Sunday, September 28, 2008

Food Noir

Restaurants aren’t just snow white tablecloths and smiling hostesses. While you’re out trying to have a good time, eat a nice meal, the owner is treading a thin line between giving you what you paid for and making a profit. Sometimes they cross that line. That’s where I come in. My name’s Sundae. I’m a health inspector.

It was hot the way only the Strip District can be hot. The seams in the pavement were as tacky as freshly chewed gum on the soles of my shoes. The smells of Restaurant Row were everywhere, Italian and Chinese, Indian and Mexican, burgers, ribs, and one joint advertising Cambodian hot dogs. No one ate there.

It was a little after two when I rolled up on Manella’s Ristorante at the corner of Grant and Warburton. Complaints had been made about the lettuce in the Caesar salad being old enough to have heard Antony’s speech. It was the kind of call I handle every day.

The place brought back memories. Guido and Sal Manella opened it almost thirty years ago and built it into the capo di tutti capi of Italian restaurants on the Strip. Sal went away a while ago to study large group catering for seven to fifteen years at state expense on a sauce dilution rap. Guido had his fingers in too many other pies to run the place himself, so he had to get a manager.

I pushed through the door and paused inside to let my eyes adjust to the light. It was always dim in Manella’s, but today it was two shades past romantic. Not even the dining room’s murk could disguise the dish standing at the hostess’ station.
She was tall enough without the three-inch pumps that were probably red. Her hair was black and lustrous, hanging past her shoulders and trailing behind her head whenever she moved it. Her almond-shaped eyes made every glance a seduction, even if you could ignore the dress that showed every contour of her body without revealing anything. She was hotter than the plates in a Mexican restaurant.

“Yes? How many in your party?” She had one of those Italian accents that are learned through years in the restaurant business. She’d never been closer to Italy than the bottomless salad bowl at Olive Garden.

“Just me, but I bring my party with me.” I flipped her my tin. “Sundae. Board of Health.” Her smile disappeared quicker than the “all you can eat” buffet at a Weight Watchers convention.

“I get the manager.” The accent was heavier now. She made sure I got a good look at the melon patch when she turned. It had been tried before, by women with more talent for it. Not many, though, and not for a long time.

“That’s all right, I know where to go. I’ll just follow the flies.” I pushed past her and walked toward the kitchen like I had a purpose in life. She was one step behind me all the way.

The kitchen wasn’t any brighter than the dining room and a lot less romantic. The lunch rush had been over for an hour, but any signs of clean-up were as miniscule as the nutrition in a wad of cotton candy. The stainless steel countertops were fighting a lonely battle to remain that way.

“You really should speak with the manager,” she said loud enough for everyone in the kitchen to hear. The accent was slipping. Jersey, maybe. Big surprise.

A busboy moved for a door across the room as soon as he heard her. “You! In the apron!” I called. He stopped with one hand on the swinging door. I crooked a finger for him to come to me. “Over here.”

“Me? Who are you to boss me around?” He had an accent, too, but it was as Italian as a jalapeno.

I got in his face and gave him the look the farmer gives the turkey on the fourth Thursday in November. “Just show me what I want to see, or your butt is lettuce and I’m the Cuisinart. Where’s the olive oil?”

He didn’t want to show me. It was as obvious as a piece of spinach stuck to a tooth at a formal dinner. He was straining himself to think of something to say when another voice cut through the murk like a Ginsu knife through rotisserie lamb.

“Show him the oil, Tino. We got nothing to hide.”

Eugene Coli had started out as a busboy in a hash joint on Newberry and moved up quickly. He earned a reputation as someone who wasn’t fussy about what went in the trash and what got recycled. We pulled him in a few times for sending garnishes out for a second or third go-round, but he always had enough juice to beat the rap. Contact with him was considered bad for your health. Everyone called him E.

The hostess drew in her breath and went from cantaloupes to watermelons. Tino looked at E. Coli, then at me, and smiled his smug little minion smile. “Right here,” he said. “Extra virgin, just like the sign says.”

I had lost interest in Tino as soon as Coli entered the room. “Hello, E. You still trying to pass off crayfish as petit lobster?”

“I heard you were checking the sneeze guards at Denny’s, Sundae.”

I’d heard them all before. “I got a promotion. Now I’m in charge of seeing that the fish aren’t rotting from the head down. That’s how I drew you.”

There wasn’t much he could say to that, I was the one with the cheap star in my pocket. The hostess was watching me now, her tongue running over her lips like she had a bowl of spumoni no one else could see.

I looked at the bottle of oil Tino was holding out for me. “No. Not this one. Back there.” I jerked my head toward a barred door in the back.

That woke up Coli. “Just a minute, Sundae. I’ve been a good host so far, but you can’t have the run of my place without a warrant.”

“A warrant?” My laugh was genuine. “Sure, I got one here somewhere. Betty Crocker signed it.” I turned on him directly. “I’m not looking for criminal activity, just health violations. I don’t need a warrant.” I turned back to Tino. “Open the door.”

He didn’t want to open that door any more than Emeril Legasse wants the Number Four combo at Popeye’s. I didn’t have any friends in the room and a standoff was as imminent as flatulence at a chili contest.

The tension was thick as a Guinness draft when the hostess walked past me and opened the door. Coli gave her a look as hard as a year-old jawbreaker. “What are you doing, Cinnamon?” he asked.

“There’s no need for anyone to get hurt over this,” she said to him, but she was looking at me the way a gourmet eyes the menu at Spago.

I pushed past her before Coli could recover and scooped the first bottle of oil I found. I had my field testing kit with me, but I knew I wouldn’t need it as soon as I opened the bottle. I stuck a finger in and tasted the Pomace used to dilute the oil.

“This stuff’s as virgin as Madonna,” I said to no one in particular, staring straight at Coli. “Lock the doors. Everyone gets the rest of the day off.”

He was still staring at the hostess as the others filed out. “How could you do this to me, Cinnamon?”

I answered for her. “Some restaurateur you are. Everyone knows that cinnamon, when properly prepared, is an effective weapon against E. Coli.”

She and I walked out together. We stopped at the corner where I was parked. The sun gave her cheeks the glow of early-ripening apples. We waited a bit to see who would speak first. Our eyes were exchanging enough heat to broil a porterhouse. I looked at my watch. “I’m through here, and you have the rest of the day off. What say we get something to eat?”

“I’d like that. I seem to have developed quite a craving for dessert. A nice, big sundae, maybe. I just hope it won’t go soft on me if things get hot.”
Her heels made her almost as tall as I was, and I could feel my appetite rising as our gazes met. “Don’t worry, Sugar. I’ll bring the banana, you bring the split.”

(Food Noir was originally published in New Mystery Reader.)

1 comment:

Peter Rozovsky said...

Good stuff, better than my effort in a similar direction. I published a food-related Chandler spoof in my college newspaper. It was shite.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"