Home for the Holiday

Last week, with the thermometer reluctantly backing off 100, the county looked like a city in hell hacked out of salt. The light, strained through cirrus clouds, was like bleach poured over every colorful thing.

I sought relief in Sejour, a collection of cool, dramatically lit nooks on the Balboa Peninsula. Outside it was Arizona in July; inside it was a London gentlemen's club.

Just past the bar, my wife and I took a couch in a small room hung with very British paintings (hunting dogs, aristocrats, a dog wearing a Victorian-era officer's uniform) and illustrations of racehorses that carefully described their lineage, performance and colors. My wife ordered Zardetto Prosecco (a fruity Italian champagne; fine bubbles); I went with an Arnold Palmer.

I rarely think about food. Some may see that as a deficiency; I see it as a defense mechanism that was essential to my childhood survival as a kid in an Englishwoman's kitchen. I'm drawn to restaurants primarily as an interruption—not so much for the food, to which, like I say, I'm passionately impartial, but for the ambiance, the switch in surroundings, the fact that I don't have to cook food I won't eat or do dishes I didn't use.

But there are restaurants that make me think about food—that interrupt my disinterest in eating—and they do this primarily by juxtapositions, what they too regularly call “fusion,” but which is nothing more than putting together things you won't generally find on the same plate. Fusion is still wildly popular. There are arguments against such juxtapositions, and fusion produced its antithesis—the more recent comfort-food backlash (I'll tell you some other time about the best $18 hamburger in Costa Mesa). I still recall with too much clarity the taste of a piece of smoked salmon stuck like a shark's dorsal fin in a chocolate pudding. I complained that this mlange was really going too far. The waitress agreed—and pointed out that, as there was nothing of the sort on the menu, the salmon had likely dropped from my wife's dinner onto my dessert by accident. I know food critics who'd have celebrated this, but the memory of it still wakes me sweating from a deep sleep.

But what I mean to say here is that some juxtapositions are really remarkable, and that Sejour mixes things up right. The owner, an affable guy named Art, calls the food “spontaneous,” and it figures that he'd get his inspiration while traveling. Take my meal: the tri-tip was wonderful—tender, slightly smoky—as were the three Kansas City-bred barbecue sauces that came with it. It was the side dish (ordered separately) that was really odd and, at first, when you're just thinking about it, sort of off-putting: grits.

Grits are a staple of the Deep South, and though it may be said that the South is the birthplace of us all (Thomas Jefferson, blues, Deliverance, jazz, A Confederacy of Dunces, the Dukes of Hazzard 's General Lee, the Confederacy's General Robert E. Lee, Coca-Cola, George Washington, George Clinton), grits haven't been the South's break-out food. Chicken and waffles? Sure. Whiskey? Absolutely. Hominy? Not yet, but maybe soon: Sejour mixes grits with cheddar cheese and bacon into something you're unlikely to find at the Waffle House in Atlanta: thick, zesty, substantial and, in the rarefied, clublike Sejour, weird in a good way.

My wife went for jumbo shrimp, chipotle red potatoes and a second glass of champagne. I figure two glasses of good champagne should make even my cooking taste good, but my wife's a fighter and resists hyperbole where food is concerned; rare is the chef who meets her expectations. She declared the shrimp “flavorful” (sorry for the vagueness: champagne) and the potatoes good but not great.

Art says “sejour” is French for holiday. Holidays ought to surprise us, and dining out should do no less. I had a revelation a few weeks ago. During a trip through Little Rock, I ate at an old barbecue joint. The aging black man behind the counter moved with the economy of a Japanese painter working only in black ink. He put together a crazy plate of ribs and unnamable bits and then seemed to indicate that I ought to order a drink—what with the kitchen noise and his African-American-Arkansas accent, I wasn't sure. He pointed to a machine I'd never seen before. I nodded my assent. What he gave me was like Dr. Pepper frozen into a block of ice and then chipped into snowflakes. I've put just one other thing into my mouth that was sweeter. I asked him what it was. He barked out something between a laugh, a woof and some indecipherable syllables. “A what?” I asked. He barked again. Then a man, his son I soon learned, turned around, incredulous, and asked, “Where you from?”

Southern California, I said.

“And they don't have Slurpees in Southern California?”

So travel really does broaden the mind, and when we don't have time for a road trip, there's always dinner.


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