“A Tale of Lily’s Summer Menu” (short story & photo essay)

by Galo Romero

Rarely do I have the opportunity to lunch with colleagues, simply because our individual schedules are so erratic and unpredictable, that it seems nearly impossible to coordinate an “honest, sit down and enjoy your meal kinda lunch”. Luckily, today was one of those rare days to take advantage of, a day after a long Memorial Day weekend where the spring has graciously bowed-out and allowed summer to make its early and grand entrance with 90 degree temperatures, inevitably slowing the pace of our hectic lives and perhaps the hustle and bustle of New York City. It’s one of those days, a sun-scorched Tuesday, which begrudgingly feels like a stale day in August in the middle of a long and drawn out heat wave.

I’m not a fan of days like these, not unless there’s a pool nearby.

But late this afternoon, to my surprise, I received an invitation to enjoy a relaxing lunch at Lily’s restaurant with some of my colleagues from the Roger Smith Hotel: James Knowles, President and Artist-In-Residence, Ulrika Bengtsson, Director of Food and Beverage, and Rajesh Nair, Director of Operations. The occasion was special: the debut of Lily’s new summer menu.

The four of us sat in the back, tucked away in a cozy corner near a window. We were perfumed by aromatic scents, which uncurled like invisible tendrils from behind the kitchen door, and flowed through the air as the rumble of wait staff hurriedly passed through. I love to see the various steaming plates of food juggled by the expert hands of waiters. There’s a seductive and thrilling quality to it, when a restaurant comes alive.

photographs by John Birdsong

I must admit, I have a somewhat overactive imagination and at times it gets the best of me especially if I’m anxiously awaiting something… in this case the promise of food. Inevitably, my eyes darted across the various murals on the walls, which appeared to me as raw celluloid stills, personifying a gathering of strange people in an obscure cocktail party. My ears detected the disembodied echoes of dry conversation, lounge music, the clinking of glasses, and drunken laughter: the lively energy of a ghostly cocktail party from years past filling the sunlit dining hall with a low and constant hum.

What are ghosts? Perhaps they are nothing more then two points in time crossing over each other.

Just as I was receding further into my fantasies, the first starter arrived: four Gazpachos; chilled vegetable soup of Andalusian origin, ideal for the summer heat.

Happily sipping my Gazpacho, the waiter plopped down another: Barbecue chicken sliders with coleslaw, each sandwiched between a soft mini-bun, topped with a sweet pickle, and held together by a skewer.

As I munched on this delectable treat, a plate of Buratta served over grilled rustic bread, with tomato and basil made an appearance. My fingers and hands stealthily finagled a piece. My comrades also sneaked in to scoop up the remains, and quickly the plate emptied.

The starters came and went, but not long before the first main dish waltzed in: a rim soup bowl filled with Baked Mussels boiled in a ginger-flavored coconut broth.

As we ate and delighted each other in spirited conversations about our long weekend, barbeques, pool parties, sun-baked beaches, literature, and the hotel, the second main dish arrived: a humungous roasted Pork Belly served over grits; greedily devoured whole by us all.

And lastly, what turned out to be my favorite, a Snapper wrapped in a double layer of aluminum foil, a delicate fish baked with fennel, lemon, and herbs, instantly provoking the memories of fun filled outdoor summer barbeques and quiet dinners by the patio. I washed it all down with a cold and refreshing iced tea.

iphone photographs by Matt Griffith

Immensely sated, I had no room for desert. Nonetheless, my peers were tempted by the cold and delicious sugary confections of chocolate ice cream served over pretzels.

As we concluded our informal tasting, my colleagues languidly returned to their work lives.

I was the last to leave the dining hall, methodically sipping my second round of iced tea as I watched the wait staff clear the tables and the last of the lunch crowd dissipated.

In the inevitable silence and emptiness which soon followed, I stared at the murals once more, and raised my glass in a gesture of a toast, acknowledging the ghostly cocktail partiers, and thanked them for their attendance with an open invitation to return.

Perhaps our timelines will cross again.