Froma Harrop: Hold the urchin tongues, let’s cook like grandma
‘Tis the season to do cooking. And the holidays are when folks yearn for the old classics, just like ones we used to know. Even some hardcore “foodies” put away the experimental cuisine and make predictable dishes with recognizable ingredients.
One can understand why food writers persist in advocating “makeovers” of traditional dishes. If they didn’t put a new spin on standards, they’d have nothing to write about. They’d just reference a cookbook or provide links to the chicken potpie recipe on Epicurious (though I doubt the pioneers had access to dried chanterelle mushrooms).
Food writers continue to spread the belief that a 28-year-old celebrity chef can improve on centuries of culinary trial and error. There may be a genius or two among them, and it’s a free country. But familiar foods feed a hunger for physical links to past experiences.
Consider an American classic, the s’more. Marshmallows and chocolate melted between two graham crackers, the s’more evokes Scout nights around the campfire. Sure, you can replace the crackers with brioche and Hershey’s with imported Belgian chocolate. Point is, when you want a s’more, you want Hershey’s.
Similarly, when you ask for Southern fried chicken, you generally expect a repeat of the classic dish. Some cooks do it better than others, but the diner is generally not seeking a culinary revolution.
Italians have already spent a millennium getting linguine with clam sauce right. Why one would incorporate Asian spices into the dish, other than for their novelty value, remains a mystery. Non-European culinary traditions also demand respect. There’s a quesadilla made according to Mexican custom, and there’s a Peking duck perfected in China.
The restaurants promoting the most extreme tear-downs of established dishes — food writers call them “resets” — congregate in centers of tech and finance. They have a clientele that can afford truffles on their cheese omelets — and that believes there’s not a wheel that doesn’t need reinventing. We’re reporting from planet disruption.
Former restaurant critic Daniel Duane has written on the bizarre temples to culinary grandiosity now patronized by the filthy-rich venture capital and post-IPO crowd in Silicon Valley. At Manresa, for example, he was served a creation called “Tidal Pool” — “a clear littoral broth of seaweed dashi pooling around sea-urchin tongues, pickled kelp and foie gras.” When he returned in a party of four, the chef created a special tasting menu. The bill for the table after tax and tip came to $1,200.
Down in America’s merely affluent neighborhoods, restaurants lure the hipster class by strewing dishes with less expensive exotica. Greens, of course, have to be micro, the cheese “artisan.” The servers often do too much explaining and deliver too little food.
About the tapas craze. All dining traditions have an order of eating — what you start with, what comes next, how you end. But the “little plates” phenomenon has injected chaos into the restaurant experience.
Tapas happen to be a venerable Spanish bar tradition. They are small dishes of nibbles set on the counter to keep one going until the late Spanish dinner hour. In Spain, that’s snacking, not dining.
But aspiring entrepreneurs in this country have turned small plates into the whole thing. That means that four people might have to order 10 or 11 dishes. The plates fly to the table like loaded Frisbees, forcing diners to fight with sharp cutlery for their share.
This is a generalization, I know, but the hotter the restaurant the colder the service. The owners don’t particularly care if you feel unwelcome, because at that very moment, your replacements are reading erotic accounts of their grilled lamb hearts.
Bring me some fish stew, waiter, and hold the urchin tongues.