Making the Most of Last Call

Dearest Rachel –

So this is it. Effective the beginning of next week, the law comes down, not only in Chicago itself but throughout the entire county: no one may go out in public unless they have proof of vaccination. What that means is that Daniel will not be able to go out to a restaurant from Monday on, into the indefinite future. He asserts that the ‘powers that be’ are getting desperate, and are behaving like cornered animals, and lashing out before their inevitable fall. However, if I have understood him all this time, that fall was supposed to already have happened by the end of this year; not only has it not done so, but as of the first business day of the year, their orders have become that much more draconian. He says he never said any about any specific deadline, but now asserts that things will change within the next three months. Personally, I feel that he’s moved the goalposts on me, but I’ll put up with this; after all, it’s not like he’s the only one moving goalposts. Besides, I always assumed that things wouldn’t change until November anyway (and actually, those changes wouldn’t technically take effect until next January).

Indeed, with these orders coming down, I find myself compelled to get in a last couple of meals out before we’re forbidden to do so. A sort of ‘last call’ to get our orders in before closing time, as it were. I’d contacted the girls about getting together as well, and while it doesn’t seem likely that Erin will make it, that may be just as well, as the places I suggested would each be considered fairly fancy (read ‘expensive’), and you know how she refuses to let anyone pay for her meal. I wish I understood the reason why; she’s bought things for me without asking for recompense, so why can she not accept anything from me in return?

Be that as it may, it turns out that the place the rest of us have settled on will be open on Saturday, New Year’s Day, where I expect the traffic to be relatively low after a night where everybody is going out. I had offered several of our usual places – the Station, the Brazilian steakhouse – but it seems the rest were intrigued by a type of place I could’ve found over in Switzerland, but didn’t get a chance to go to; a fondue restaurant. If nothing else, it’ll give us a fairly lengthy amount of time to linger over our meal, so that we can just chat and catch up with each other, seeing as so much has happened this past year. Now, I know it isn’t as if we haven’t seen each other throughout this year, but it would be nice to do so under more festive circumstances.

But in the meantime, it occurs to me that Daniel will not get a chance to get out going forward, thanks to this edict, and I thought yesterday that he might want to visit the Station one last time. So I stayed home from the ‘office’ with the idea of taking him there for lunch; I’d then bring him back before Logan came over, and head over and do some ‘work’ during the afternoon.

As it turned out, I was mistaken on several counts. He had recently talked about Logan coming over, but what I didn’t realize was that he was not talking about Monday, but rather Thursday. So there wasn’t any hurry to get him back home before his friend showed up. secondly, he actually turned down the offer of going to the station; he tells me he’s waiting for a special occasion, presumably when everything is put right. He’s told me before about things he’s ‘fasting’ on (like Eggo waffles, for instance), but this seems like a case of unnecessary self-denial. Again, given the edict, he’s going to be refused service there for sometime to come – he might as well get his licks in now. He’s also acknowledged that I won’t understand his rationale for doing so, and he’s quite right.

But I’d already decided to stay home, and take him somewhere nice to eat while the opportunity was still available. So I cast around, and was reminded about a restaurant that dad talk to us about shortly before the pandemic set in. As it’s so happened, there was a Japanese buffet restaurant (whatever that meant – we’ve been to plenty of Chinese and Mongolian buffet restaurants, but what a Japanese one would entail, I couldn’t guess) that was being set up in one of the many out-buildings by our local mall. Obviously, that was delayed by events around it as restaurants were sorely hit, buffets especially; I’m actually surprised that they’ve survived to return once things began to open up. But evidently the place has been open for business since mid October, so I offered to take him there instead, and he seemed to agree.

The only problem was, the place didn’t open until four. We both found ourselves snacking a little bit just to take the edge off – which may be a self-defeating strategy when you go into an all you can eat place, but sometimes hunger demands attention. The ironic thing is, because of that, we weren’t really ready to head out the door immediately at four; we waited at least a half an hour, as if we were about to go swimming or something.

And the place did turn out to be more ‘all you can eat’ than buffet per se. It was built around the shabu-shabu style of cooking, where you get small amounts of meat to be dipped in boiling broth to cook. Yes, that means we are essentially going to what amount to two fondue restaurants over the course of this week, after not having been to one at all for at least a decade.

