Tuesday October 18, 2011
After one particularly insufferable, exorbitantly expensive meal, a fed up Frank Bruni asserts that our culture's "food madness" has become "food psychosis" in this New York Times op-ed. The former NYT head dining critic reached a breaking point following an 11-course meal in which each course was paired with a different flavored water -- a wordy flashcard accompanied each dish as well. So the question is: has our dining-obsessed culture gone off the deep end? Or is Mr. Bruni's perspective perhaps colored by the fact that his occupation frequently exposes him to the worst offenders? I can't help but agree with him to an extent that the dining experience has become too precious and that at times, "we've tumbled far, far down the organic rabbit hole."
I recently waited an hour for a cocktail at a speakeasy-style cocktail bar/restaurant, where they make all the mixers in house and they smash, muddle, strain, ignite and molest the hell out of every artisanal ingredient. When inquiring about my drink (at the 30 and 45 minute marks), I was told by multiple suspender-clad servers, "We take a little more care with our cocktails, so naturally it's going to take a little bit longer than at most places." Clearly there was a mix-up in the line of communication, which happens at restaurants all the time. I have no issue with this, but being shrugged off with the same long-winded spiel was a bit much. When a restaurant favors lofty production and paragraph length descriptions for entrees, they often lose track of some very basic principles of hospitality and competence.
It's hard to argue with Mr. Bruni's exasperation, as high production restaurants get more ridiculous, foodies more obsessive and farm-to-table menus more self-congratulatory, but I find there are also a few encouraging trends that seem to have their roots in real food. Burgers, pizza and tacos are among the most talked about foodstuffs on the internet. Barbecue restaurants outside the South, though seemingly more trendy than legitimate at first, are starting to finally get it -- realizing that it's about the smoke, not having 10 kinds of sauce and cheeky side items. The food truck movement has created a resurgence in street food. Sure, it's occasionally silly -- $8 for a grilled cheese is steep -- but cheesesteaks, burgers, tacos and noodles are all unpretentious foods at heart. It just makes more sense to pay street prices rather than sit down for "upscale pub food" or "contemporary Mexican" with a $12 bowl of guacamole. Our food obsessed nation should probably get a grip and just enjoy a meal without taking pictures of it (I'm 100% guilty of this), but at least there are positive signs indicating our food fixation often rewards purveyors of real, down-to-earth food.
(Sadly, this is not a farfetched scenario for those afflicted with food psychosis)