Jaye’s marvelous experiment with flash fiction or fanfic over on her site, Must Love Fiction, made me think about the way I mentally rewrite stories in my head~ as in fanfic. I also realized I rewrite food.
Do you ever do this?
I find that as I’m in the process of eating at a restaurant, especially when I expect the food to be stellar and it’s not, I begin rewriting, or repainting, the flavor palate in my head… How would I rewrite this dish?
We went to highly praised (Yelp) restaurant for my husband’s birthday – all five of us. I lay in bed late that night rewriting the entire meal.
Here’s what we ordered:
Smoky bacon fritters with Asian dipping sauce.
Browned butter sundried tomato ricotta gnocchi.
Baked Cambozola in filo with Indian chutney, quince paste, mixed greens, and candied walnuts in a curry dressing.
Dungeness salad with avocado.
Slow cooked lamb shoulder with goat cheese served on a Meyer lemon tangine.
Duck confit with a smoked bacon chili potato cake and broccolini.
Tilapia over thyme mashed potatoes and soybeans.
Sturgeon served on a hot preserved lemon white bean salad with an herb relish.
Chocolate mint mud pie.
Lemon panna cotta.
Sounds great, right? Let me explain why it wasn’t and describe some of the changes I’d make. I’d love to hear your versions, too… your rewrites, or foodfic, of the above menu.
Smoky bacon fritters – What is was… Shooter-marble-sized, dense fried dough balls, each containing a tiny square of Canadian bacon accompanied by an Asian dipping sauce that tasted like dilute Hoisin sauce from a jar. Lacked any smoky quality. Reminiscent of Navajo Fry Bread but without the light, pillow-y texture and the tasty toppings.
What I wanted – an actual fritter, more along the lines of a light, smoky corn fritter – of reasonable size – made with some of the actual bacon fat, with crunchy bits of actual bacon scattered throughout. If a fritter is light and tasty there is no need for a dipping sauce.
The Gnocchi – This is the one dish I wouldn’t change much. The gnocchi were tender, the filling a fresh ricotta. They were more like steamed Chinese dumplings, delicate and light. My only suggestion? While the sundried tomato browned butter was very good, it needed a little something more. Why? Well… because gnocchi is simply potato dough, which is bland. Ricotta is a bland cheese, and the chef was stingy with the sun-dried tomato. The dish needed a little more pop. I would have upped the flavor factor with either more tomato, or say, a hint of chili, or perhaps a tiny taste of sage or thyme in the browned butter. Any of those additions would have made the gnocchi perfect.
The baked Cambozola, chutney, etc. – What it was… A disaster. This was a huge dinner plate filled primarily with mixed greens straight out of the mixed greens bag, heavily doused with a curry dressing. The dressing was so off-putting as to make the salad inedible.
(When I was a kid, my mother experimented with curry. Her experiment consisted of sauteed chicken which she slathered with sour cream into which she’d stirred at least four heaping tablespoons of canned curry powder. You know what I’m talking about – the traditional old fashioned what Americans used to think passed for curry curry powder. Traditional canned curry powder has its uses, but it is actually nauseating if used in a heavy handed way.)
That was this curry dressing– Curry powder straight out of the can mixed into buttermilk and poured in copious amounts over greens. One should never be served anything in a restaurant that makes one gag.
The Cambozola baked in filo and the quince paste looked nice, but the portions were so tiny only two of us got to taste it. Neither of the two was me. The golden raisin chutney, made with golden raisins and more curry powder, was inedible.
What I wanted… Definitely not this.
The Dungeness crab salad. What it was – a layered salad of sliced ripe avocados topped with a neatly sculpted pile of crab meat. It was pretty to look at and the crab was super fresh. But when you come right down to it, this was another dish with potential that lacked pop.
What I wanted – an acidic dressing to accompany the crab and avocado. The flavors of the crab and avocado were too mild, too similar, and too rich to stand on their own. I needed contrast.
