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Eating High on the Calamari

by David Westheimer

 

On a recent Sunday Dody and I had lunch with one of our favorite authors at the Casablanca, a Mexican mariscos (seafood) restaurant on the edge of Santa Monica that we have been frequenting for years.

Maeve Binchy.

There was to have been another favorite author of ours there, too, but he was called out of town on an emergency. Carlos Haro, the guy who owns the restaurant.

Binchs (in her school days in Ireland Binch was her nickname) latest best seller is "Scarlet Feather," the story of two Dublin foodies who start a top-drawer catering service and do other interesting things together. Haros extraordinary novel, "Tequila," hasnt been published yet. In English, anyway. It was published in Spanish and he allowed us to read the English translation in manuscript. Best novel weve read in years. Except Binchys, of course. "Tequila" is about three generations of the family that owns La Esmeralda, a vast Mexican tequila estate.

What sort of connects "Scarlet Feather" with Haro is that he is a caterer, too, as well as a restaurateur. And while food is not as pivotal in "Tequila" as it is in "Scarlet Feather," it is important and just as lovingly described.

There the similarity stops. Take a funeral Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather are catering in Dublin. Ham, salad, a selection of Toms breads, Cathys homemade chutneys, asparagus quiche, Irish cheese with apples and grapes. No dessert. "Inappropriate was a word they kept using to each other." This the low end of the Scarlet Feather repertoire. For posh affairs there are far more elegant menus and even, for Dublin, exotic ones when the occasion demands.

In "Tequila," Haro exhibits a reverence for food, something you like to find in the proprietor of a restaurant you frequent.

Listen:

"Come now, come closer to the comal full of piping hot pig lard, so hot it shines like stars. Take a cooked tortilla and begin to push your fingers around as though it was a casserole, but careful, you could get burned. Come on, dont stop, now you have your sope ready. Take it and put it in a bowl with that hot red sauce made from chile guajillo, tomato, garlic and onion. Remove it carefully and place it in the hot lard for just a few seconds---take it out and add whatever you likeit is good with beans and on top lettuce, fresh cheese, radishesBravo!"

But be advised they do not use lard at the Casablanca.

Binchy ordered the calamari al mojo de ajo—squid with garlic—on Dodys recommendation, Dody explaining the squid was pressed into a steak that looked like abalone (thats what Dody ordered). It was Binchys very first squid. Gordon Snell, Binchys husband, a writer-journalist who wears glasses and looks more like a friendly CEO than a writer-journalist and looks younger than his 65 years (Binchy is 60 and proud of it) ordered the huachinango—red snapper. I opted for the camerones—shrimp-Yvonne, a succulent dish named for Haros wife, who runs the place with him.

Binchy, a lady of queenly proportions whose manner is more down-to-earth than regal, cleaned her plate. As did we all. And would have complimented Haro, had he been there.

Binchy, who had announced she was retired from writing when she turned 60 (mores the pity) and had sent out postcards announcing it, and Snell were in California on an extended vacation. They live near Dublin. Theyd first spent a few days in New York and were on their way to Australia, where they will spend a month. They have friends here, there and everywhere.

Sunday was the first time Id met Queen Maeve in person. Wed been corresponding ever since I wrote her a fan letter after Dody and I saw a movie adaptation of her novel, "Circle of Friends." Wed spoken on the phone a while back when she was in San Francisco on book business.

My favorite Maeve Binchy story is about me (isnt that just like a man?) She told me that in London, in the airport, I think, she had seen a man reading "Von Ryans Express." She went up to him and said she knew the author. Binchy, a 1000-watt bulb to my flickering candle, didnt tell him she was Maeve Binchy.

After lunch at the Casablanca, she signed our copy of "Scarlet Feather" and Haros copy. I gave her a novella of mine published when she was ten years old. Snell gave us a copy of "Thicker Than Water," a collection of Irish short stories hed edited.

Haro?

He compted the lunch.

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