The Ends Justify the MeansApril 22, 2011
Civil ActionsMay 1, 2011
It’s a truism that traveling teaches you as much about home as it does about the destinations you visit, but sometimes you don’t even have to go anywhere to see your own world anew. Recently, a friend of mine, who is a high-profile chef in Spain, visited New York. In advance of his trip, I gave him advice about new and classic places to eat, and we made plans to have dinner on the last night of his stay. Given his enormous success at a very high level within the culinary world, he is friendly with a fair number of successful food professionals here who gave him their own restaurant recommendations as well, and he booked his itinerary with these suggestions in mind.
During his visit, I knew he’d be dining at some of the highest-end places in town, so I wanted him to experience something different for our meal. We ate at one of my favorite low-key joints, Yakitori Totto, a small izakaya-style eatery tucked away on the second floor of a Midtown building. I ordered us all of the dishes I love most: a salad of mixed greens, tiny silver fish, and cream cheese, with a dressing that features barely cooked egg yolk; their version of sweet-spicy fried chicken (which is not spicy, but IS finger-lickin’ good); spicy raw octopus (which actually IS spicy, thanks to a healthy dose of wasabi); cucumber pickle; steamed rice-and-chicken dumplings; and of course, an assortment of the skewers that earn the restaurant its yakitori name. Dessert was a panna cotta–like custard made with apricot kernel, as well as a mochi-enrobed green tea–ice cream. And for me, no visit would be complete without at least one shochu drink with fresh grapefruit juice, which you squeeze and pour in yourself. There’s something wonderful about juicing fresh citrus and inhaling the heady scent it gives off. Frankly, it’s not right how much I love grapefruit.
During the course of dinner, I asked my friend about his dining experiences that week, and his brutally honest responses helped me see my own city’s food scene through an outsider’s eyes—while also being reminded of the culinary prejudices of Spaniards. (Disclaimer: Every culture has its culinary prejudices, so this is not a knock on Spaniards; I just happen to be more familiar with their biases than those of other nationalities.)
He had sharp criticisms about some of the restaurants, several of which have been showered with so much praise from American critics that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that their chefs were receiving regular foot massages from said writers. Having eaten at many of the best high-end places in Spain, I understood where he was coming from, and I agreed with many (though not all) of his critiques. Overall, he really enjoyed the meal at Yakitori Totto, and I know he was being sincere, because he had no problem pointing out the few things he didn’t like. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned about chefs, it’s that they don’t pull their punches when it comes to expressing their opinions about food.) What he most appreciated was the fact that the restaurant was true to its roots, instead of trying to be something it was not.
In the course of our discussion, I realized that most of the restaurants I adore are either mid-level places or (more commonly) dive-y region-specific eateries that are low on ambiance, but high on flavor. These places are not always ideal for entertaining European visitors, because often we’re talking about people that are used to lingering in dining rooms that are (at the very least) semi-attractive and spacious, nursing bottles of wine for hours while being cosseted by waiters. (There is absolutely no cosseting going on at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, where your appetizer might be served after your entree, because that’s when the kitchen finished making it.) But I am also reluctant to make these same visitors endure the extreme trappings of American “modernist” cuisine, unless it’s being done unbelievably well, which (save for a handful of wonderful exceptions) is sadly not the case.
As I explained to him, our country’s burgeoning food culture—the embrace of seasonal, local ingredients, and authentic versions of various world cuisines—is a relatively new thing, two or three decades old at most. (In the past, even when people knew how to execute authentic regional recipes, it was nearly impossible to get many of the right ingredients—which is no longer a problem in the Internet age.) A country like Spain has had a traditional local cuisine going back centuries, and that history gives it a foundation upon which it can erect all manner of gastronomic experiments.
My piano teacher used to tell me that before she’d teach me jazz, I needed to master classical music. “Once you understand Chopin, Bach, and Mendelssohn,” she’d say, “THEN you can try to play in the style of Duke Ellington or Dave Brubeck.” The same concept applies to cuisine. Once our culinary world attains a consistent (and pervasive) level of quality—which it’s definitely in the process of doing—then we can be inventive in a more effective and coherent manner, instead of creating dishes just for the sake of showing off our technical wizardry or new kitchen toys.
Rather than be bummed by this realization, it gives me great hope, especially when I think of how far our food culture has come in such a short amount of time. And in the interim, I’ll enjoy my meals at places like Yakitori Totto.