, so indifferent?so purely lazy?or else so canned and calculated that it can't be long before the affluent denizens of the outer boroughs' version of 10021 give up completely on Montague St. and the rest of Brooklyn Heights' dull drag and take their fat wallets and yelping offspring over to Cobble Hill, joining the restaurant revolution currently preoccupying, in frantic fashion, their poorer relations on the shaggy opposite shore of Atlantic Ave.
Noodle Pudding fights to keep them closer to home. Well, most of the time it does. Apart from the name, there are a few more bizarre touches distracting from an otherwise appealing concept. Like that big-ass plastic-pear centerpiece that remained perched off the left shoulder of a fellow diner for the entirety of my dinner with my ex. Was it a gag? we wondered. Would they remove it? They would not. A plastic pear. There it sat, while this poor guy ate his food?an immense fake fruit filling in the corner of his eye. Reminded me of the time I was served a dessert at Arizona 206 that featured an edible flower (this was a decade ago). "Take the flower away," I demanded. I would have done the same had I and my ex been at the table adorned with the giant plastic pear. Take it away. The plastic pear. Dinner with your ex must never be jeopardized by the presence of artificial fruit of exaggerated size.
Some additional visual detail: a bar, small tables, nice art. The mood is woody, calm. Attractive small-paned windows up front. Keening babies, the sole atmospheric drawback. Male waiters and their underwaiters (they seem to be a rank above busboys, but the underwaiters still had some trouble fielding questions about the dessert menu). My ex called our waiter "21 Jump Street," but he was an okay guy. He had an oily forelock. Maybe he wants to act. He talked a snappy game. We tipped decently.
In terms of entree quality, however, the tip was undeserved. It was strictly a tip for service and the dude's haircut and his eagerness to please. Because the food did well to bat .500, which is to say that half of our meal failed, egregiously, to please. I ordered rabbit, which came with polenta, rosemary and olives, and my ex went in for roasted lamb. In retrospect, she should have gone with the pork chop, a dish from which I received a good vibe as soon as we got down to reading our menus. Just for the record, my rabbit was fine, if somewhat undistinguished. It was a big old plump honker of a rabbit, a giant among hares. There was plenty of him to wolf down, his fleshy loin and thick haunch. But the lamb, my God, the lamb... The only lesson I ever took away from the Frugal Gourmet, Jeff Smith?an incompetent cook who, mercifully, seems to have been vanquished from the airwaves by, among other boys, the likes of Jacques Pepin (a great cook) and Emeril Lagasse (a better cook, but a bigger clown)?was this: "You don't cook lamb, you threaten it." Point taken?overcooking lamb ruins the meat. But lamb isn't supposed to be prepared, sliced and presented like roast beef, crusted black outside then gradating inward from pink to gory red. There isn't supposed to be a slick of lamb's blood on the plate. It's supposed to be rare, sure, but not capable of creating its own sanguine puddle. My ex and I were both raised Catholic, but this was a bit much, even given the slaughtered-innocent iconography of our shared upbringing. Lamb should tend, inside, toward the pink. The red at the core, if there is any at all, should be heading decisively toward pink. Pink. Lamb is glorified by its final allegiance to pink. It is, once cooked, one of the finest pink foods we have.
"This is bloody," my ex says.
"Send it back," I say.
"Bloody..." she repeats, trailing off, then creating separate piles on her plate, one for the edible and one for the?in her judgment?inedibly undercooked lamb.
"I wouldn't hesitate to send it back," I say. "Make them stick it in the oven for a few minutes longer."
I quaff down some more of our '95 Nebbiolo D'Alba, a tasty red from Piedmont. "I wouldn't hesitate."
Lost in disappointment, staring blankly at her plate. "No. I'll eat it."
This could get ugly. I reach over and snare a forkful of the raw stuff. "Disgraceful," I say, chewing hard, detecting that unsettling sensation of halfway animated sinew springing against my cheek. I have not lost my talent for bold support.
"Where are the green beans?" she says. "There were supposed to be green beans." She scowls. There are no green beans. "Artichokes! I hate artichokes..."
I spear an artichoke and chow down. I love artichokes, but they savage me later. What do I care? It's dinner with my ex. I don't have to worry about later.
But my ex is not happy, and I'm eating for two.
All the desserts are five dollars. Maybe dessert, a good desert, will salvage the meal. My rabbit rocked, the wine was excellent. Dessert is our last hope. My ex's last hope.
Dessert does not salvage the meal. We choose bread pudding, which has some kind of white and sweet and vaguely creamy hard sauce dribbled over the top.
"This doesn't taste like anything," my ex says. Oh, it tastes like something, all right?it tastes like a cube of wet cardboard with some raisins wedged inside. It tastes bad.
There's a quarter of a bottle of wine left. We kill it, get all tipsy and loose. A small consensus emerges: We deserve better than Noodle Pudding, even if it is the neighborhood joint. We'll be at Bar Pitti next time. Or next time, we'll order some noodles. And some other kind of pudding. We'll take the goddamn hint.