Monday, December 17, 2012

The Unbidden Price Of 'Knowing Better'"

Snobbery Alert:  The following post may leave an unpleasant aftertaste due to intuited undertones of latent snobbery.  Let it be known that this soupcon of superiority is an inextricably unfortunate and totally unintended consequence of my writing about the subject in question, acknowledging that were I a better writer, you would not even know it was in there.  

My apologies ahead of time for any inadvertent offense.  I mean it.

Remember Eliza Doolittle from the play Pygmalion or the musical derived from the play My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle being a working class girl with working class habits, who was elevated in language and behavior, the resultant transformation making her subsequently unfit to return to her earlier condition?

That’s exactly what happened to me.  Only with restaurant food.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles – not that Toronto was a culinary wasteland, the waffles at Fran’s were not to be believed; ditto the Noshery’s “Kishka-a-la-Tony” and the chocolate cream pie at Bassell’s – anyway, when I first hit L.A., there were certain restaurants I patronized where the cuisine was, to my palate, absolutely First Class.

I recall one steak restaurant which dazzled my taste buds by my New York strip doused in teriyaki sauce which I had never tasted before, and a dining institution which, with the exception of the Town and Country, a Toronto all-you-can-eat” restaurant, I had never experienced before, and never anywhere in such opulence, that institution being the “Salad Bar.” 

Imagine, piling your plate high with all the jicama you could possibly consume.  And by the way, I had never tasted jicama before either.

There were a number of notable eateries of that standard.  I recall a seaside fish restaurant I also rated “Top-Of-The-Line.”  How could it not be?  We had an ocean right next door; the seafood just walked up the beach and got cooked.  A fortuitous outcome for diners, though unfortunate for the watery denizens themselves.

GRILLING SWORDFISH:  I just came up to use the phone.

Years passed.  Precisely, three of them.  I run into Dr. M.  We marry.  And a year-minus-a-day later, we are blessed with the arrival of our magnificent daughter, Anna.

From that point on, between the two of them, as with Eliza Doolittle’s “haich”- dropping dialect, my entire eating apparatus was radically and irreversibly transformed.

Call it a “Gustatorial Makeover.”  Over the proceeding years, I was entirely re-educated, trained by acknowledged experts to distinguish the merely “serviceable” meal from the “truly outstanding.”  I asked Anna, for this blog post, to explain to me the difference between great food and what I had hitherto considered great food, but, I was taught to realize, was merely “okay.”

She mentioned the fresh ingredients, the subtle seasonings, an original, perhaps groundbreaking, blending of flavors.  This combination, and undoubtedly others I am unqualified to talk about, produce a culinary result that makes your taste-sensitive mouth parts and the area of your brain connected to them dance and sing, sending you racing into the kitchen to hug the chef.

Let me stop here to assure you that I am not talking – or at least not just talking –  about prohibitively upscale restaurants with their not provided “If you have to ask, then you can’t afford it” prices.  We have been known, on special occasions, to splurge on some “multi-starred” hot spot, only to, surprisingly frequently, find them unworthy of their reputations.  Or their exorbitance.

On the other hand, I regularly frequent a reasonably-priced diner serving incomparable oatmeal, and another who’s mango-macadamia pancakes alone make life entirely worth living.  Yet another budget-friendly bistro serves the most moist and flavorful chickenburger in Los Angeles. 

Proving price is not necessarily the issue, there are a handful of dining spots offering coffee with the tantalizing aroma of the country the beans were grown in, while other restaurants – for virtually the same price – dish out a concoction that tastes like boiling water with a coffee-flavored crayon melted in it.

The common denominator, it seems to me, is not the comparative opulence, but the difference between the restaurants that care and restaurants that think they care but if they ate at the restaurants that really care would realize that they need to care more. 

Of course, this entire what-I’m-talking-about-here could all merely be subjective, a situation where the restaurant you swear by, I find just ordinary, and equally and most undeniably vice versa.  I retain in my mind a culinary ideal, but that could be entirely imagined, a fabricated illusion I invented to make myself feel superior. 

Let me qualify that.  I didn’t invent it.  If it was invented at all – in contrast to being actually the case – this qualitative differentiation was arrived at by by others, and drummed relentlessly into my brain place.  And subsequently, my culinary receptors.

From a practical standpoint, none of this really matters.  What matters is there are now a frustratingly few restaurants that rise to standard of quality I’ve been tutored to appreciate.  The rest are “good enough”, but I invariably pay the bill with the dogged by the nagging feeling that what I had ordered turned out to be disappointingly not great. 

I never used to feel that way.  Not to say that I was a major consumer of fast food.  I was not, an inner voice telling me insistently to steer clear.  (The one exception being Toronto’s first flame-broiled drive-through hamburger outlet called The Red Barn, whose freshly made burgers sold for nineteen cents a pop.  I had a joke once, “I don’t know what my hamburger had in it, but when I walked by a mounted policeman, his horse started to cry.”)

The question comes down to evaluating the benefits of this significant trade-off.  I have undoubtedly developed a more educated palate, but, as a consequence, I have a considerably diminished number of dining options that do not leave me continually disappointed.

Truth be told, I am not entirely certain it’s worth it.


Jon88 said...

Sidebar, relating to a previous post: Another example of the middle ground between broadcast and premium cable over the weekend, as Lifetime premiered "Merry In-Laws," featuring clumsy, expositional dialogue, a character who's supposed to be a scientist referring to Stephen "Hawkings," and, in a kitchen scene, crew members visible in a reflection on the shiny refrigerator. (Last time I'll mention any of this.)

Mac said...

It's true the palate does develop refined taste, but it's also true that great food isn't always found in expensive restaurants. There are markets in Italy that sell better food than you'll get in restaurants, because the ingredients are often fresher.