As I was having dinner with a friend in the latest hot restaurant, I had the feeling that I had been there before, when, in fact, I had not. It was the food that looked familiar. I wanted to love it, but it was déjà vu.
Once again I was served carefully selected, gathered and foraged ingredients arranged in a line in the middle of the plate. So precious! All soft colors and plays on texture. These were compositions worthy of an artist’s canvas or a cook book photograph, almost feminine in the delicacy of presentation, some entrees starting to look like desserts.
The reality is that no matter how new and stylish the venue, I had seen these plates before in the last six hip places where I had dined. If I closed my eyes to shut out the view of the room, I could have been in any one of many restaurants. All these pretty and anonymous plates look as if they had come out of the same kitchen.
Where was the imprint of the individual chef or restaurant? Are all of them clones?
They used to joke that there was a river of tomato sauce running under the city that fed our Italian restaurants. Well now I envisage an underground team of tiny elves with tweezers, carefully placing tiny little pieces of food in regimented lines across plates all over the country. Alas, not all of the elves are behind the scenes. If there is an open kitchen, you can observe their painstaking activities on the line. Like watching paint dry. Where is the passion and energy? It all seems so self absorbed. My friend at dinner suggested that perhaps it is not passion they lack, just life experience, a sense of food history, and a grandmother who cooked from her family heritage with heart.
I am tired of seeing undulating ribbons of zucchini or beets or cucumbers sinuously entwined around fragments of seafood or vegetables, topped with little leaves, herb sprigs and flowers placed just so. And surrounded those damned dots of sauce. I thought we had seen the last of those dots the 90’s but, alas, they are back. What are we supposed to do with these? Drag or dip one of the pretty fragments into these miniscule droplets so there is something to taste?
What happened to the mantra of “Flavor First” that used to drive the chefs? After eating a lineup of oyster mushrooms alternating with pieces of squid I wondered why they were together at all. I got that it was an exercise in texture and chewiness but what did these ingredients have to say to each other? Something crucial was missing: a unifying flavor theme that would bring these ingredients together in a harmonious and delicious way.
Many of the new restaurant menus are written in the same flat and un-enticing style: a shopping list of ingredients. (What follows are taken from four different restaurant menus )
King salmon, eggplant, olive, mustard seed.
Chicken, asparagus, tomato, wood ear mushroom, pine nut
Beet , vadouvan, mustard.
Watermelon, lovage, cactus, buttermilk, basil
Cucumbers, day boat scallops, wild fennel, purslane, almonds
BBQ pork, shelling beans, corn bread. mustard ash, licorice root
Quinoa, fava , turnip milk, curds
This style is what David Kinch used to call “comma cuisine” when describing how menus were written in Northern California in the early 80’s. All nouns in search of a verb.
I hate to think that after all of the long, hard work of the food revolution of the 80’s and 90’s to improve and expand our larder, that our cooking has come down to this: a parade of lovely ingredients lined up and marching in lockstep, like Miss America pageant contestants with not much of import to say, just pretty faces in favor of organics and world peace.
As a geezer who can recall, fondly, many delicious, full flavored dishes I can still “taste”, I am dreaming of the day when the guys put away the tweezers and the squeeze bottles and start making memorable food, There has been too much style and not enough substance. It’s all foreplay. The palate is entertained but not educated, titillated but not really fed in a sustaining way. After this kind of meal I want to go out and eat a burger.