Anyway, there were three levels of items you could order an unlimited amount of: the first just had several types of meat, the second level added shrimp and sushi to the possibilities, and the third included Wagyu beef and ramen alongside the other offerings. Since Daniel almost never goes to a Japanese restaurant without eating ramen, and I was curious about the Wagyu beef, we both had the primo level entrée.

Here’s Daniel placing his chicken in the broth; as you can see, I’m already cooking my shrimp.

It was an interesting experience, and one I wouldn’t mind introducing others to, but certainly not an everyday sort of restaurant, any more than a Brazilian steakhouse would be. I will admit to not knowing how to properly to cook and eat the shrimp; the first few seemed fine to bite off down to the tail, but as I finished my course, I was starting to realize I was eating shell as well as shrimp. I’m also forced to admit that my palate is just not refined enough to appreciate the difference in Wagyu beef as compared to round eye or beef shoulder, especially when dipped into one of the many sauces provided for just such a purpose.

I’m afraid you would not have appreciated much of the sushi, either. I forget just how common cucumber is in most rolls; I’ve spent so many meals with you in restaurants avoiding rolls containing it that it almost seems wrong to bite into one that has it. And they had a particular roll called a cheesy tuna (or was it cheesy salmon?) which literally had a piece of an American cheese single atop it. I don’t mean to be critical (well, maybe I do) but this seems, well, singularly inappropriate. If you’re taking the time and trouble to put sushi-grade fish inside a roll, the last thing you want to do is pervert it with cheap cheese. I could actually understand hot cheese sauce poured a top it, but this is almost blasphemous. Kind of like that ‘Vienna roll’ from the Station’s first year or two, where they wrapped a piece of a hotdog and rice and tried to pass it off as sushi. They learned better, and dropped that creation in a hurry; let’s hope Shabu-ya learns a similar lesson.

At the same time, they did actually have a buffet table, laden with various vegetables (and I already mentioned the sauces) to be cooked in the broth and eaten alongside the meat. They also have a table of hot pre-prepared items, including yakisoba, takoyaki, gyoza, croquettes and various other things. When Daniel saw the gyoza, he said it was like meeting an old friend in an unfamiliar place.

One particular aspect of the restaurant that would be considered notable was how everything was delivered. You ordered your meats and sushi by way of an iPad at the table, and it was delivered to you by robot.

It had a little voice that announced your table number, and then said ‘your meal is ready.’
Daniel thought the cat ears on the top of it were cute, and petted it.
It seemed to like that.

Clearly, we’re still a long ways still from all purpose cultural robot cat girl Nuku-Nuku, but we’re making strides toward that. Nor are we in any danger of these being our robot overlords; these are just servants. Heck, they’re only for one purpose, of delivery; there are signs on them telling us patrons not to give them our used plates to return to the kitchen. Hopefully, they’ll figure that out soon enough, but for now, the place had personnel to explain the concept and clear our table. So, I still had to leave a tip.

Near the end of our meal, when we had gotten up to get a few things for dessert, Daniel finally noticed that there were utensils by the buffet table (and a good thing, too, as I would not want to eat a dish of ice cream with chopsticks), and made a crack about how ‘they gave a fork’ about us. I was totally not expecting a comment like that, and burst out laughing. When we got back to the table, he said how much he appreciated being able to make me laugh. I guess I haven’t been doing a lot of that this year, and he was proud to have been able to elicit one from me.

It’s not been much of a year that’s called for laughter, honey. I’m sure you’re enjoying yourself where you are, and the things here on earth that I’m telling you about it have nothing in comparison to what you’re experiencing. But life here isn’t as enjoyable as it was when you were around, and I’m sorry that Daniel has to see a sadder version of me. He worries about me, it seems, maybe more so that I do about him; I don’t know. Maybe I’m giving him too much credit, but apparently, I’m at least obvious enough for him to comment on it. Here’s hoping that the next year brings some sort of joy… eventually.

Toward that end, Honey, wish us luck. We’re going to need it.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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