December 29, 2003

essence of birthday

Measure out half a cup of driving, stir until arrival at destination in Chinese-dense Monterey Park is complete. You will find a ticket with a number appearing from within the dark interior of the dim sum palace known as Ocean Star. Take this scrap of paper. Hold on tight to it. Allow your belly to simmer half an hour. Go people-watch. Return when that number is called in both English and Mandarin (or perhaps Szechuan, you wouldn't know the difference).

This is the first course of your birthday, a meal of shiu mai, char shu bao and other things you can't pronounce but boy do they taste good. The boy even eats a pork-filled baked bun. You eat turnip cake, pronounce it good. You ask for soda from the busboy, he shakes his head in confusion. You ask someone else and receive your soda but in truth the jasmine tea tastes just fine.

On to the second course, a fine mixture of anticipation, clear-wrapped plastic parts and electronic innards, chilled and set during the ride west on a day streaked with pink-tinted clouds like a day-long gentle sunset. The second course is less edible but no less delectable than the first. A box. Within that box, styrofoam (tsk) surrounding a slim cigarette case. Ah yes, the iPod. Tasty.

(How to solve yesterday's conundrum? Buy the 30 gig, last year's top-end model now priced just $25 more than this year's mid-range. The most I'll have spent unnecessarily is that $25. I can live with that.)

Box in hand but delights delayed, for this part of the birthday meal must wait until room temperature -- dining room, to be exact -- and must be accompanied by a fine wine -- err, computer hookup -- to be fully savored.

On to the next course. Dessert for tonight. Clementine bakery, my current favorite. The apricot buns, the Moravian sweet bread, I could go on for pages describing the mouthfeel, the buttery crispy chewy sweetness. But alas, not tonight. For as we drive up, we see. Chairs upside down on tables. Door firmly bolted shut. Empty and quiet. They're taking the holiday off.

The ability to substitute at the last minute is the hallmark of a true chef, yes? And so we drive back toward West Hollywood. Toward home. We find a bakery, new to us but not so very new to the city. Called -- well, this is a little confusing, this part. Lately called Sugar Plum, a toothy name, but post-lawsuit now known as Susina. This is part of the adventure of today, this part. A new bakery. A new restaurant. A new tech-toy. A new year.

Walk into the bakery. Try to capture the flavor of what you smell, the mingled aroma of chocolate and almond and butter and warmth. This will be the essential ingredient for tonight, that perfume on your tongue. Try also to pick out the best possible pastry for later. Ask the woman and her daughter what's good here. They tell you, in mouth-watering detail. The woman tells you, too, that she wrote a story about the first cake she ate from here, it was that inspiring.

Get a little of this, a bit of that. Some of everything, very nearly. Small, bite-sized tastes. One of the men behind the counter gives you a chocolate hazelnut cookie for free because it's your birthday. A light meringue on a chewy base. Perfection in two bites. Surprising how perfect. Things rarely are.

These, then, are the ingredients for a good birthday. The rest is a matter of timing, tone and mood and the right combination of love and empathy and some warming phone calls. Also a little alone time.

That's all for now. Dessert awaits.

Posted by Tamar at December 29, 2003 09:33 PM

Sounds like an amazing evening all the way around! Many happy wishes for a great year.

Posted by: Rachel at December 30, 2003 07:03 AM

Happy Birthday and a Happy New Year!

Posted by: Allison at December 30, 2003 07:11 AM

Happy birthday, Tamar. Things being closed is a hazard we face, sadly. (I always have Chinese on my birthday. Last night, orange chicken. It was lovely.)

Posted by: Elle at December 30, 2003 10:40 AM