What’s the Culinary Difference?
Written by: Tom House
As a food critic and restaurant consultant, I dine at a variety of restaurants every week. At each stop, I cannot help but notice just how different each establishment is from another, and I’m always amazed. Some are still stuck in the early 80′s, while some think they are on the cutting edge of culinary wizardry. A handful actually are ahead of the pack. I am not talking about food only; I’m talking about building design, table service, attitudes and overall procedures and operation. Many of these important factors are based on proper training, management experience and owner’s dedication and skill.
In my opinion, many menus today are just too simple and predictable. At the same time, there are countless customers who want their food choices to be easily disseminated. For someone who has been hanging around the trendiest restaurants a little too much (is this you?), a menu with French Onion Soup and House Salad with the infamous Honey Mustard, French, Ranch, or Thousand Island dressing choices would simply cause them aggravation. On the other hand, everything doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be Foie Gras, Filet Mignon; bacon wrapped Monkfish, Tuna Crudo with Smoked Tomato Water, or shaved white truffles over risotto, does it? There is a niche for every level of dining, and every type of restaurant on our versatile, voracious planet…that’s what makes the culinary world go around! That is “The Culinary Difference!”
So what can we customers do about these types of discrepancies and differences? Should we just continue to wade through the thousands of old and new restaurants wherever you may be reading this, always keeping an open mind and wallet? Should we continue to battle each and every server for clean silverware, and hope they will remove the dirty silverware too? Maybe they will even wipe / crumb our table while they are at it! Is this asking too much! Great restaurant table service is such a lost art. I’ve always said bad food goes much better with great service.
Even with all the fine dining I have been lucky enough to be a part of, I refuse to become a food snob. I can accept the shortcomings of questionable service, and even inferior food, but I will probably always have a taste for foods that are beyond the average diner’s culinary knowledge. What does this mean? First I am probably fatter than the average diner (this is supposed to be satirical). Second, I am now seeking out comestibles like giant seared Diver scallops, or thick slabs of wild (not farm raised) Ivory or King Salmon, preferably from the Kappa River region of the great northwest. I love Coho and Sockeye salmon too if I can get it. Pumpkin Swordfish is a favorite of mine…a delicacy if you ask me, and the easiest place to get it? Florida… where I live. A nice Flat Iron steak or thick lollipop pork chop might be nice as well, over some sweet potato mash, and a peach brown butter reduction. It is not that I don’t like Chicken Noodle Soup, Coquille St. Jacques or baked potatoes wrapped in tin foil; it is just that I have graduated from the 80′s, and prefer to keep moving forward in the diverse culinary environment that surrounds us all. (Now my readers are screaming at me, “Food Snob”, “Hypocrite”).
As a food critic, when I do find myself in a restaurant featuring simpler, more pedestrian fare, I adjust my tastes and expectations accordingly. I look at each dining experience as a separate experiment. I try to order something that to me is palatable…especially if I am doing a review. For example, Chicken Parmesan and Meatloaf can be prepared well in any restaurant, and sometimes even show up on some of today’s better restaurant’s menus. Remember though that trendy establishments are probably serving meatloaf just to make a certain point. Caesar Salad will never really go out of style, as well as a simple baked or broiled chicken main course, but this is the line of demarcation that many restaurants are afraid to cross!
Try asking your server to combine the two as a “Chicken Caesar” in some haughty “fine dining” establishment and the chef will usually freak out! Not only that, if they agree, you will be charged for both the salad and the chicken main course to boot! Enjoy! Why not add a brunoise of prosciutto ham, some pickled red onions and / or some calamata olives to that Caesar Salad for a change? Pizza is great, but there are more ways to make it than just with cheese and tomato…just ask Wolfgang Puck! No more Beef Stroganoff! Stop with the Chicken Ala King and the Baked Alaska already! If I see one more Beef Wellington, Filet of Beef Oscar or Broiled Seafood Platter on a menu, I will lose it. Want to talk “Old School”? There is nothing quite like a New York Strip Steak Au Poirve, right after some garlicky Escargot served in that brown clay apparatus, with the six holes in it for the snails and the sauce.
We are living in one of the most exciting times in culinary history, where nearly anything goes! Some restaurants are serving unusual items like Opah (Hawaiian Moonfish), Striped Sea Bass, Maine Skate Wing, Elk, Wild Boar, Skirt Steak, Tomahawk Strip Steaks and hand foraged Wild Organic Greens just to name a few! Chefs have gone from relative obscurity bordering on anonymity, to having their own television shows! All because of how well they can prepare food and entertain people! Just turn on The Food Network, watch Emeril, The Iron Chef, Bobby Flay, Barefoot Contessa, The Naked Chef (a totally stupid title), and many more. People sit around and read the Food Lover’s Companion, and tough guys everywhere are trading recipes with their girlfriends and Grandmothers. Even kids today are more sophisticated, eating sushi, salads, steaks and even vegetables!
So what is the culinary difference? Well, that’s what makes the world go around… different strokes for different folks. A wide variety of restaurants await us all, and it is still ok if you want to squirt ketchup on your filet mignon, or you just have to have your sauce on the side. Restaurants for the most part are in business for our dining and entertainment pleasure; so don’t feel like you are inconveniencing them when you need something special!
A little something extra: Many servers frown on finicky customers, but if the server is dumb enough to openly show his or her disapproval, they deserve what comes next. Perhaps it is time for a customer complaint to the manager, or maybe an smaller tip will serve as a reminder to this careless server.
Solve the conundrum for yourself! Choose the kind of places you like to eat at, and make sure you can afford it! Have Denny’s for breakfast, then hit Bloomingdale’s Caviar and Smoked Fish Bar, The Mermaid Bar at Neiman Marcus for lunch. Go to Wendy’s hamburger joint or Tavern on the Green in NYC or Valentino Cucina in Ft. Lauderdale for dinner…it doesn’t matter, as long as you are happy, healthy, and FULL! Help to keep this wonderful world of gastronomy spinning around, and enjoy your favorites…what’s the culinary difference? Only you know for sure!