The perfect birthday party
Henri walks into a childhood fantasy at Christian Michaels
For my 14th birthday, my Aunt Catherine—from whom, apparently, I inherited my weight issues—gave me a gorgeous Maxfield Parrish poster. I remember carefully unwrapping the gold paper, unrolling the print, and marveling at the light and the strange marriage of reality and fantasy.
It was called “Daybreak,” a painting of a young boy and girl between two Greek-style columns, with a canopy of tree branches hanging overhead, the background diffusing into pure light behind them. The boy, who’s wearing nothing but a soft sort of diapery pair of shorts, is standing over the girl—perhaps a bit older than he is—whose dress is gauzy in its own softness and who’s lying down, one knee drawn up and her arm across her forehead. The boy is looking down into her eyes as though he has just awakened her.
I put the poster on my wall that night, and there it stayed until I left home many years later. I remember lying in my bed, night after night, staring at it and imagining that it wasn’t a poster at all but a window and that I could walk right into it, through the wall, and into this dreamy fantasy, where we would all run, holding hands, into the light.
Aunt Catherine had gastric-bypass surgery several years later and ended up losing 120 pounds. Unfortunately, she was tragically killed in a freak accident last May when she was electrocuted defrosting her freezer. Her roommate found her in the garage in a puddle of melted cherry Popsicles.
Apologies for the digression, but I’ve been a bit, well, wistful of late. I had a birthday, and though I won’t divulge the exact number, I will tell you that it was an important one. The big “Something-0.” Le diner dans restaurant? But of course.
I’d walked past Christian Michaels Ristorante many times, though I hadn’t looked much past the tables in the window—always elegantly set with linen and silver. Its downtown location seemed perfect, as I planned to treat myself to a birthday bottle of wine and would be able to walk home afterward.
I figured a suit would be a bit much—I’m slowly starting to understand what passes for a dress code in this town—but still I wanted to acknowledge the specialness of the event. I decided on a Prada sport coat, a pair of Robert Talbott cotton slacks and my cordovan loafers by Salvatore Ferragamo. Not bad. I fed Miss Marilyn, told her not to wait up, and headed downtown.
I started at the bar with a lemon-drop martini and a couple of appetizers: the bruchetta ($6.95) and a starter Caesar salad ($5). Both were excellent. I was just about to order a second martini when the hostess told me my table was ready and led me into the dining room.
Immediately, I was 14 again and walking not through a door from the bar to the dining room but from my childhood bedroom through the window and into “Daybreak.” Greek columns throughout the dining room seemed to be holding up the ceiling, and overhead arches divided the large room into smaller sections. The walls, decorated with Parrish-like paintings and elegantly framed mirrors, were sponge-painted an off-white, like the mottled light in so much of Parrish’s work.
The menu was fantastic, too: cioppino ($15.95), herb-roasted chicken breast ($14.95), grilled salmon ($15.95) and filet mignon ($22.95). I ordered the asparagus risotto with chicken ($16.20) and a bottle of Niebaum-Coppola merlot and sampled the focaccia dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. A perfect birthday dinner, the wine and the dreamscapes wonderfully blurring the evening’s frames and borders.
I took home what I couldn’t finish—Miss Marilyn loved the risotto but left the asparagus in the bottom of her bowl—and that night dreamed a boy in a diaper was trying to wake me, while Aunt Catherine hovered just off the ground in the distant light, a box of cherry Popsicles in her arms.