Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Restaurant Review

There are some particular categories I look for in food. I didn't sit down and create the categories, I just realized that a lot of what I hope for in a really good meal can be described this way. The categories are:

  1. New and extraordinary
  2. Comfort
  3. The Memorable Rediscovered
The new and extraordinary is pretty obvious. Eating something I've never eaten before that turns out really good satisfies me because deep in my heart of hearts I'm sure that there is some extraordinary culinary experience that I am missing. I guess this is the Casanova Complex, the inability to settle and establish a lasting relationship with a particular woman or cuisine for fear of missing something. Right now I am convinced that what I really need to do is travel Southeast Asia eating lots of food. Everything I read about Vietnamese and Indonesian cooking makes me sure that I am at risk of never having eaten something incredible.

Comfort food is the exact opposite. It's mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pie, spaghetti sauce out of the jar. Sometimes comfort food can be elevated to new heights. I brine my turkeys, for example, and I think it makes a good food even more of itself. It's still turkey but instead of being dry, a brined turkey is moist and flavorful. But I also like the spaghetti sauce out of a jar, poured over browned hamburger. I ate it growing up. It's one of Adam and Bob's favorite meals. It tastes familiar to me and it makes my guys happy. What's not to like?

The extraordinary rediscovered, well, that's a funny one. I've had lots of memorable foods. Many of them were restaurant or person specific. My sister makes great pecan pie. I miss the gelato of Florence. My cook when I lived in China would occasionally make noodles with sesame paste and cilantro. He didn't do it often because it's the equivalent of boiling a hotdog and slopping it on a bun. It's fast, simple. You do it for your kids. But it was wonderful and nothing I've had here compares to the way it tasted there. Maybe it was the local sesame paste. Maybe it was the hot sauce he put out for us to add. I don't know.

The extraordinary rediscovered is tricky, though. Because like reading a favorite book from when I was growing up, sometimes it isn't really extraordinary. When I was growing up, my mother worked. Sometimes she would call and have me put on dinner. My repetoire was very limited. I could roast a chicken, make pot roast (my really major cooking skill) and make tuna and noodle casserole. I still like roast chicken a lot. I haven't made a pot roast in years, but I've had them. They hold up quite well. But like my sister, I remember tuna and noodle casserole. She loved it. I was not so fond of canned tuna (I had a stomach virus once and tuna was the meal I had before it hit--and for years I couldn't look at canned tuna.) Both of us made the mistake of fixing a tuna casserole. They're really simple. A can of condensed mushroom soup, some cooked noodles, canned tuna and peas. If you are feeling festive, you can crumble potato chips on top. It's pretty much the same recipe as green bean casserole and I had that recently and still loved it.

How could we ever have eaten one? I mean, it was beyond awful.

That's the problem with memory.

Last night Bob and I went to Pad Thai. It's one of our favorite restaurants. In the last few years there has been a surge of Asian restaurants that are more than take-out places. Pad Thai is one of those. It has carpet and a lovely bar and a wait staff in white shirts and black pants that carry trays. It's very decent Thai, spicy, but not as spicy as they eat in Thailand, although like most Thai restaurants it is heavy on variations of curry and stir fry. But it has a few noodle dishes, including the ubiquitous pad thai and mee grob. But last night we went and they had a new menu. On the new menu were Vietnamese spring rolls.

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate, a Vietnamese friend made spring rolls for my boyfriend and me. He made spring rolls full of bean sprouts and shrimp and then wrapped them in rice paper and deep fried them. He deep fried without a thermometer, doing it by eye, which still impresses me. The resulting spring rolls were encased in a transparent cover that cracked under my teeth. They were incredible. Memorable. How he managed to do this in Athens, Ohio I have no idea. Where did he get the rice paper wrappers? It was more than twenty years ago so I'll never know.

So with trepidation and anticipation I ordered them, along with a bowl of pho. Pho is the Vietnamese national dish. A beef broth soup with noodles in which is floated slices of meat (in this case beef) and bean sprouts and basil. The broth is flavored with lemongrass, I think, and other good stuff.