(The day before I’d walked on Fisherman’s Wharf and bought a plastic cup filled with freshly shelled crab meat at one of the seafood counters. I squeezed a little lemon over the meat, added a dab of homemade cocktail sauce and, voila, heaven in a cup. See? It’s so very simple. A little contrast is all that’s needed to enhance the natural flavor.)
Main dishes – Let’s look at these two first, the lamb and the sturgeon. The dishes sound entirely different, right? Not so. Check out the accompanying ‘tangine‘ and ‘white bean salad‘. The two sides were exactly the same in every way but one. The tangine contained chick peas while the white bean salad contained white beans. Every other ingredient in these two accompaniments for the main dishes was identical- onions, celery root, garlic and, once again, a liberal salting of curry powder. Thus I assume the chef prepared a generic vegetable ragu and added canned beans as needed.
What it was – a slow cooked Greek-style lamb sprinkled with feta cheese accompanied by a watery curry-flavored tangine. Sturgeon, pan-seared, accompanied by a watery curry-flavored tangine (aka white bean salad).
What I wanted – a soaker-upper. Do you know what I mean? You have a long, slow- cooked juicy protein and you want something to soak up those lovely juices. As in mashed potatoes, an interesting rice, a bean puree.
What I wanted – Symbiosis. Slow cooked lamb, feta, roasted or smashed potatoes seasoned with olive oil and rosemary, quick grilled radicchio or another bitter green.
The sturgeon was a white fish served on a large white platter along with a white bean salad. Too much white.
What I wanted – Contrast. Sturgeon, lemon, a pink bean puree, a side of grilled or roasted fall/winter vegetables.
Let’s consider the next two main courses: Tilapia, a very bland fish which is best used to absorb flavors (and for those people who really don’t like fish) and duck confit.
What it was – A soup bowl filled near to the brim with mashed potatoes covered with an unidentifiable brown sauce or gravy, a sprinkling of Edamame, topped with a slab of undistinguished Tilapia. This was my daughter’s dish and after a bite or two she spent the remainder of the meal eating my meal – duck confit with a smoked bacon chili potato cake and broccolini.
What I wanted (for her) – An herb-crusted piece of Tilapia served over crispy roasted potatoes and shallots with a side of, goodness, I don’t know… something with flavor.
Duck confit usually has a warm, rich, comfy feel to it. This duck was dry, albeit tasty. My daughter grabbed most of it, which I didn’t mind. What I did mind was the potato pancake.
What I wanted – a rich, juicy traditional duck confit – prepared in such a way I simply couldn’t resist its lure, but I really ordered the dish because I wanted that potato pancake. The description sounded heavenly.
What I got – a soggy, room temperature, tasteless, greasy blob of fried mashed potatoes.
What I wanted – a crispy, smoky, bacon-y, spicy potato pancake.
I’ve rambled on so long I won’t bother with the two desserts, which were pretty bad, so bad we weren’t interested in lingering over coffee. Just paid our bill and left.
Fortunately, the company was wonderful and we all had a great time despite the food.
Earlier this afternoon we stopped at a bistro in Carmel – walked in right off the street, knew nothing about the place, but the pizzas coming out of the wood fire oven looked like they were to die for.
Six of us split three pizzas – a wild mushroom, a Merguez sausage and a Margherita – and my son and I split a Croque Madame. This sandwich was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. There was this one bite, one single bite, that was perfection – the buttery toasted bread, the delicate thin-sliced sweet ham, the piquant melted guyere and the crispy egg white with its runny orange yolk – I could not rewrite that bite if I tried. Quite the opposite – now I have to recreate it, try to make a version as close to the original as I can. The pizzas were wonderful too. We didn’t even leave crumbs.
This is food. Sometimes you make a reservation at an expensive restaurant and you get dreck. Sometimes you stumble across a bistro on a quiet street corner and you find perfection.