When I was growing up I was lucky enough to be taken to the theater more often than most kids. I loved it, absorbing the music and the costumes, getting carried off in a story filled with drama and pageantry. The fact that we always went out to dinner beforehand made the entire evening an event. One of our favorite pre-heater haunts was Victor's Cafe 52.
That restaurant was my first exposure to Cuban food and like the theater that followed dinner, it took me to another place. I loved everything about that restaurant. The fact that most of the diners were speaking another language made it feel exotic and otherworldly. The fact that the food was delicious was an added bonus. Somehow the black beans and rice were unlike anything I'd ever had before and believe me I ate plenty of rice. The ropa vieja was a favorite as was the beefsteak Duran. Suckling pig and savory rice dishes were also delicious. But it was the green sauce that won me over. We started every meal with small, sizzling casseroles of garlicky shrimp and clams in green sauce. The shrimp were delicious, it's just that versions of that particular preparation could be found in many other places. It was the clams in green sauce that drew me in, and stayed with me, prompting me to answer "Victor's" whenever I was asked where to go to dinner before the theater. They were something special. Briny and earthy, they spoke of land and sea, bright blue skies and tropical horizons. I would pry each small clam from it's shell, bathe it gently in the sauce and carefully convey it to my lips. The flavors were bold and soft at the same time, evolving in my mouth as I chewed on the delicate meat. Frankly I could have made a meal of just those clams with good bread and a Shirley Temple or two.
As I grew old enough to ask questions about the food I found out that backbone of that dish was parsley and garlic. It's a simple and stunning combination that finds its voice in cuisines around the world. Earthy, herbal and balanced, that combination can make almost anything not just edible but worth savoring. It's been well over a decade since I last ate at Victor's Cafe. Although I'm sure it has change immensely over the years, as restaurants do, it's comforting to know it still exists there on the edge of the theater district. I like to imagine it filled with the buzz of happy dinners, basking in the scent of parsley and garlic. I like to think of it as a slightly magical combination that brings happiness whenever I employ it in my own kitchen.