I finished the secure voice radio installation at the ambassador’s residence at Mount Lebanon. George, the post security officer and purveyor of odd jobs at the American Embassy Beirut, had shown me a great view of the city below before we packed up and went to lunch.
<Feature photo by oldbeirut.com
My experiences with French restaurants were limited. The OC Bandits (my cohorts at OC/PE) visited the Orleans House in Rosslyn, a landmark across the river from the Department of State about once a month. I would always order their specialty prime rib with a salad from a giant, riverboat-shaped salad bar. We ate under Tiffany-style lampshades surrounded by medieval armor. Besides that there was the restaurant in Paris where CEO-R Ed F. had taken me. When my ink pen had leaked out of my shirt pocket the French waiters snickered at me. Ed laughed.
This French restaurant had a quaintness about it that immediately put you at ease. I felt like I was outside Paris in a village restaurant that had served the townsfolk for decades. There were perhaps six or seven tables, half of them seated customers. George chose a table in the corner (so he could get a good look at the cashier?).
I had discovered that Ryan had nicknamed George, “The Fonz,” because of the black leather jacket over white T-shirts or knit shirts. But that’s about as far as it went as George didn’t ride a motorcycle nor did he resemble The Fonz in any way. Hamburgers? I wouldn’t be surprised if George had never eaten one. “The Galloping Gourmet” (gourmet chef Graham Kerr’s cooking show on TV) would have been a better choice for a nickname. I could definitely see George and CEO-R Ed F. in a Paris restaurant drinking wine and discussing French cuisine late into the night.
The waiter brought the menus. I thought about the Orleans House’s prime rib. Steak tartare caught my eye. Tartare must be a buttery sauce they pour over it. George ordered fish and said to me, “You sure? You don’t look like steak tartare kind of guy.”
“In defense I said, “We cowboy’s love our steaks.”
Of course, George spoke some French to impress the waiter. He mentioned earlier that he had been posted in a West African mission (I don’t remember the name) and had learned enough French to get by some ten years ago.
“I’m having a glass of white wine with my fish. Care for any red?”
“Just a bottle of sparkling water,” I said.
After ordering. George gazed around and then asked the waiter a question. His answer, accompanied with hands up put George back. I understood the “Merci,” part.
George, whom I suspected was in his early forties, shrugged. A young man sat the cashier counter. The Lebanese girl he had come to see must have had the day off. I, too, was disappointed, but I didn’t say anything.
The seasoned Foreign Service Officer, where “disappointments were part of the job,” asked me where I was from.
“Originally from southeast Missouri, but my parents moved to Southern California when I was two years old. They finally settled in Torrance, a couple miles from the beach area.”
George prodded me along with his natural panache. I gave him a short bio of my life up to now. One of the easiest conversationalists I had ever been around, George made me feel at home. His war stories accentuated everyday conversation like a blush on a woman’s cheek. He knew what words to ask, what buttons to push. I envied the guy.
Just as I began to question about the status of our food, George said, “You don’t get in a hurry in Beirut.”
His short quip closed the loop on my concern, like the lid on a saucepan allows a slow simmer to bring out the essence of the contents.
The waiter wheeled a small cart over next to me.
George gauged my surprise.
The waiter put on a show in front of us for all to see. He mixed up raw hamburger meat with various spices. I looked around. Where were they going to cook it?
When the waiter molded the raw hamburger mix into a large patty in the middle of the plate, my heart sank. He added some sliced bread, sprinkled with oily green leaf herbs, and… A nearly raw egg dribbled atop the so-called steak.
George clapped his hands together. I attempted a smile.
The waiter’s ten-dollar smile followed the cart as it rattled off.
I stared at the steak tartare, my newfound nemesis. The consumption of raw meat was not an option for me. George held a look of anticipation on his face that wouldn’t go away.
The waiter gently presented a great looking fish covered with a white sauce and an accompanying salad in front of George. He said to us, “Bon Appetite.”
George rattled off some words. I nodded, although I couldn’t bring myself to smile in the midst of the brewing crisis.
“What’s wrong?” George said when I didn’t touch the steak tartare.
“I can’t eat this. It’s raw.”
George found delight in my lack of culinary knowledge. He began a slow, silent laughter, unbeknownst to our fellow patrons.
When George recovered he said, “To avoid any embarrassment, may I make a suggestion?”
“It wouldn’t be proper to ask the waiter to take the steak tartare back. You understand?”
“Of course,” I said.
“I happen to love steak tartare. With your approval I suggest we trade plates at an opportune time.”
“That would be fine with me.”
“When I give the signal, lift your plate with your right hand and extend your left hand, like you accepted your high school diploma at Torrance High.”
“South Torrance High.”
George monitored the room for several seconds. There were about seven other patrons seated at three or four tables. He whispered, “Now.”
Although the co-conspirator’s exchange was flawless, I watched George’s expression wane into a hint of disappointment after our waiter made note of the incident with one raised eyebrow. I chose not to comment.
The delicate fish was made delicious by the sauce. I said, “Thanks, George.”
“The steak tartare is fabulous,” he said, and added a few French words of praise for the waiter.
I couldn’t help thinking how raw of a recruit I must appear to the likes of The Fonz and Cracker Jack. Did George comment on the steak tartare just to make me feel better?
I said, perhaps louder than need be, “The fish is fabulous, too.”
A quiet smile unfolded at the nearby table.