The Age of the Restaurant Gimmick

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Gorgeous apple starter from Maude

We live in the age of the gimmicky restaurant; an age that consistently leaves me hankering for the good old days when a meal meant a straightforward meal. I realize that competition in the culinary world is fierce and that the food business is one of the hardest industries to carve a living within—so I understand why chefs and restaurateurs are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to stand out from the crowd so as to attract their share of diners. But, sometimes, it goes too far as the Cute Gardener and I have seen all too frequently of late.

Take San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions, with its Americanized version of the dim sum joint, for example. It has been lauded as the greatest thing since the reversed foie gras ban. So like every devout foodie, we tried to get reservations when visiting the city last summer. The reservations game was a feat in itself as the CG spent many a day online trying to finagle our way in. Our actual visit was tepid at best. While we enjoyed a few of the items we ordered off the menu, the roving carts of additional options were a confusing mix of seemingly random dishes that didn’t pair well together or make choosing a wine for the evening very easy. I imagine they are shooting themselves in the foot by missing out on bottle wine sales because of the inability of guests to foresee what they might be eating. Also, after watching carts stroll the room multiple times hawking fresh fare like ceviche, it doesn’t seem that appealing to grab one on its fourth or fifth time around. By the end of the evening, all the cart items are offered in a sort of blow out sale, which made us wonder why we weren’t able to just know what we are being offered at the beginning of our meal. Overall, the concept just didn’t fly across cultures. At least in a real dim sum restaurant, everything is cohesive and makes sense.

Another restaurant that tried the dim sum concept was The Church Key in Los Angeles. We had heard rave reviews about the place from friends and were looking forward to eating in the brightly lit dining room we had seen on the show Best New Restaurant. On the show, there had been flaming cocktails and roving carts offering so many side dishes that many patrons had to turn their “dim done” cards up on the tables so as not to be constantly disturbed. On the night we went, we visited the website for a look at some of their signature drinks and dishes and read about the restaurant’s fun style which apparently carried right down to the interesting flight attendant-like uniforms on the servers. When we arrived though, it was as if we had entered a time warp to a totally different restaurant that had kidnapped The Church Key’s space and replaced it with a new identity. No flight attendant uniforms clad the blasé wait staff. One cart of food came by our table during the entire two hours we were there and the falafel we chose off of it was gluey and seemed like it had been re-fried after being made a couple days ago. Although we saw people with some of the better-known gimmicks, like the bowl of shared alcoholic punch, it was nary to be found on a menu. The room was dark. It was as if the owners and chefs had gone on vacation and the kids were left to tend house and decided to do their own thing, including throwing leftovers in the microwave. Or perhaps the restaurant was simply suffering from being born with too many gimmicks that didn’t holdover or translate as viable or economically sound options in the long run.

Last week we went to Maude, which is the high-end restaurant brainchild of Australian Chef Curtis Stone in homage to his grandmother. The gimmick is relatively simple: take one seasonal ingredient and make it shine across nine or ten dishes done creatively in haute gourmet fashion. We like Curtis and were looking forward to eating there for the year  it took us to finally get a reservation. Because it is so difficult to get a reservation, it is hard to plan a visit there around an ingredient of your choosing. We missed out on figs, morels, and other things we might have preferred to the apples we were served all evening when we finally got in. We had a marvelous evening there and the food, for the most part, was superb, but it was decidedly hard to eat apple dishes all evening with a high level of enthusiasm when we were forking over two hundred bucks a pop for the meal. Out first, and possibly only, opportunity to eat food from a chef we’ve long admired was perhaps demeaned by the proliferance of one certain taste in every dish.

We know novelty has its merits and tricks can be fun, but our palates are starting to suffer from the constant barrage of foodie trends, leaving us hungering for the old fashioned, the tried and true, and the solid. We are left in want of just simple good food, done well, alongside something to drink that matches and a server who knows the proper ratio between professional and friendly. Thank goodness there are still places around like Patina.

Wings of Desire

IMG_9557Skate, like rays, are part of the shark family, with pectoral fins shaped like wings. The meat on the wings is partly gelatinous incorporated into tender and light flesh, which when cooked produces ripples of soft succulence that could be easily overcooked but when isn’t, is divine. I discovered this for the first time while dining recently at Patina with the Cute Gardener before seeing an equally angelic performance by otherworldly pianist Martha Argerich. My introduction was impressive as Patina chefs seemed to braise the dish, infuse it even, with subtle overtones of celery cream, caper berry and brown butter emulsion that allowed it to lazily melt upon my tongue.

I was happy to discover a new undersea creature for my repertoire as I have been enjoying the experimentation with varieties other than my normal old salmon when making my weekly meals for the Cute Gardener and learning that exotic sounding fishes and ocean denizens are nothing to be afraid of. The trick with fishes, even more so than meats, is to know what technique to use to cook the more fragile varieties and the precise amount of time to do so. I was so enamored by the skate, that I visited Santa Monica Seafood shortly thereafter and purchased two fresh pairs. I promptly handed them over to the CG and asked him, politely, to go to town, assuring our meal would be great and that I could learn to cook the skate in the process by watching his mastery with unfamiliar food items in our kitchen.

