Sunday, 6 January 2008

Travelogue I: The Elder Kitchen

I was driving down the old coast road towards Dunwich late one afternoon when I realised that I was getting low on fuel. Not wanting to spend the night in Dunwich again, I pulled off at the first exit and drove another mile or so to a small village with a single petrol station. Just behind the petrol station was a restaurant, with the odd name of the Elder Kitchen. I was just starting to feel hungry, so I decided to give it a try, and see what it had to offer.

I walked in and was immediately greeted by the Maitre'D, a squat little man with warty skin, a squint, and a clammy handshake. I recognised this as the Dunwich taint, that set of slightly squamous characteristics that affect the inhabitants of Dunwich and a couple of the surrounding smaller villages, and pretended that I hadn't noticed any of it. He was smartly dressed in a white ruffled dress shirt and a tuxedo that looked strangely damp, and asked me if I had a reservation. I conceded that I hadn't, and he smiled and said he was sure he could find me a table anyway. Looking around me at the dining room, I was sure he could too, of about twenty tables, only two were seated.

My table was against a wall of the restaurant, well away from the other two seated tables, and afforded me a view of most of the dining room and the entrance. The door to the kitchen was behind me. The table was well-laid with a crisp white tablecloth and sparkling silver and glassware. In the centre of the table was an off-white ceramic vase filled with a fragrant oil that held a floating wick. The Maitre'D was quick to bring me both the menu and a separate wine menu, and lit the wick. Almost immediately a rich, spicy scent rose from the liquid candle, reminding me of my time in the Middle East as a temple inspector.

I opened the menu first, wondering if the quality of the food would live up to the expectations set by the restaurant decor, or those set by the Maitre'D and the Dunwich Taint. The menu was short, with only two starters, five mains and two desserts offered, which I felt boded well: this allowed the chef to concentrate on producing quality food. As I read through the choices though, I was surprised to find that I had never seen any of them offered anywhere else before.

For a starter then, I had a choice between Mi-go Salad and Zoog skewers. The menu described the former as delicate pieces of Mi-go lightly fried in lemon and olive oil served on a bed of conventional salad leaves and the latter as three individual zoog roasted alive and skewered with peppers and onions. The mains were no more helpfully described; I was offered Roast young of Shub-Niggurath in an Abhoth sauce with no further explanation, Leg of Leng Spider served with your choice of vegetables, Tindalos steak with Dijon mustard and sour cream, chunky chips and black pepper served on a perfectly circular plate, Shoggoth shoulder with wilted vegetables from Leng, and Shocked chicken a l'Hastur. I was certain I didn't want the spider's leg, and a little curious as to how big the spider was that the restaurant could offer just one leg as a main course. The roast young of Shub-Niggurath sounded interesting, but I thought I would probably go with the safe sounding option of the steak.

For dessert I had a choice of Color Essence and Chocolate Nemesis. I was fairly certain I'd had a chocolate nemesis while in London a few years back, and the Color Essence didn't sound all that filling -- very avant garde I thought.

A waiter now appeared carrying a bread-basket and asking if I was ready to order, so I asked him for more information about the starters. He told me that the Mi-Go were also known as the Fungi from Yuggoth, but that they were a lot more like lobster than any earthly fungus. The Zoog he said, were rodent-like creatures that they had to source especially. Deciding that lobster sounded better than rat, I opted for the Mi-go salad. When I asked for the Tindalos steak though, the waiter turned pale. I pressed him on this, and he finally admitted, with a lot of reluctance, that they obtained the steaks 'very fresh' and that this was 'a little dangerous.' I insisted on the steak, and decided to defer choosing a dessert until after I'd eaten these.

I opened the wine menu at this point, and found that there were only two items listed: Ulthar Riesling and Fischwasser. I asked the waiter if this was a misprint for Kirschwasser, a spirit I found a liking for when posted in Mannheim studying the sewers there, and the waiter shook his head. This, he suggested, was not really suitable for me, and that I should try the Riesling. I accepted, not quite graciously, and the waiter disappeared with the menus and my order. I tried the bread.

