Sometimes Formica beats white tablecloths
How to Cook Everything: What makes a restaurant work? For one thing, personalization, a place with a working chef, not a cookie-cutter spinoff or a circus. Recipe: Miso-Cured Vegetables
The New York Times
The last time I ate in a four-star white-tablecloth restaurant, I was frustrated and unhappy. (Bear with me; I'm not asking for sympathy.)
This wasn't an isolated incident: It simply isn't what I want anymore. It's become painful, not in the visiting-the-dentist sense, but in the "you have to go to synagogue; it's Yom Kippur" sense, a long, drawn-out affair in which even the obviously beautiful and enjoyable parts — the $10,000-a-week flower arrangements, the custom glassware and china and sometimes even the carefully prepared if almost always overly subtle (to my taste) food — were overwhelmed by the sheer tedium.
These are temples of ceremony, with (normally absent) chefs as priests; they're circuses without clowns or trapezes.
Start with the obligatory greeting. Even done well, it can feel white-tooth phony; done badly, you feel slighted. Move on to the choices of water. Really? We have to talk about that?
The drink order. The presentation of the menus and then the wine list. The visit of the wine guy, if you appear as if you'll open your wallet even further. The discussion of the menu. The waiting to order. The opening of the wine, the flourish, the tasting, the nod, the waiting for the wine guy to leave.
The waiting for the amuse-bouches, which were originally meant to keep you happy while you were waiting for those first few things to happen and now usually happen long after you've already become grumpy because, after all, it's a restaurant and you're hungry. (Whatever happened to a few pieces of salami and some olives sitting on the table, or a couple of pickles, even?)
Three hours later, there is no sense of wonder or excitement or even an attack on your hunger; your appetite simply diminishes and then gives up. Nor is there a single conversation between you and your companion(s) that is left uninterrupted for more than five minutes. All this for $200.
There are, I think, better entertainments. If the food isn't mind-blowing, what's the point?
Shame on me, I know, for failing to enjoy something so luxurious. But this isn't the Grand Canyon; unless each time somehow surpasses the time before, it loses its luster.
It's not just white-tablecloth restaurants, either. There is the general unpleasantness of the uber-hip places that I had once enjoyed and that, like marijuana, I eventually pretended to. The standing in line, the loud music and the impossibility of conversation, the intentionally horrible seats and (I'm sorry to say, but this is my experience) the declining quality of the food. I have an alternative: I can cook. Most times I choose to do so.
What does impress? What do I really like? A place that does something well and doesn't mess with it. A place where I might get a bowl of pasta with pesto or, God forbid, a steak frites or a hot ginger-laced stir-fry over real rice at a price that doesn't make me laugh. A place that will make me think I didn't waste my time leaving the house.
It's about expectations and consistency. Whatever I expect from a four-star restaurant has become unachievable. When it was all new, 30 or 40 years ago, when I first ate in France and Italy, or at the late Jean-Louis Palladin's in the Watergate or at Lafayette when Jean-Georges Vongerichten first came to New York, I couldn't believe what was happening. OK, I'm jaded. No sympathy for that, of course; I get that. But I know I'm not alone.
The question is, what remains? What works in a restaurant? Obviously if the food isn't delicious, everything else will just seem annoying, and that happens quite a lot.
But it takes more. Personalization helps: I recently visited a Madrid restaurant called La Tasquitas de Enfrente. The food was terrific, but equally impressive was that the chef took three to five minutes to get each table's order, even at the tables of first-timers. Obviously this meant he was spending less time on the line. But he was coaching people, trying to figure out what they might like, engaging. He gave everyone a sense of "this is your place"-ness. It was about what might please you, engage you, make you come back, of course. He was trying to make it your place.
I want "my" place, don't you? A place with a working chef, not a cookie-cutter spinoff and certainly not a circus. A place where the food is at least as good as what I can do at home and preferably better, and consistently so; one that's pleasant; one where I'm vaguely known as a repeat customer but not falsely fawned over; one where I can pay without thinking about what that chunk of money might have gone to instead.
My place right now is a Japanese hole in the wall. (I'm keeping it that way by not naming it. Sorry.) There's no celebrity chef, no publicity, no hipness other than that exuded by the young servers. It couldn't be less trendy and to prove it, I'll tell you that: a) it's in midtown, and b) it's populated almost exclusively by expat and visiting Japanese. I suspect it's in a Japanese guidebook to New York.
How did I find it? It's across the street from the back door of what was once my building. It's ugly: The tables are Formica, with standard cafe chairs; the napkins are paper; and the cash register, which is at the back of the kitchen, is wrapped in plastic to keep the grease off the keys.
But I've never taken or sent anyone there who didn't leave happy. The food is quite good (I can't cook it nearly so well), although you wouldn't call it mind-blowing. The chef has not changed in the six years since I started going there, and he makes a monstrous vat of what I think is pork-bone stock every day (I don't ask questions; I just want to enjoy). Its texture glazes, and its flavor pervades many of the dishes. There is wonderful ramen.
There are even better rice dishes, really glistening bowls of sweet short-grain rice piled high with curry sauce (not my thing) or fried pork (better) or chop suey (a stir-fry of about 30 little bits of things, from cabbage to squid to shiitakes, all with thickened pork broth), which is pretty much what I order. The gyoza are better than average, and there's a dish of chicken livers and leeks that's quite nice. There is a great little sake list, so that at night you can linger a little while — maybe an hour, total, as opposed to the 30 minutes it takes to eat lunch — and do some giggling.
The servers know me as the non-Japanese guy who comes in often and doesn't like to sit in the front; they say hello and send me to the back. The chef and cooks nod. They cook their fine food. The servers bring it. I eat it. A server comes and refills the water glass; she might ask if I want more sake. (They never ask how things "are tasting.")
Eventually I pay the bill, without regret ($29 for two the other day, and that was four dishes), and I go home happy, satisfied and full.
What more do you want, really?
Time: 1 to 2 days
Yield: 4 servings
1 pound turnips, carrots, eggplant, zucchini or a mixture (or use radish, jicama, celery, kohlrabi or summer squash)
2 cups, at least, any type of miso
1. Peel the vegetables and cut them into slices ¼-inch thick or thinner. (A mandoline is perfect for this.)
2. Spread the miso in a bowl, an inch or two deep, and bury the vegetable slices in the miso. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature. After 24 hours, fish out one of the slices, rinse it and sample it; depending on the vegetable and the thickness of the slice, it may require another 24 hours.
3. To serve, rinse the slices and cut them into small pieces. Refrigerate the miso, which may be reused several times to make pickles, or for any other recipe requiring it. The pickles keep for a few days, but they're best right away.