The other day I got an e-mail that has stuck with me. It definitely hurt my feelings, but has also got me to think. The subject line was "Happy New Year," and the writer went on to say how he used to read me, but now he doesn't, because its a column about bars, what happens in bars, what happens to me in bars, the decor of bars, etc., and so forth. He ended by telling me that the whole endeavor was a "waste of space." At first I couldn't understand why he would take the time out of his life to make me feel bad, but then I realized that I write similar things about various places all the time. Why shouldn't I also be the target of criticism? But after even more thinking, I realized that I was scared that what he was saying was true: All I do is write about bars: hookers in bars, losers in bars, alcoholics in bars, bars bars bars. What is it about bars? Was I losing my edge by sticking to the narrow confines of bars? The whole thing left me feeling like a failure.
Then I read about Range, the restaurant on Valencia that had earned itself a Michelin star, only to have it taken away this year; Michelin's subtle way of saying that the joint is a waste of space. I naturally felt immediately drawn to it.
The place has built a reputation for developing exciting cocktails, and it has been on my list of places to hit for a while now for this reason. I really don't know jack about Michelin stars, but it has always struck me as strange that a tire company would know anything about fine dining.
I arrived right at opening time so that I could be sure to get a seat at the bar. I was warmly greeted by the bartender, who was of course busily muddling a drink. First he dropped a small handful of black peppercorns into the glass, then he used a pestle to break them up. From there he squeezed a bunch of fruit into a tumbler, added the prescribed boutique booze, shook the heck out of it, and then splashed it into the peppercorns with a zippy flip of his wrist. He was making a Cheetah, which also has grapefruit bitters, maraschino, lime, orange, and Campo de Encanto Pisco. He handed me a menu and I looked at the dinner selections, most of which were fish or pork, my two least favorite things. I went with the chicken.
The decor of Range (yes, Letter Writer, this is the part where I waste space about the looks of the place) is rather sterile. The heat was on, so it wasn't physically cold, but the walls were bare and painted a sort of blue-gray. It was not cozy. The stool I was sitting on was sturdy but smallish; you better have a small, upwardly mobile WASP butt to really get comfy. The feeling in the place, however, was casual and happy. The clientele was well-dressed but unpretentious.
The old Avis slogan "We're No. 2, so we try harder" was going through my head. Now that Range had lost its star, I hoped its staff were doing the healthy thing, which is learning from their mistakes and trying to improve to regain it. This is easier said than done. What must it feel like for a chef to lose a star? Chez Panisse also lost one this year. Is there an eerie silence in the kitchen the day after such things are announced? Is basil chiffonaded with dolorous anguish? Does the chef go back over the menus for the past year, cursing the use of so much goddamned escarole?