Restaurant As Amusement Park
(I posted this on Eat Our Brains this morning, got on an airplane, flew to LA, and when I checked Eat Our Brains it was not functioning. So it a fit of post airport frenzy--I mean, I went to the trouble of posting this morning before I left for LA so I would make my Wednesday deadline even though I was on the road--I am posting it here as well.)
There’s a commercial for a service that allegedly protects against identity theft. In it a guy sings about why he is wearing a pirate costume serving tourists in a restaurant. (It’s because he was bankrupted when his identity was stolen.) When I think of restaurants that set out to entertain, that’s the first image that comes to mind. The theme restaurant. Mariachi guys serenading over bad fajitas. Chuck E Cheese, where your kids will be distracted enough you might get a moment to just sit and watch them spend your money on games, or it’s adult incarnation, Damon’s, where you can play a quiz using the electronic quiz thingy on your table and play, not only against the other geniuses in your particular restaurant, but against people all over the country eating at Damon’s and ignoring their food just like you are. And although Damon’s food is not horrible, it isn’t exactly a crime to ignore it, either.
There’s been a kind of an upsurge of food as fun for people who might even like to eat. Probably the bottom feeder of this is The Melting Pot, which is fondue. Fondue is a license to officially play with your food. But it isn’t particularly great food. I mean, any time you let the customers cook for themselves, the point is really not cooking technique. I like fondue, but mostly I like it sitting around with friends, getting drunk and threatening each other with the little forks—in other words, I like fondue the way it was done in the fifties, when everyone got a fondue set as a wedding present. The idea of opening a restaurant where I let non-professionals anywhere near hot oil for cooking seems rather scary to me.
My kid, Adam, is a meat eater. He, like me, would really like to be a vegetarian. But the fact is, if we were vegetarians, we’d have to give up meat. I’ve tried. I’ve failed. Now I cook with duck fat and constrain myself to a kind of low level sniping at vegetarians who I resent because I consider them morally superior to me. Texas is a meat lovers paradise and Adam is a fan of BBQ. But I found a restaurant recently that pretty much nailed the food as amusement thing, the Brazilian Steakhouse. I’ve actually eaten steak in Brazil and it’s very good. Brazil happens to be geographically sitting next to Argentina, where cattle is king. But when I was in Brazil, I never ate at anything like Fogo de Chao. First of all, the entire wait staff is wearing gaucho attire—shirts, short pants, black shiny gaucho boots. I said to Adam that at least they weren’t wearing pirate costumes and he gave me a withering glance. He was right, this wasn’t exactly an improvement.
There are Brazilian gauchos, but gauchos and gaucho cuisine—beef roasted over a fire and a drink called mate—are really Argentinian. I don’t know why Fogo de Chao isn’t an Argentinian steakhouse. But I am quibbling. And Brazil is a big country with a number of different cuisines, including Bahian—which figures big in Jorge Amado’s luscious novel, Dona Flora and Her Two Husbands. Maybe in the south, where the jungle gives way pampas, there are Brazilian steakhouses.
The menu is meat. Fifteen kinds of meat. You are seated. They take your drink order (and they have an extensive wine list which, since the majority of the meat is beef, is probably better on reds than whites.) You go to the salad bar which has, in addition to lettuce and cucumber and tomatoes and stuff, thin slices of prosciutto type ham, cold asparagus, and fresh mozzarella balls. When you’ve had your salad, you have a little coaster sized cardboard sign on your table. It is red on one side and green on the other. You flip it to green.
The guys in the dorky pants instantly start appearing with huge skewers of prime rib, sirloin, filet mignon, sausage, pork loin, ribs, leg of lamb, lamb chops, bacon wrapped tenderloin, and for the faint of heart, chicken breasts. They put the point of the skewer on a plate at your table and start slicing meat. You grab the edge with your little tongs, they slice it off, and depart. In a minute and a half I had a lamb chop, a slice of medium rare leg of lamb, some tenderloin wrapped in bacon, and sliced prime rib. I flipped my card back to red. None of the slices or portions were large, but there were a lot of these guys flitting around in an anxiety of service and I could see how my plate would probably disappear under a mound of meat if I didn’t stop things. I ate through my samples, flipped the card over, and the gauchos descended.
It was amazing. And more importantly, the food was good. Was it profound food? Well, no. It was competently roasted meat. The sides—mashed potatoes, fried polenta, and fried bananas—we fine but not particularly interesting either in preparation or strangeness. They weren’t Brazilian. Or Argentinian. But real gauchos basically ate strips of beef that they dangled over a fire, they didn’t have sides. And I don’t usually have meals that devolve into an orgy of proteins. It wasn’t food as example of the chef’s skills, it was food as theater. Servers hovered. I took a sip of my wine, they refilled my glass. We took a couple of the light, buttery little rolls, the bread basket was whisked away and replaced with fresh rolls.
We had a great time.
I’m thinking that next I’d like to try even more theatrical experiences. There’s eating in the dark—that is, eating in pitch darkness where the servers are either blind or they wear night vision goggles. The idea is that without sight, you really taste and smell your food. Or maybe eating at wd-50 in Chicago, Wylie Defresne’s restaurant. Defresne is a molecular gastronomie guy who makes things like “Carrot-Coconut Sunny-side Up”. That’s what’s pictured below, and here’s a hint, it isn’t actually an egg. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?