Because the wings are so delicate, the first entrée made was a pan steamed version upon which the CG sprinkled an addictive, tangy and equally delicate dressing of minced hard-boiled eggs and dill mustard that was decidedly Austrian. The second introduced a veil of barely there breading, pan seared and intensified with capers to top a pile of freshly made arugula rigatoni. Both were genius. I was sad I had only bought enough for two meals. I honestly could have eaten a few more consecutive days’ worth. I have found my favorite fish of 2015 and am going to be on the lookout for its presence on menus to discover others ways it will inspire chefs and home cooks this year.

Finding Santa’s Graffiti Brings Gratitude While Ringing Out Culinary 2013

IMG_7822The other day while driving home from downtown Los Angeles after seeing the space shuttle at the California Science Center I noticed a curious piece of Santa’s graffiti alongside the road. A bulging heart of bougainvillea hanging over the industrial beige and grey, oft-chaotic traffic-laden freeway knocked me off my normal reverie for a moment reminding me to find beauty in the ordinary. It also made me realize that I live a bit of a charmed life. No, I don’t have lots of money or prestige or laundry lists of accolades but I have an amazing family, a bevy of quality friends and a boyfriend I love who I enjoy discovering the joys of eating with on a regular basis. In honor of the beginning of a New Year, one in which I am sure to open many more locked pieces of my ever-changing palate, I thought it would be nice to notate the highlights of 2013’s culinary landscapes for my readers in hopes of turning each of you on to a pleasurable piece of the collective pie.

So here are my favorite foodie moments of 2013 and of course, each comes with a huge recommendation to all who might wish to try them:

  • Being with best friends and loved ones at the Roosevelt Hotel dining on my 4th favorite Southern California burger from 25 Degrees in the afternoon with cocktails before sending them off to a John Williams concert at the Hollywood Bowl. (And for the record, this is my current favorite burger list: Plan Check, Comme Ca, Stout, the Cute Gardener’s burger made in our own home kitchen, 25 Degrees, Father’s Office).
  • Cheese gougeres at Bar Marmont (which also boasts my favorite gold leaf/butterfly appliquéd bathroom.)
  • A multi-course dinner at BierBeisl Beverly Hills where I met my all time favorite popover and was gifted an aperitif by the Austrian Chef Bernhard Mairinger who could not believe the CG and I actually ate our entire meal.
  • A decadent French lunch at Bistro Jeanty with its butter colored walls blanketing us as we ate snails, puff pastry soup and pate at noon followed by 48 hours of wine tastings in Napa.
  • Jazz at Café Cordiale in Sherman Oaks with my honey.
  • Discovering a mulita (cheese tortilla with corn rather than flour tortillas) and the thick, homemade masa tortilla courtesy of Don Cucos.
  • Putting another notch onto my “I love Pasadena” list with home-y pasta at Celestino, which also furthered my bucket list item of wanting to be adopted into the Drago family so I can go to holiday meals cooked by all the brothers.
  • Falling head over hills with Elia Aboumrads headcheese and other mutilated meats at Gorge, followed in very close second by Brendan Collins from Waterloo and City.
  • Coconut gelato pie at Gusto served by a waitress who was so thrilled that we ordered moscato so that she could open the bottle and sip from it herself. I lick this dessert in my sleep frequently – fluffy, cold, soft, refreshing and sweet oblivion found nowhere else.
  • Pressed cold, marinated shiitakes at Hinoki and the Bird.
  • Pig ears with green verde sauce after ice-skating and a trip to Penzey’s Spices at Hostaria del Piccolo.
  • My birthday dinner at the Kitchen Restaurant in Sacramento for various reasons of which highlights included: walking through blocks of ghetto in high heels to experience, one of the best beef wellingtons I have ever had, the CG getting me extra oysters, a once in a lifetime $200 dinner all just for me, being gifted a bag of green mint homemade pasta by the general manager and all of this taking place on the night before I foraged oranges from the state capitol.
  • Littlefork’s pickled watermelon radishes and marinated mushroom salad.
  • Cocktails and cured meats at PIGG, Chris Cosentino’s now defunct meat market, after leaving the over-hyped Alma still hungry.
  • Finally getting a chance to eat at Patina and loving every minute of the white tablecloth, old school classy, cheese cart for dessert fanciness.
  • Moroccan carrots and apricot affogato at Pizzeria Mozza while celebrating my move in with the CG – apropos since next door at Osteria Mozza is the place we had our very first date.
  • The Stromboli in the bottom of the breadbasket at Scarpetta, not to mention the rest of the food.
  • Trivia night at Tam O’Shanter even though the Welsh rarebit was weird. It was a one time only experience and I live for those – plus we won a round of drinks based on the CG’s knowledge of movie soundtracks.
  • Apple basteeya dessert at Terra in St. Helena.
  • Discovering the odd yet addictive Beard Papa cream puffs in Asian malls all over Southern California.

I also learned a few things. For instance, never try BBQ in California – wait until you go to Kansas City or North Carolina. Never think you’re going to find a decent French macaron anywhere but Paris. And the world is a lot bigger than VONS and Ralph’s – my groceries are now most solely procured at either the Chinese or Armenian supermarket.

I am ready for 2014 to bring it on and open my taste buds another few degrees on my lifelong journey through fantastic food.