It was extremely good, a little malty, and had a flavour that was almost meaty. Little seeds crunched when I chewed it, and it was moist and light. I ate all of it ravenously, only realised when I'd finished it that I was probably making a pig of myself. I sat back and looked round, and was relieved to see that the other diners had paid me no attention. My attention turned back to the odd listing in the wine menu; my German was good enough to translate Fischwasser as Fish water, and I now wondered if perhaps this was reserved for the locals from Dunwich, and maybe this was why it wasn't suitable for me. I'd never heard of Ulthar, but a Riesling is a hard wine to spoil in my opinion.

I heard the door to the kitchen open behind me, and for a moment I heard hysterical shrieking and a deep growling that seemed to vibrate in my bones, and then my waiter was placing my salad in front of me. He looked a little shocked, and there were two deep wounds on his arm clearly visible through a torn sleeve, yet neither was bleeding; they seemed like something has punched cleanly in and out, pulling away a plug of flesh and sealing off the surrounding tissue in the process. I opened my mouth to ask him about this, but was distracted by the rattle of a trolley across the floor, and saw a silver-cloched platter being delivered to a table across the room. The platter was the size of an occasional table itself, and my question became asking what was.

Chocolate Nemesis said my waiter quietly, and quickly left. I watched as the cloche was lifted off to reveal a large, deep pool of chocolate above which small twists of steam seemed to writhe. Around the edge of the pool were designs in some rich red sauce that seemed almost runic, and from where I was it was hard to focus on them, they seemed almost to be squirming beneath the weight of my gaze. I had turned my attention back to my salad -- glistening green leaves with succulent lumps of something pink, not unlike lobster nestled in it, and a fragrant aroma mixed with something vinegary rising from it -- when the two waiters that had brought the trolley in started chanting. My fork, raised halfway to my lips, slowed and halted and my gaze was pulled to the table as strongly as though someone had seized my head and were turning it for me. My lips started to move of their own accord, and I found myself chanting strange words I'd never heard before in time with the waiters.

A strange somnolance seemed to come over me then, and though I still chanted I felt drowsy and my body felt heavy, too heavy to stand up or move. A slight chill came over me, and my fingers, toes and lips went numb, but this didn't stop me chanting. I could see across the way that the diners who had ordered the Chocolate Nemesis were also lolling back in the chairs, seemingly dazed. One of them spasmed for a moment, his eyelids fluttering, and a hand lifting, stretching out towards the platter, but then it fell back and he became still again.

Then the deep, dark pool of chocolate rippled, and rippled again though nothing was touching it. The ripples grew into small waves, which became choppy and splashed, growing taller and taller, until suddenly a tower of chocolate rose from the platter, formed itself into a tentacle, and seized one of the diners, wrapping around his neck and snaking down his body. It reached his waist, and then retracted, pulling him out of his chair and down into the pool, impossibly swallowing him inside the dessert on the dish. Something in the back of my mind screamed and howled, thumping mental fists on whatever it was that numbed and bedazed me, but I couldn't stop chanting or turn my gaze away, watching at that dreadful dessert formed another chocolate tentacle and ensnared the other diner.

Something broke in my mind, and my fork fell from my hand. It tinged brightly against the plate, and the numbing oppression lost its grip on me, and I could turn away from the abominable dessert at last. I found my waiter stood on the other side of me, looking at me appraisingly.
"Only one diner has ever survived to eat that dessert," he said quietly. "It's a bit too extreme for most people."
"Bill please!" I said brightly, suddenly desperate to get out of the restaurant.
"Just go," he said.

I left as fast as I could, and made no note of the roads I took to get back to something approaching civilisation. I had no wish to return to the Elder Kitchen again. Though to this day I still wonder about that Leng Spider. Perhaps if I see they're offering a take-away and delivery service I might order it out of curiousity.

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