Episode Twenty Four: “My Coffee With Niles” and an Espresso Martini

And so, three and a half years after I started this Frasier food blog, we conclude season one. As I stated in my last blog post – over a year ago! – the task paralysis which appears every time I open my eyes to a new day was naturally in full force even here in this beloved side-project of mine. What comes next? Will I continue to find a recipe to reflect literally every episode of Frasier or will this season stand alone as a singular art piece? No seriously, can someone please tell me what comes next? But let’s not squander time analysing the bewildering machinations of my mind and instead let’s analyse our favourite analyst; the point is: we made it. It’s time for My Coffee With Niles.

Did someone say Zinfandel?

With no less than three framing devices to glide us to the finish line, My Coffee With Niles is an exercise in exhilarating meditativeness hinging around the question – from Niles to Frasier – “are you happy?”

Are you happy? This is not a question sitcom characters ask each other. It’s not a question for characters with steady applause meeting their every pronouncement. A character whose physicality specifically reflects their three-walled, open-plan, roofless living room is not prepared for this question. You could reasonably ask it of Tony Soprano or Bojack Horseman or Ruth Fisher; you wouldn’t ask it of any Friends character, or Raymond, or anybody who loves Raymond. You could maybe ask Jerry Seinfeld if he’s happy – I imagine that would lead to petty and drawn-out hijinks to gain the high ground, not quiet, familial introspection. But in this final episode of its debut season, Frasier the show dares to ask Frasier the man: are you happy?

someone in this picture is happy and they have four legs

Now, those three framing devices: first, My Coffee With Niles is a bottle episode, that is, it takes place entirely in one setting. You could call it a one-act play – but really all Frasier episodes, even the slightest, are theatrical at heart. Bottle episodes suggest claustrophobic tension or a study of character; we mostly get the latter here, besides, Frasier always feels the walls are closing in on him while living with his father. Secondly, the episode references the excellent 1981 Louis Malle film My Dinner With Andre, starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, a film so calming and ruminative that it’s positively euphoric, so soothing you could just scream. In this film Shawn and Gregory sit at a restaurant and talk about life for two hours; the title reference shows we can expect much of the same from Frasier and Niles. The third framing device is more shallow and comedic but still crucial: each time Frasier’s coffee arrives he discovers something wrong and has to send it back. These interruptions, as well as the appearance of Martin Crane, Daphne, and Roz at various intervals allow Frasier to avoid answering the question.

It’s important that all Frasier’s complaints with his coffees stem from ill-communication – he forgot to mention decaf; he didn’t ask for low-fat; he doesn’t want cinnamon dusted on top. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but let’s pretend it was! For a man with such particular and sophisticated taste, who makes his living talking with people, he still suffers perpetual breakdowns in communication with his live-in father, Martin – the inability to read each other’s minds and a mutual resistance to trying. If he could just communicate openly, instead of living inside his head, maybe he’d get the coffee he wanted as well as a smoother relationship with his father, yes?

I asked her for Zinfandel and she brought me CHABLIS

Where many TV season finales might indulge in a cliffhanger (including several of Frasier’s down the line), My Coffee With Niles closes out by taking stock and reflecting, a veritable body scan in TV form. Everyone is their most exemplary self: Frasier can’t communicate, Niles is foppish, Daphne is so British she drops a “bumbershoot” in the group chat and treats us to a psychic episode, and Martin is at his most belligerent. Roz came to the coffee shop to drink coffee and get laid, and she’s all out of coffee.

The pensive vibe doesn’t preclude a bombshell or two – in parrying the “are you happy” question, Frasier finally wangles it out of Niles that he’s in love with Daphne (“oh, why did you have to hire Venus herself?”) and although we know, and we know Frasier suspects, it’s still powerful seeing Niles articulate it out loud (almost as powerful as his magnificent spit-take when Frasier asks the question.) The second bombshell explains Martin’s grumpiness: his sons forgot his birthday last week. The boys, regretful, apologise and offer to take him out to dinner. Naturally, Martin chooses a homely German restaurant – more bratwurst-with-everything than Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte – and his sons feign genuine excitement. This circles us back to the start of the season, with episode three’s ill-fated dinner at The Timber Mill steakhouse. Back then, Frasier and Niles couldn’t hide their contempt for their father’s culinary proclivities – undoubtedly they’ll behave better this time, and Martin, who has continually borne the brunt of his children’s scorn, is likely touched by their faux-enthusiasm. Again – who knows if this was intentional? I’m saying it was.

Her hair smells like cherry blossoms and almond bark and…Zinfandel? No wait, that’s me

So Niles isn’t exactly happy – trapped in a moneyed yet unfulfilling marriage with the bizarre, never-seen Maris and in love with his father’s physical therapist. But a weight appears lifted from his slender shoulders at unloading his stormily wistful interior life to his brother. The hot date Roz arrived for didn’t work out but she remains pragmatic as ever with her eyes already on the next horizon wearing tight jeans. Martin’s children forgot his birthday but they’re genuinely eager to make amends, and his threats to move out are ultimately empty. Daphne’s psychic spell is self-aware and firmly in the real world: she envisaged Martin apologising to her for his bad temper (“and something about a raise?”)

And Frasier? Is he happy? Once everyone’s left, he answers the server who brings out the fourth iteration of his coffee: “you know, in the greater scheme…yes, I’d say I am.” Although Frasier struggles to communicate honestly, he’s still thoroughly sincere and hopeful – Kelsey Grammer plays this scene beautifully and quietly, without any mugging for laughs.