The spring rolls came, with a sticky sweet tamarind sauce. They were coated in shell of crispy noodles instead of rice paper. They were small rather than large. There was no fish sauce for dipping sauce. But they were wonderful, and somehow, yes, although different in particulars, they were the thing I remembered. The skin cracked as I bit into them. And the pho was fragrant and tasty and wonderful. It was one of Those Meals. The ones where I have one of the three experiences and it was the rarest of the three, the Memorable Rediscovered. The server told me that the wait staff comes in and pre-orders the Vietnamese crab rolls so they can have them as part of their dinner.

Next time we go back to Pad Thai I hope to get past the appetizer and noodle section to see what else is new on the menu. But I may not.

9 Comments:

Blogger Erin O'Brien said...

I spent 4 years in Athens, Ohio, of which I remember very little.

Amazing to think they actually gave me a degree in electrical engineerin for my efforts. Hm.

I think I would have remembered the spring rolls, however.

December 27, 2005 3:50 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

It's like Woodstock. If you remember Athens, Ohio, you weren't really there. (Ohio University, for those of you playing along, is not the one with the football team. That's Ohio State. Ohio University, located in Athens, is in the middle of no where. When I was there, there was no television except in the dorm lounge, because the Appalachian Mts cut off television reception and the dorms couldn't handle cable. There was one small bowling alley, one movie theater with four screens, and 92 bars. Given the lack of entertainment, many of us drank and did drugs. A few of us played dungeons & dragons, but while we were playing, we also drank and did drugs.)

(Okay, not too much drugs. It's hard to play D&D stoned.)

December 27, 2005 8:43 PM  
Blogger SquidgePa said...

Oh great.

Eleven twenty-five at night, and I want some pho. (I've never had pho, but now I need some. With lime and chilis in it.)

December 27, 2005 11:28 PM  
Anonymous Walt said...

The thing about Woodstock is:
(1) If you were there, whether you remember it or not, you weren't in Woodstock, but about (I think) 60 miles away. Our Woodstock T-shirt vendors sell a nice one, with a map of Ulster County, an arrow pointing to Woodstock labeled "you are here" and an arrow pointing a long way away labeled "festival was there".

(2) (OK; some things about Woodstock are...) It does not have a good Thai, nor a good Indonesian restaurant. Indian, and Mexican, OK, but not Thai or Indonesian.

Time to dig into my cook books again, I guess.

December 28, 2005 8:23 AM  
Anonymous Walt said...

By the way, our favorite Vietnamese spring rolls are the ones usually called "fresh spring rolls": wrapped in rice paper, but not fried.

December 28, 2005 10:23 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Mmmmm. Pho. Mmmmmm.

December 29, 2005 7:58 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I just left Thailand, got back around ten hours ago, and had lots of Thai while I was there. The spring rolls were the best as ever, better than any asian country's spring rolls, and the curry delicious and spiced to a particular flavor, from the fruity to the hot spice and nothing else flavor. They know how to make curry there. But to tell the truth, while I ate so much Thai while in Thailand, I also went to Burger Kinger, which I hadn't had in two years, and also to a restaurant on Khao San road which specialized in western foods, and ordered grilled cheese with ham, and oh, my dear, how simple it all seems, and how heavenly it felt to feel home again, if only for the few moments that it filled my mouth.

December 31, 2005 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Meghan McCarron said...

I had the most incredible experience of re-discovered food this weekend. I spent about two months in Beijing a few years ago and haven't had food anything like it since. I went to NYC for new years to stay w/ lots and lots of college friends, and we decided to have dinner in Chinatown. The nostalgia factor was already super-high (first time in NY since April, first time around college friends in 6 months) and when I bit into a "steamed bun" dim sum it all clicked. I thought to myself, yes. Here is the thing I have been missing. It still exists.

PS i am so jealous you had a chef in china.

January 03, 2006 3:37 PM  
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