I liked the sound of this extravagant profusion, especially the fillip of the final weirdly assorted side dishes, despite the fact that I am notoriously inept at buffets. Somehow I imagine that, at this vanished feast, I could assemble a wacky yet pleasing assortment of savories and sweets, the salty anchovies of the beef filets leading to a rhyming mouthful of turtle fin, a slice of venison prettily nestled next to one of mutton, a bite at the end of earthy truffles, verdant green peas, a jeweled fruit tart.
And then I realized that I had been duplicating Victorian practice during two recent forays into what I think of as "The New Grazing": an evening at a tapas bar and a dinner chosen while ambling up and down the aisles of a new Monument to the Art of Eating (once known as a supermarket). Aline and I strolled into Iluna Basque on a Thursday night around 7, already pleased because we'd found a good parking space less than two blocks away, and were gratified to be led almost immediately to a small table for two; we'd feared the worst, since the place doesn't take reservations. We admired the sleek, modern room, wood-paneled and sharp-edged, not at all rustic as I'd expected a Basque restaurant to be. The menu, headed "Basque Tapas/small plates," is shortish, fewer than two dozen items, and arranged in a haphazard fashion not unlike Queen Victoria's banquet: It starts with four assorted seafood dishes, with soups and salads tucked in here and there; crisp fried potatoes emerge near the top; seafood reappears (tuna, mussels, and prawns), separated by duck rillettes and pipérade and, oh, here's a tortilla (a frittatalike cold omelet), and then comes a pizza, and the last dish is a cassoulet.
The eccentric listing signaled us to pick and choose by appetite -- not to start safely, traditionally, with garlic soup or baby lettuce salad, and then go on to seared tuna or chicken stew. We were to assemble an unconventional assortment.
Everything looked good to us, everything looked possible. We solved the white or red question by ordering sangria (I thought I'd start with a sherry, but wasn't attracted by the only one offered). It was a sultry night, and the beautifully blended punch of red wine and fruit, so often haphazardly assembled, hit the spot.
As did almost everything that followed: crisp yet creamy little croquettes of crab called txangurro, thin coins of sautéed scallops intriguingly paired with slippery cuts of artichoke glazed with Banyuls vinegar, a discreetly sized leg and thigh of duck confit napped with a fresh orange marmalade. A white bean and pig's feet cassoulet (said trotters reduced to near-invisible shreds) was topped with a well-seasoned rare lamb chop. Even Aline, not a fan of innards, enjoyed the special we ordered -- small chunks of sweetbreads, some firm, some custardy, also paired with artichokes. The only disappointment was a dull dish called chicken axoa, tiny cubes of chicken stewed with onions and peppers.
The room, already full, suddenly got much noisier: "The alcohol has kicked in," I said. Still, we lingered over coffee and a plate of three Basque cheeses (the server knew only that two of them were different manchegos -- which we found quite similar -- and returned from the busy kitchen with no additional information), and a wonderful sweet-and-salty fillip of thin slices of grilled fresh pineapple coated with a bit of dulce de leche, yielding juicy yet crunchy mouthfuls.
A few nights later I called Stan, Suzanne, and their son Sam and proposed dinner out. They hesitated, charmingly, before confessing that, well, Sunday night in their house is consecrated to The Sopranos. I switched to dinner in: How about if I bring takeout from the new branch of Whole Foods? Yes! Suzanne offered to come and help me choose.
We wandered the broad, well-lit, occasionally freezing (if you're interested in dairy, bring a sweater) aisles, clueless, feeling like characters in Barry Schwartz's recent sociological study The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. (Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death because they can't decide what they want to eat.) The original game plan was to get something to grill outside on this still-warm night and prepared foods for starters, sides, and dessert, but then Stan mentioned getting back in time for the 6 p.m. East Coast feed (satellite! Too much choice!), so we slid into the mind-set of purchasing everything ready-to-eat.
But how to choose among these possibilities, which felt infinite? There are multiple steam tables devoted to "flavors": Asian, Latin American, Indian, Middle Eastern. (The new Whole Foods Market in the Time Warner Center in New York, which many have written about as though they've never seen such a thing before -- well, I guess they haven't -- is set up on much the same model.) There is a "hot bar" devoted to comfort foods: mac 'n' cheese, quartered roast chickens, garlic mashed potatoes. A few feet away, under a warming hood, are whole rotisserie organic chickens and packages of vegetables, beneath a sign that says "Grab 'n' Go." For those willing to wait a few more minutes and point, there are two counters, one stuffed with attractive platters of cold foods, another with warm. I noted the eight prepared soups (roasted corn poblano chowder, vegetarian split pea, butternut and apple, cream of asparagus, white bean and garlic, carrot ginger, Lebanese vegetable, and curried something, as my notes break down); but, hey, there were six more hot soups lurking near the fish counter (cioppino, New England clam chowder, shrimp gumbo, smoked salmon and corn chowder, lobster bisque, and I forget). Next to them are bins full of six different ceviches.
Amid this elegant confusion, we assembled a faintly wacky meal. For starters we grabbed two containers of sushi ("Sam loves sushi," Suzanne said), and mixed olives and lucques olives from the multiolive setup; to follow, flank steak with chimichurri sauce, chili chicken breast, and grilled salmon in citrus sauce with roasted vegetables and grilled asparagus; then, small tarts (chocolate cream, lemon meringue, mixed fruit) and cheese (St. Marcellin in a cute little pottery crock, Mahon, and an unfamiliar Spanish goat cheese). At the last minute Suzanne seized a pint of lavender ice cream, while I got a chunk of membrillo (preserved quince paste) to go with the cheese and, worried that there weren't enough carbs, a square tin of corn bread.
We started watching the 6 p.m. feed about seven minutes into the show, missing a couple of vital points that we picked up when we rewatched it at 9. In between, we chose what we wanted, sent away what did not please us, and generally had a good time. The sushi was excellent; we wished we'd gotten another container, and it was fun to alternate mildly salty bites of fish and rice with very salty olives. The rosy charred flank steak was very good indeed, though the parsley-and-garlic chimichurri was only a memory. The mildly chili'd chicken was too firm and rather dull. But the salmon was beautifully cooked, as were the roasted vegetables (we especially liked the slightly crunchy, roseate onions) and the grilled asparagus, which belied its limp demeanor with nice smoky flavor. The afterthought corn bread was a big hit; we loaded squares with butter and honey, and it disappeared. The membrillo made for a luxurious touch, and the cheeses were a treat (though the combination of a too-cold refrigerator and the cute little crock had prevented the St. Marcellin from maturing). The chocolate cream and fruit-and-custard tarts were surprisingly good, as was the dreamy, fragrant lavender ice cream. Everything got devoured, save a slice of the overcooked chicken, the lemon tart, and a bit of cheese. Oh, and a tiny eggplant calzone we'd bought as an extra starter and forgot was warming in the oven, which was now a cinder.
A return visit to Whole Foods on a weekday found smaller crowds but concomitantly fewer choices: Neither the flank steak nor the citrus salmon was on offer. When I hoisted a ladle of lobster bisque, I saw that it was grainy, as was the perfectly dreadful crème brûlée I took home. But I loved the tempting collection of crisp, tangy things (pickled onions, champignons a la grecque) stacked in between the pâtés and the cheeses, the lavish display of smoked fish, the abundant array of fresh mushrooms. Oh yes: You can also buy foods you have to cook here. If you feel you must.