About a year ago, I attempted to order a Salad Niçoise at the upscale Brompton Quarter Café & Restaurant in London’s affluent Knightsbridge neighborhood. What was expected to be a calm, relaxing lunchtime experience soon transformed into a battle of food knowledge rivaled only by the Cheese Steak Shop American/Provolone Argument of 2003. Here’s how it all went down…
I arrived at the scene of the culinary crime accompanied by three dining companions. We were promptly seated. After ordering our beverages, I perused the menu and decided upon a Salad Niçoise for lunch. For those not familiar, the Niçoise is a pleasant salad originating from the South of France, traditionally containing lettuce, tomatoes, boiled potatoes, green beans, boiled eggs, fish (usually poached or seared tuna), anchovies, and…wait for it… Niçoise olives.
The waitress came over to take our order. When it came to my turn, I politely stated, “I’ll have the salad Niçoise, please.” The waitress, soon to become my arch nemesis, took the order, took the menus, and returned to the kitchen or the dark hole from whence she came.
And then, as Kurt Vonnegut writes, the excrement hit the air conditioning.
The waitress returned ten minutes later to clarify what I had ordered. “The Niçoise salad,” I repeated, not yet suspecting the controversy that lay ahead. She shot me a confused smile, said “okay,” and went away.
Ten more minutes elapsed. The waitress returned to our table again, this time armed with a menu, and asked me to point out what I was requesting for lunch. As I pointed, again pronouncing the words, “Niçoise salad,” her face expressed a light of understanding. “Ohhh,” she said, nodding her head in disapproval, “you mean the nik-oy-zee.”
Now I took five years of French, and while that was a long time ago, I clearly recall that a “c” with a little number 5 under it (ç) is pronounced like a soft “s.” For example, the word “Français” is pronounced “Fron-say.” So I did what any Francophile or epicurean would do, and I corrected her. “I believe it’s pronounced ni-swaz.” Her retort: “it’s nik-oy-zee.” So much for the customer always being right.
The food was served, and the Niçoise was acceptable. I almost enjoyed it. The check came, and we paid – I wanted to under-tip, but the other diners wouldn’t have it.
I thought I could get over this. I thought it was just a mild misunderstanding, and I could go about my day. I was wrong. While exiting the restaurant, the waitress confronted me on the steps. “I just wanted to let you know, I checked with the chef, and it’s nik-oy-zee.” The nerve of her! My blood began to boil and my face turned red. She just could not relent.
I wanted to settle the argument once and for all, but I couldn’t seem to get through her thick skin. What I said next was quite simply a statement of my convictions. I was right, she was wrong, and I had a responsibility to set things straight. I kept my cool, looked directly into her diabolical eyes, beads of sweat forming on my temples. In a firm, unwavering voice, I stated my case: “No. It’s Niçoise.”
My duty satisfied, I calmly turned my back to her and continued up the steps into the fresh spring air.