To dine or not to dine

meurice sandwich
Le Meurice, Paris   Somewhere, USA 

The NY Times ran a piece today that caught my attention. A captain at a three star restaurant gave a well written essay about his experiences serving dinner to the rich and supper rich. Here is an excerpt:

You experience a special rush when your job is to project an aura of
warmth and hospitality while maintaining an almost clinical emotional
distance. It’s the thrill of the con. This pleasure in deception was
suggested by another metaphor popular with upper management: lipstick on
a pig. The key to fine dining, I was told by one manager, was to ensure
that the guest never noticed the pig, only the lipstick. Guests wanted
to believe the make-believe; they wanted to believe everything was
perfect. But the moment someone noticed a minor imperfection — a smudge
on the butter, a fingerprint on the fork — other imperfections would
suddenly become noticeable, threatening the illusion we all worked to
maintain.
In a playground for the superrich, I was an overpaid chaperone wearing a
bespoke suit. Gluttony was common. So was sex; more than once we had to
interrupt coitus in the restroom.

Once years ago in New York, Victoria and I attended an opera and afterwards took a taxi to a two star restaurant to meet a friend who liked to dine at such places. When we arrived I asked the driver to wait a second while we checked to see if said friend was still in the restaurant; he was not and the restaurant was about to close, so we clambered back in the taxi and I asked the driver to take us someplace we could get a burger. He slammed on the brakes, turned around and said, "First you want to go to the most expensive place in town and now you want a hamburger!"  I explained that we had no intention of eating there we were just looking for somebody. He said, "Yeah, you spend a hundred bucks and the next morning you're hungry again."  I followed up with, "And you are lucky if you don't get sick to boot."

I have nothing against fancy restaurants making a great production of dinner, but I have long ago grown weary of waiter shows and the accompanying noise of such places. Also, food that looks as if it has been fondled by many hands looses its appeal, no matter how fou fou.  Once in a fancy restaurant in St Louis after we were seated by the maître d'hôtel the waiter approached with an air of distant professionalism bordering on rudeness and asked if we would like a cocktail or a glass of wine, I replied, "Yes, but first remove that roach," and I pointed to the thing waving its antenna and hanging on the wall adjoining our table. The illusion vanished, we were moved to another table, and after that the waiter just acted like a normal person doing a job.*

On the other hand, the TV chef wearing bling and a open necked Hawaiian shirt who visits joints, stuffs his mouth with greasy BBQ and talks at the same time I find revolting.  Good food and manners are found somewhere between these two extremes, but where?  From my experience finding excellent food is mostly serendipity, a word, I recently learned, coined by  Horace Walpole meaning a pleasant surprise.

 

On the food scale between gross and silly, this dish from a New York restaurant seems to combine both extremes on one plate.

bladder "About two years ago, when Mr. Humm developed a dish — celery root braised in a pig’s bladder with black truffles — and presented it as a delectable pale sphere on a white plate, he had a glimpse of the less-is-more aesthetic he’d been seeking." -NYTimes 1/6/16

Below are a few memorable dining experiences, none involved a pig bladder:

1. We were in Cefalù, Sicily (I don't remember when) looking for a place to eat dinner and I employed my usual tactics for finding the right  place to eat without resorting to advertisements or asking the hotel clerk.

 

a) Examine the clientele. Look through the window or door and see if the customers seem to be enjoying their meal.  If the place is almost empty and the waiter is standing at the door smiling, keep moving.

 b) Simple menus are a good sign. A place with fifty items on  the menu probably means frozen food ready to be popped into the microwave. A menu in six languages means they cater to tourist not to locals.

 c) A place that looks spiffy or has a view of the kitchen is probably a winner. If you can actually see the cooks at work, that is a positive sign. In Greece you are often invited into the kitchen where the chef shows you what's cooking and sometimes provides a sample. I once was offered what turned out to be a revolting tripe soup and managed to smile and say "thaumastos" to the expectant cook.

 

The place, somewhere around the Piazza del Duomo, we finally choose to eat was simple, off the beaten path, and appeared to be family run and the family may have lived in the back of the place. They spoke no English (another good sign).  We sat at a vintage wooden table with no table cloth and the smiling nonna eventually presented us with the best gnocchi di patate I have ever tasted. After I finished off the last one, she came out of the kitchen and poured a few more dumplings into my bowl.

2. On another trip we were in San Sebastián on our way to catch a bus to Bilbao when we passed, or nearly passed, a cafe with a full glass front - as though the place had once been a shoe store or some such. We noticed the place was almost full with blue collar workers (a good sign in Europe but not in the US) and most seemed to be eating large grilled sardines. We found a table and ordered sardines. They were delicious. Fifteen years later and I still pine for those sardines.

