‘Sweetbitter’ Ep. 2 Recap: After-Hours

By Gustav Vincoeur |

The second episode of Starz’ adaptation of Stephanie Danler’s bestseller about loss of innocence on the NYC fine dining scene is out. With the cumbersome title, “Now Your Tongue is Coded,” the 30 minute installment hones in on our protagonist, Tess’, next steps into the world of fine dining–and raucous after-hour partying.

The episode begins with Tess staggering across the Williamsburg Bridge muttering the mantra “Sweet. Salty. Bitter. Sour,” like a malfunctioning host from WestWorld. Then, we immediately flashback to the start of her day, working at the chic restaurant 22W.

A montage of orders barked at Tess allows for some food porn, lots of floor service buzzwords, and another opportunity to remind us just how overwhelmed our protagonist is. Tess works in a restaurant, but doesn’t even know what it means to be “cut” at the end of the night.

Once Tess learns that she is done with her shift, she decides to pause and try to eat some food off a bused plate. Owner/GM/somm Howard catches her, delivers a sad tale about his dead wife’s love of orchids, and then offers her a single bite of haute cuisine in an uncomfortably sexualized scene. Our naif then tries to eat more only to be foiled by a line cook eager to close up. The viewer is then treated to an all-t0o-short scene of breaking-down the kitchen replete with shift beers.

Our heroine is then departs to the asphalt jungle of New York in search of street-meat when she discovers that her wallet is still at work. A very forced subplot is born. Tess goes back to the restaurant where all the other front-of-house staff are partying without her. Yes, it’s fine dining shift drinks in 2006! That means cigs inside, servers sitting at the bar, polishing off by-the-glass wines, lots of beer, and plans to buy blow.

Still, no one wants to be Tess’ friend. So, she sits at the bar solo and drinkless until the suave Simone orders wine for them both. Simone then delivers an WSET–Level Negative 1 lesson, patronizingly explaining that Riesling is a grape and the human tongue can taste bitter, sweet, salty, and sour. Tess’ mind is blown. She struggles with the new knowledge for the remainder of the ep. Later, she questions whether a lime is bitter or sour (really?!) and recites the basic flavors aloud like a sorcerer’s spell. But, before Simone can introduce something radical like terroir, she decides to walk home with Howard.

The rest of the crew then heads to an after hours joint for the second half of the show. Home Bar (modeled on Park Bar and shot at M1-5 Lounge) is basically portrayed as a scene out of The Warriors. All the restaurant gangs are grouped up in corners of the joint, just waiting to rumble. However, only wide-eyed Tess finds herself in a fight; she gets clocked by a former sex worker amidst some contrived plot device about a green card wife and a pimp. It’s quite possible that this a classic case of memoir-itis; likely this event actually happened and certainly it was a lot funnier to the drunken participants at the time.

Anyway, taking a punch is a baptism for Tess. Immediately, she experiences a whirlwind of acceptance and firsts. Jake, the bad boy bartender flirts with her; there are shots; a server introduces her to blow; Tess asks for more blow for the first time; she kisses another woman; and she gets to sit at the table with the cool kid, front-of-house crowd. Unfortunately, the cool kids want to be cool and talk about sex; Tess wants to tell a boring story about making a card for John Lennon when she was six—awkward.

In the end, most of the cool kids are gone, except for Jake who is making out with a server in the foyer. It is the kitchen staff (who were there all along, just relegated to their own corner) who pick up Tess’ tab because she still has no wallet. Still, before abandoning her for a drunken hookup, Jake manages to deliver a pseudo-intellectual musing about the clichés of restaurant people putting on face all day and needing to blow off steam after.

Following her introduction to the nobility of alcoholism and drugs in the service industry, Tess remembers that the lost wallet subplot is still in play. So, she is forced to walk home across the bridge all the while reciting her new mantra. When the end is finally in sight, she stumbles and vomits. The night, like the episode, was a little too much, but feeling bad right now means that she (and the viewer) will feel much better about the whole thing tomorrow.

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