Thursday, September 07, 2006

Leggo (not leg) of Lamb? Foam THIS in your bouche and amuse it!

The upmarket chefs of this planet are getting out of hand. It’s time to round all of them up and take them away for the good of culinary civilization. Lock them up in a re-education camp where they can learn that beyond basic nutrition, the primary reason people like to eat is because food is supposed to taste good.

But perhaps I ought to go way back to the very beginning: 1959. I was then a 19 year old kid set loose in Europe for a year, and when I got to Paris for the first time, I discovered that food actually could be delicious.

THIS WAS A HUGE, HUGE, HUGE DISCOVERY

I grew up in a household where my mother broiled the life out of flounder and served it to us, dry and brittle and fishy-smelling. So I grew up thinking, “Fish – ugh!”

She did the same cruel thing to calves’ liver. Yecch! She could burn a steak beyond recognition. Phtooey! Her knowledge of salad began and ended with Iceberg lettuce, served without salad dressing. Blagh!

Then suddenly I found myself in Paris on $5 a day, way back when when French food was really food, a buck was a buck, and five bucks a day could still get you not only a clean-ish room but also a meal that featured a pate de fois gras, canard a l’orange, pommes en huile, bread unlike any other bread in the world, and Camembert cheese for dessert. Heaven, I was in heaven!

BUT SOMETHING WENT HAYWIRE

Chefs have gone from being craftsmen of flavor to pretentious wannabe visual artists and architects. They don't cook food, they construct it. Unfortunately, most of these constructions have nothing to do with tasting delicious.

It started in the 1970s, with something called “nouvelle cuisine,” meant to replace all the heavy, buttery, sauce-y, beautiful-tasting stuff I loved so much in 1959. Nouvelle was described, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, as “four Q-tips artfully placed around a lettuce leaf, accompanied by a drop of cranberry juice.”

It’s only gotten worse since then. Now the objective seems to be creating something you can hang on the wall and visit in a museum.

TASTE? DON’T BE RIDICULOUS. WHO NEEDS TASTE?

In August, I ate at Nougatine, New York celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s "informal" appendage to his flagship Restaurant Jean-Georges at Columbus Circle.

Early on, something arrived at the table. Nature’s kindness protects me from recalling the full details with total nauseating accuracy, for the same reason that people who’ve been gutted by a bayonet are sometimes protected from their pain by an endorphin rush. All I can tell you is that it was – foamed.

AYIEEE! FOAMED!

I think it was the dressing on the salad. Or maybe not. Doesn’t matter. The point us, unless it’s either beer, or whipped cream, or steamed milk on top of cappuccino, foam is not fun to eat. It is not delicious. It doesn’t belong on a plate, most especially not in a high priced restaurant.

Did whatever it was at least have a taste? None that I can recall with any pleasure. There was also an “amuse bouche” served in what my memory tells me was either a shot glass or an espresso cup. I wish I could remember this better (Could it have been “Pea Soup Jean-Georges?”) but I was focused on getting to the airport. I was heading for France.

The next day I was in the homeland of great cuisine. Alas, the homeland has turned into Foamland. I found myself drowning in a sea of unordered foamed soups and sauces, served compliments of the chef in teensy-weensy glasses or microscopic eye cups to amuse my bouche.

WHERE IS THE OUTRAGED PEASANTRY
NOW THAT WE NEED THEM?

My first night in France, staying in an ancient chateau in Normandy, I had hoped for simple local Norman peasant food -- fresh shell fish from the nearby sea, the local apple and pear crops of Calvados country and the great local cheeses like Pont l’Eveque.

Fat chance!

Instead, the chateau was serving something that looked as if it had been created in the studio of Piet Mondrian out of acrylic paint.

What I thought I had ordered translated as “lamb cooked for a long time.” What I actually got was stewed-to-shreds lamb molded into something that looked like a giant Leggo, accompanied by a shot glass containing several tiny balls of roasted potato. Both were counterbalanced, like a Frank Lloyd Wright residential building, on something that resembled a long glass ashtray. It was roughly three inches wide by twelve inches long.

Of course they also served a foamed something-or-other. Plus another amuse bouche – this one might even have been enjoyable if it were served in something bigger than a sawed-off shot glass – featured as a cold soup. It seemed to be a mixture of tomato juice and liquefied basil.

More meals, more amuse bouches, more foaming nightmares. By my fifth meal (by this time I was at a different Norman chateau) I made it known very explicitly that if I found so much as a fleck of foam on my plate, I might go postal.

The concerned waitstaff tried to calm me down with another complimentary amuse bouche made out of tomato and -- I dunno, maybe it was foamed frog.

THE MORE FOAM YOU SEE
THE MORE DINNER COSTS

The New York Crank’s rule of haute cuisine now states that the more foam you see, the more dinner costs. Ditto architectural constructions pretending to be food that are perched on ashtrays or oddly-shaped plates. Most of these meals in Norman chateau country set me back 35 to 60 Euros per person, not necessarily including a glass of wine and a bottle of mineral water.

I won’t even discuss the foamed presentation chez Vongerichten in New York, except to point out that his website boasts of wines with a top price of – hold your breath -- $12,500. You read that right. Twelve thousand, five hundred dollars, which ought to be enough to help you forget you’re also paying outrageous prices to swallow foam. Somehow all this brings to mind the mid-Eighteenth Century French nobility, vying to strut around in the highest heels, the most elaborately brocaded jackets, the silliest powdered wigs. Chefs (and their supporters) take warning: Before the end of that century the nobility had shed not only their heels, brocaded jackets and high heels but also their heads.

At any rate, by the time I got to Paris, I was foam-o-phobic. I avoided the haute cuisine restaurants and started hitting the little neighborhood bistros and brasseries where they still serve food. I stayed as far as I could from any restaurant that looked as if it might try to amuse my bouche or dare to foam something.

The steak in Paris is still wonderful in a way that’s different from American steak, thanks to the sauces. The pate is still wonderful. The duck is still wonderful. The salad, in a simple vinaigrette dressing, is still a delight. The bread is still wonderful. The cheese is heavenly. I began making up for the meals of foam by eating truly delicious food. I ate, and ate, and ate, and ate.

In five days I gained five pounds.

I plan to will those pounds to a celebrity chef. When I die, he can have a butcher liposuction them from my body and foam them.

Bon apetit!

2 comments:

Eve said...

Er, cooking is an art. One could say that it is solely for sustenance's sake, but really it is something that helps people to enjoy life, to share with others, and to savor.

New York Crank said...

Eve, Eve, you gotta learn to read! I didn't say food was solely for sustenance' sake. I pointed out that the chefs are so busy foaming, bouche-amusing and artsy-fartsying around that they've forgotten to make it taste good. And that sucks!
--The Crank