Farewell, Gastro-Porn

by Alexander Cockburn, April 18, 2012

This has been a bad year for grand restaurants in the three- to four-star range and the clang of their closing doors raises the question — is the whole gastro-frenzy that stirred into life in the mid-1970s finally lurching towards closure? Goodbye Iron Chefs, sayonara “molecular gastronomy” in the style of Ferran Adria, farewell those overcooked paragraphs of fine restaurant writing that became the hottest reading in the New York Times.

On March 7 the high society eatery La Côte Basque (used as a chapter heading in habitué Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers ) closed its doors. This last Wednesday the New York Times mourned at length the Chicago restaurant Charlie Trotter’s, slated for extinction in August. According to the Times, Trotter’s “had a huge and lasting impact on Chicago’s culinary landscape, if not the nation’s.”

Okay, a couple of big time restaurants bite the dust in the great recession. So?

For several years one of the New York Times’ most avidly read writers was Sam Sifton. Sifton approached his job con amore. Not from him any cavils about price, let alone high-end gastro flim flam. His prose had the confident lilt of a man writing for Wall Streeters for whom a couple of thousand dollars dropped on a dinner for four was absolutely no problem, and indeed almost an emblem of parsimony.

In early October last year he published an emotional eulogy to Per Se, “the best restaurant in New York City,” located in the Time-Life building at Lincoln Center. A photo disclosed no less than six Per Se employees mustered round a dish being plated for some expectant customer.

“Per Se’s signature starter course is Oysters and Pearls,” wrote Sifton. “It combines a sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters (small, marble-shaped, from Duxbury, south of Boston, fantastic) and a fat clump of sturgeon caviar from Northern California. These arrive in a bowl of the finest porcelain from Limoges. Paired with a glass of golden semillon from Elderton, they make a fine argument for the metaphor of transubstantiation.”

After this rather laconic reference to the Eucharist, an editorial note disclosed that this was Sifton’s last review. I’ve no idea whether Sifton’s liver couldn’t take the pace any more (“I have eaten in restaurants five or more nights a week for the last two years”) or whether the Times simply felt things were getting a little out of hand, and the paper was becoming a stand-in for Gourmet magazine. Either way it seemed we’d got to the end of an era. The day it announced the closing of Charlie Trotter’s, an article counseled Times readers on how to use leftovers.

The readers seemed to be getting testy too, though they are by nature on food sites, saving for the post mortem all the things they didn’t dare tell the waiter. Oliver Gardener from Florida wrote: “Ate there one time in 2006. Was awful. Paid $400 for a bottle of wine that retailed for $60. Ridiculous mark up. A couple of the courses were very good, but each consisted of about two bites of food. It was over before you knew it. Attitude like I’ve never seen. Snooty snooty snooty. Would not return. Better meal, by far, at Momofuku Noodle Shop.”

When I first came to New York in 1972 the high end gastro-porn industry was barely in motion. If you wanted to have a fancy French meal, you went to Lutece, which closed down in 2004. Domestic kitchens were wreathed in smoke from burned offerings to Julia Child. Fiery Hunan cooking was all the rage, followed by a pallid style of cooking known as cuisine minceur, where tasteful dollops of steamed chard held sway.

Then, in 1975, Craig Claiborne reported on the front page of the New York Times that he and Pierre Franey had blown $4,000 on a 31-course, nine-wine dinner at Chez Denis in Paris, a feast offered by American Express at a charity auction.

In those post-Vietnam days, columnists kept whole stables of moral high horses pawing the ground in their stalls. Espying the $4,000 binge, Harriet Van Horne stabbed furiously at her typewriter: “This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends an average American’s sense of decency. It seems wrong, morally, esthetically and in every other way.” Above the column I remember an editor ran the head ‘Edunt et Vomant’ (they eat and they vomit).

People were shocked but Claiborne had put down a marker. Thirty years later, you didn’t need to eat your way through 31 courses to run up a tab of $4,000. The wine alone could cost that. These days several restaurants offer food clad in gold. New York’s Serendipity, for example, advertises “the Golden Opulence Sundae, a chocolate sundae covered in 23-karat gold leaf, suffused with gold dragets, and served with an 18-karat gold spoon that diners can keep.” The price? $1,000. (Don’t eat the spoon. Any gold of less than 23 karats may contain other, possibly harmful, metals.)

Mannerism began to creep onto the food pages. In 2010 bugs were suddenly all the rage. “A five-course Mexican feast at the Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg last Saturday night [was] engineered to introduce New Yorkers to the succulent wonders of edible insects,” the New York Times reported. “The first couple of courses [offered] yucca frites dotted with mealworms, a smoked corn custard sprinkled with crispy moth larvae… at some point during dinner a bowl of squirming wax moth larvae was passed around.”