This contemplative ending is somewhat undermined in the silent sequence which plays as the credits run out, with Frasier finding something in his cup and requesting yet another new coffee. Well, it is a sitcom.

A man who, in the greater scheme, is happy

Favoured Quote:

It’s more about David Hyde Pierce’s rueful delivery than the absolute humour of the lines themselves, but I always laugh in this moment when he shows off his new shoes:

Niles: What about the tassels?
Frasier: Well, I'm not much of a tassel guy.
Niles: No, neither am I, nevertheless there they are. 

So much of this show depends on DHP’s line readings, the way he describes Roz as “comely, in a back-alley sort of way” would work on few other people; his sibilant pronunciation of the word “blouse” is reason enough to tune in.

There’s also an interesting and deeply early-90s moment where Niles says “wow” at how handsome Roz’s prospective date is, then “I wonder if that means something”, to which Frasier replies, “it means you’re a gay man, your life with Maris was a charade and you should have come out of the closet years ago.” It stands out as being unusual for Frasier humour, which prefers to take a more circuitous and erudite route to the punchline – and you could read something into Niles’ faint smile, but as for it being any kind of hiding-in-plain-sight joke who could say, since David Hyde Pierce wouldn’t come out to the public till well over a decade after this aired.

I enjoyed the server icily telling Frasier “we’ve got a team of specialists working on it” when he asked where the third or fourth prototype of his coffee was. Luck Hari’s role is small but she brings an exasperated yet polite gravitas that anyone who’s worked in hospitality will recognise, and I’m always glad to see her re-appear throughout the series.

Roz also holds her own, giving us proto-Samantha Jones when her date turns out to be a man of the cloth trying to convert her – “I am ecumenical! I embrace men of all faiths!”

I’ve spoken before about how much I love Peri Gilpin’s soft, rhotic drawl – it’s the perfect slow-moving yet strident counterpoint to Frasier’s stagey barking and Niles’ nervous-chihuahua enunciation. When she remembers the attractive handyman in her apartment and says “I thought I’d just go home, slip into a negligee and rip out my faucet,” it near-on inspires an involuntary saluting motion. She is action, Frasier is passivity, she gets action, Frasier gets…more coffee.

Roz! That’s all I have to say, her presence makes everything better

Em-Maris-ment of Riches:

The unseen Maris is unusually present in this episode, whether she’s ringing Niles on his yuppie cellular phone to ask for directions out of their kitchen or appearing in anecdotes reading Danielle Steele and making manicure appointments while in the lotus position in their new zen garden. Her most important non-appearance is, of course, in relation to Niles’ happiness and his not-so-secret crush on Daphne. He says their love isn’t passionate – a la “Tristan and Isolde” – but “more comfortable, more familiar”, where he and his wife can spend hours and hours each day in diligent silence. Despite the careful wording and the amusing notion of Maris “at her autoharp”, it paints a bleak picture. Niles is not entirely trapped – he enjoys the trappings of Maris’ untold wealth, although when asked if that’s why he married her, he demurs: “it was just a delightful bonus.” Telling Frasier his secret isn’t the same as acting on it, but nevertheless a ball is set in motion that will continue to gather momentum as the series progresses.

My Usual, Please

It was with this episode in mind that I initially tacked on this segment, amused by Frasier and Niles’ insistence that they have “a usual” while ordering a different coffee in every episode. The coffee that finally (almost) satisfies Frasier is a decaf, non-fat, no-cinnamon latte made with Zimbabwe coffee beans, truly an encapsulation of the rising nineties coffee culture and all its moving parts.

For the accompanying recipe I chose an espresso martini: surely the next logical step for the man who wants caffeinating but has run out of ways to irritate his current server. Like the character of Frasier, the espresso martini rose to fame in the eighties and despite its ubiquity, when done well it’s a genuinely excellent drink. I like mine with rum for caramelised depth but if you want to use the original vodka go ahead. This version is a little less boozy than what you’d usually find – an ideal brunch cocktail.

Espresso Martini

Serves 1.

  • 30ml dark rum
  • 15ml coffee liqueur
  • 30ml fresh espresso*

Place all ingredients in a cocktail shaker glass or tin, fill with fresh ice, firmly place the second shaker tin on top and shake firmly for about ten seconds. Strain the contents through a sieve into a chilled martini or coupe, where it should separate into foamy crema and rich dark liquor below. Serve immediately.

I actually used strong instant coffee for this and you know what? It tasted great. The liqueur I used was Galliano Ristretto, a birthday present back in April from my aunty (thanks Jill!) If you don’t have a cocktail shaker, use a lidded jam jar instead.

Finally, if you type “My Dinner with Andre quotes” into google images almost every result can be related back to Frasier in some way – it really is a glorious film, if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend taking a rainy afternoon to let it wash over you.

Thank you for taking this journey with me throughout season one of Frasier – sure, I’ve been inconsistent and sure, no one was clamouring for a self-indulgent Frasier food blog and sure, maybe seven people have read it over the years but I’ve had SO much fun writing about these episodes and I’m very glad I started it. If you have a stupid idea kicking around in your head – the kind that won’t go away and creates future projections and starts spiralling imagining every possible outcome to every possible scenario – why not listen to it? You too, could end up with…all of this.

And if you’ve enjoyed my writing and want to read more, there’s my thirteen year old food blog hungryandfrozen.com or you can support me at patreon.com/hungryandfrozen. Goodnight, Seattle!

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