3. Once we were staying in a hotel on the Rue de Lyon near the Opera Bastille and walked by a spiffy restaurant. Not fancy at all, but very neat with positive energy emanating from the place. There was not a customer in the place, as  it was early for a French lunch and they did seat us after checking with someone at the back. Soon the  place was packed with well dressed serious eaters - all were regulars or had reservations. The lunch was excellent and later we learned the place was very highly sought after by in-the-know Parisians business dudes. That reminds me of another point, lunch at expensive restaurants is usually the same food served at night but less expensive. Moreover, there is no waiter show; they get the food quickly on the table.

4. Of course most of best meals are served in private homes. A dinner of vegetables fresh from the garden prepared by a good cook is almost impossible to beat. On one such occasion all of the diners said not a word, but moaned with pleasure with each bite. Butter beans, yellow squash, sweet onions, and tomatoes served with ice tea and cornbread cooked in a cast iron skillet that had never been washed. I might add that some southerners are particular about cornmeal. I prefer white meal made from dent corn grown in my back yard garden; no bugs and no trash in the meal. Also, use lard when making cornbread

5. Often when traveling in Europe we will visit the open air markets and purchase the fixings for dinner in the hotel room. The fare typically consist of prosciutto, cheese, fruit, olives, baguette and a bottle of wine.

dijon
One of our favorite markets is in Dijon, Burgundy.

 Once we were staying in an "L" shaped hotel in Autun, France that was originally a 17th century abbey and our second story room offered a great view of the dining room and the kitchen through several large windows. About 6 PM we pulled a table and two chairs close to our large window as the show began. There were four or five waiters (dressed in white shirts, black bow ties, black vests and trousers, and white  aprons) polishing silver ware and glasses, arranging flowers, and gliding about the dining room. Back in the kitchen the cooks (dressed in black trousers, white jackets and aprons, and, of course, toques) were slicing, dicing, stirring, and scurrying about). By 7 the same activities were going on in the kitchen and steam was rising from the pots and cooks were checking things in the ovens, but there were no guest. At 8 two women arrive  and were quickly seated near the center window (great for us), the maître d' with a great flourish presented them with enormous menus and eventually an order was passed to the kitchen where the cooks who had slowed to snail speed sprang into action. By 9 PM the two guest departed and no other quest had arrived. The waiters made heroic attempts to find something to do, but in the kitchen the cooks were leaning over the work tables engaged in conversations. About half past 9 the moment of truth arrived and the kitchen staff began placing all the food in the pantry or the walk-in refrigerator. The cleaned cooking utensils were returned to storage. At 10 PM the kitchen and dining room lights dimmed and the staff departed.  The show was over. We placed our left over prosciutto and cheese on the window sill, our refrigeration, and turned on the tv.

abbey
The dining room was behind  the five large first floor windows and the kitchen was behind the last three on the right. There was less ivy about the kitchen windows on our visit in October 1999, so we had a better view.

 

6. In Arles, France between the old Roman Arena and the Rhone river is the old section of the city, the Centre-ville, with narrow winding street and interesting shops. One winter day in 1988 we were, yet again, wondering around searching for a place to have dinner. We found an interesting place, but the door was locked although it was well into the dinner hours. We walked around for a while and returned to find the door still locked, so I knocked. A large man with white hair and dressed as a cook opened the door and stared at us, then let us in. He then stuck his head outside and looked up and  down the street before closing and locking the door. This routine was repeated several times as  other guest knocked and were let in.  It seemed to be another mom and pop operation, but with a mystery. We could only guess at the reason for his caution; perhaps some gang was shaking him down for money. Anyway, he prepared an excellent meal for us, served by a lady we assumed to be his wife. I don't remember what was served, but we were so impressed that before we departed I opened the door to the kitchen to offer kudos and a German Shepherd lying at the chef's feet sprang up snarling, barking, and heading straight for me. I slammed  the kitchen door and made a fast retreat to a neutral corner of the restaurant. The chef came out and gave a lengthy explanation, which I think was an apology.

I could go on, but I am becoming tired of my own stories.


*Which reminds me of a meal in Seaside, Florida when Victoria found a green caterpillar in her salad. Of course the waiter whisked the salad away, but not before I secured the evidence in an empty glass.   The manager, a surprisingly young woman, approached, eyed the bug, and with clasped hands apologized and offered to comp a beer. I said, "If that is the best you can do, then we will keep the caterpillar and watch it turn to a butterfly."  The manager retreated, but a free beer was all we got, besides a half eaten salad. We deposited the caterpillar on a bush outside the café.

End