Good restaurants are still cooking excellent food. Restaurants establishing direct relationships with small farm suppliers is surely a good thing, though often the Menu in such places begins to look like a gazetteer, and one does ask oneself, is the “Niman ranch” really all that it claims to be? Overall the standard, domestic as well as professional, of American cuisine has never been higher. It’s just that one doesn’t pick up that crackle of excitement, that rush to get a table at that new place down the block.

Also, there have been unpleasing stories of the darker side of the profession, with the owners or managers of restaurants, such as Mario Battali stealing the tip income of their miserably underpaid waiters. In a recent story in The Guardian by Moira Herbst three Manhattan bartenders accuse the owners of downtown wine/tapas spots Bar Veloce and Bar Carrera of skimming up to 30% of their tips, along with failing to pay proper wages and overtime.

“Earlier this month, celebrity chef Mario Batali and his business partner agreed to pay $5.25 million to settle claims that their restaurants including downtown Manhattan’s Babbo and Casa Mono illegally nabbed a portion of servers’ and other staffers’ tips. Del Posto, another Batali restaurant, faces a separate lawsuit in New York alleging employees were underpaid.

“Other New York City eateries sued for similar allegations include Keith McNally’s Pastis and Balthazar, which settled for $1.48 million; BLT restaurants, which settled for $925,000; and Nobu, which settled for $2.5 million.”

Whenever possible, pay the tip in cash.

Lists of America’s best restaurants these days have a somewhat haphazard look, which may be no bad thing. One site, The Daily Meal, lists Le Bernardin in New York as its top pick. Le Bernardin is indeed a very fine restaurant, but scarcely evidence of exciting novelty. My brother Andrew and I went there in the early 1980s, pockets stuffed with expense money from House and Garden with which to track down America’s best of that era. We had plates of flaked salt cod followed by oxtail stew — just about the simplest, cheapest ingredients money could buy. Both were unbeatable, with faddism kept at bay by Italian cooking at its simple best.

Tumbril Time!

A tumbril (n.) a dung cart used for carrying manure, now associated with the transport of prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

Fouquier-Tinville is preparing for a major trial, having announced the arrest and incarceration in the Conciergerie of “telling truth to power” — a hugely annoying phrase, simultaneously exaggerating the courage required to tell the truth and underestimating power’s own resourcefulness in adjusting truth to its own requirements. As Fouquier-Tinville tartly remarked, is the implication that the Revolutionary Tribunal does not want to know the truth? As Louis Patrick writes from Memphis:

“Telling truth to power. What a ridiculous joke that has always been. What is power if not the ability to create the truth by which the rest of us must live? The elite have never been Christ-like fools wandering blindly in a moral wilderness, waiting only to be awakened by the enlightened. They are predators. Murder and lies are mother’s milk.”

And from Missy Beatie these little ones to toss into Fouquier-Tinville’s intray: kind of, sort of, like sort of, and kind of, kinda, sorta. Last week there were calls for a couple of these to take the final ride. The people’s vigilance has clearly been aroused.

Not True!

My Nation colleague Richard Kim is upset by a description in a recent article in CounterPunch, to the effect that

“the Nation is heavily hyping MoveOn’s 99 Spring, [and this is] made clear by the cover of its April 2, 2012 edition, which is a special issue dedicated to the cause.” Richard writes: “The April 2 issue, which I edited, is called the Occupy Spring (NOT the 99% spring). In the 14 articles about Occupy there are only TWO sentences in total about the 99% Spring and both of them are in passing. The idea that the entire issue is dedicated to pushing MoveOn’s 99% Spring is ludicrous — as anyone who even skimmed the issue can see.”

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com

One Response to Farewell, Gastro-Porn

  1. Chuck Reply

    April 19, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    Four stars? I must be behind the times. Back in the old days, the Michelin scale topped out at three stars (at least two stars beyond our reach, and probably three).

    No matter how many stars it does or doesn’t have, Table 128 at the Boonville Hotel is a dining treasure. We ate there twice and had the two best meals of our past five years dining experience. I only say “our past five years” because I can’t recall much before that. Everything we had was perfection in preparation, presentation, and proportion. We really liked that Table 128 stays within itself and doesn’t over-reach in trying to emulate the flourishes so beloved of starred restaurants. Just honest, perfectly prepared and presented food in a comfortable environment, at a fair price.

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