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THE LIONS

    Once a pride of lions gathered at a much-touted restaurant called “Top of the Food Chain.”
    The restaurant had enjoyed ecstatic reviews from critics and was praised as “a ‘pleasure dome’ for a Khan’s palate” or, equally enticing, “a gastronomic bacchanalia for all but the shyest of taste buds!” 
    Such straining for effect by critics scarcely did justice, however, to either the array of tempting viands the lions found on the menu after being shown to their table by the urbane maître d’ or the welcoming ambiance that characterized an establishment so stylishly catering to carnivores of discernment.
    While weighing the suggestions offered by a waiter whose full figure suggested how much the advice being given owed to intimate familiarity with the fare, the lions gestured towards various thick slabs of meat carried out from the kitchen to be placed before other patrons and asked questions that demonstrated their own nuanced appreciation for the finer arts of the master chef and the saucier.
    After much discussion of the relative merits of this selection and that, weighing “a bold statement of venturesome spirit” here against “a charming nod to tradition” there, the pride decided to order the specialty of the day for the entire table: a wild biped served whole, with the skin still on and marinated in its own juices. The aroma of this one-of-a-kind rarity turned to perfection, the waiter guaranteed, would be “a veritable feast for the nostrils.” 
    While awaiting the arrival of their order, the lions continued their appreciative commentaries on the steady arrival at other tables of one tantalizing delight after another. They noted with an understanding that comes only through years of gourmet experience how the eyes of a passionate young pair nearby quickly shifted from each other to the raw little amuse-bouche artfully arranged in a swirl of red on each of their plates, betraying an embarrassed but poignant culinary naiveté. Then in an instant these trifles were gone and the pair could return to drooling over the mutual attractions of their own tender years.
    At another table, obvious habitués who’d long since reached the point of satiety tonight passed around a large platter with a single remaining slice of meat in a polite attempt to hide their individual craving to throw decorum aside and force this last savory morsel down while their companions were distracted by wiping away the sweat of calculating how they too could make room for the tidbit.
    Amid a steady rise and fall in the sounds of chewed flesh and the expert cracking of bones, one refrain was constant above the general tenor of conviviality. None of the clientele could recall a single restaurant, no matter how many stars it might boast, that rivaled where they now sat when it came to uncommon entrées served with such consummate style and such visionary élan.
    But without question the pièce de résistance had to be accounted the lions’ own order, drawing a low purr of admiration as it was paraded past neighboring tables on the shoulders of six waiters, its arms and legs trussed tight, smothered head to foot and fingertip to fingertip in rich gravy, with the crowning touch of an enormous apple that stretched wide its mouth like a final wish to swallow the whole world.
    Enchanted by this tour de force, the lions invited the chef to come out and accept their compliments, which continued for several rounds of the pride before ending in a hearty burst of applause, joined by all in the restaurant. The chef acknowledged this tribute by offering praise in return for the assembled patrons themselves, the lions foremost, of course, but also every other devotee of free-range cuisine in its highest form.
    When the pride finally left the restaurant hours later, each was already looking forward to their next little gathering, though few could conceive of an outing to top this one. Not just for the fare offered but also for the genius of its preparation. How many chefs could, with such a virtuoso performance, raise a mere necessity of survival to the quintessential expression of the good life, to the ne plus ultra of sophisticated dining? In matters of the table, the art of the sublime was all in how you transformed the choicest of ingredients into a meal fit for the gods.
    An uninspired approach to the slightest detail in selection, slaughter, dressing, cooking, and, it went without saying, inattention to the minutia of elegant presentation could simply ruin what should be an experience like no other, a sublime transport in every bite, a turning of all the potential held in any living creature, all the warm magic of its being, into a moment of lip-licking ecstasy for the devoted epicure.
    It had to merit the kind of magisterial “Bon Appétit!” the chef had pronounced over the centerpiece of the extraordinary repast the lions were still sucking their teeth about as they stood outside the doors of “Top of the Food Chain” and speed-dialed their cell phones to spread word of this delicacy not to be missed.