Last week, Alexi and I flew to New York to attend my sister’s surprise 40th birthday party. We could only stay for the night of the party due to the complexities of our lives, but that was fine with us; it was a bit thrilling crossing the continent for dinner. We arrived at our hotel mid-afternoon, early enough to walk through Central Park for a couple of hours. The day was clear and brisk. We were surprised to discover that the trees in the park were completely bare, devoid of all evidence of impending spring. I intermittently had wild, worried thoughts of running into my sister, and spoiling the surprise party. We watched the sun lower, gilding the branches of the trees and the shore grass of the lake with golden light as we returned to our hotel to dress for the party.
I tried not to eat much all day, knowing we were going to have a nine course dinner at a famous restaurant I’d always hoped to visit someday. After taking a taxi to the entrance of the Time-Warner building, we rode the escalator up four floors, past Whole Foods, Williams-Sonoma, Sephora and all the rest. It could have been Anywhere, USA. Finally, we arrived at a decorative blue door and walked into Per Se restaurant, and were escorted back to a private room. As we waited for my sister we took in Central Park and Columbus Circle through the windows in the mostly faded light, and watched the city’s electric lights colorfully coming to life. Unmistakably New York.
My sister’s husband had given her the impression he had left town on a business trip. Her actual birthday was two days prior to the party, and they had already gone out to dinner to celebrate. Her friend Tanya flew in from Dallas that morning to spend a couple of days with her, and got my sister to the restaurant under the auspices of treating her to a belated birthday dinner. Instead of showing them to a table, the host took them back to where we were all waiting to surprise her. She was speechless. We proceeded into the elegant meal with ebullience. Nine of us sat around a large round table, elegantly bedecked with flowers and candles, for close to five hours. It was a feast to remember for a lifetime. Per Se is a New American and French restaurant owned by chef Thomas Keller; a sister restaurant of the famed French Laundry. Every bit of the evening was an exquisite pleasure. The lawyers – my sisters and most of her friends – intermittently talked lawyer talk, and when they did, Alexi looked fascinated, watching it like you might a tennis match, peppering them with questions. Everything was, of course, delicious beyond imagination, but all the more so for the celebrating and the coming together and the anticipation that went into it all.
It was close to midnight when the candle-lit cake came to the table, and then it was time to say our goodbyes and pull ourselves away. Back at our hotel, we talked and talked until Alexi fell asleep. I laid awake for a long time, despite my exhaustion from travel and the late hour. I was tempted to go out walking. I longed for more time, knowing that in just a few hours we’d talk about the evening as a memory; it would become The Time We Surprised Lindi at Per Se.
We got up hours later and began talking about it all, again, until it was time to get in a taxi. The sun had started to filter down over the tops of buildings, and continued to rise behind us as we drove to the airport in New Jersey. Now, a week later, the menu with the date and the occasion printed at the top is up on my office wall, and I’m intermittently reminded of the sterling white sturgeon caviar, the specifics of that salad I daydream about, the bitter orange and chocolate cake, and that moment in time.