Wednesday, January 09, 2008

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?


Blogger Jay Bushman said...

I'm a vegan with a leather jacket, so I'm totally comfortable with my moral inferiority.

How long are you in LA for? We could show you a couple of vegan/veggie restaurants that make it so easy to not eat meat. There's even ice cream.

January 09, 2008 4:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maureen, the next time you're in Denver you _must_ try Casa Bonita. The food is terrible, but you don't go for the food, you go for the cliff divers.

South Park did a 100% accurate episode about it a few years ago.

Carrie V.

January 09, 2008 5:16 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

I second what Carrie said about Casa Bonita. Horrible food. Wild experience. They have cliff divers.

So the restaurant you described is a churrascaria. They've been a bit of an obsession of mine since I ate at one in Manaus in Brazil. It was just as amazing there.

One of my great regrets about my time in Kenya is that I didn't eat at the Carnivore. It is a churrascaria that serves all manner of game meats. Now, I spent my time in Kenya on a game ranch eating game meat every day, so it probably wouldn't have been that exciting, but I think they had a broader range at the Carnivore. For us on the ranch, it was mostly wildebeest and kongoni every day at lunch. Fried, badly.

I comfort myself as a meat eater with the belief that plants are living things too, and if you just look at the bigger picture, you're doing no more harm eating animals than plants. Photosynthetics are the real morally superior types. Not that trees care or anything.

January 09, 2008 5:52 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Jay, I'm here for work so basically I have no life. And I leave on Friday.

But I come to LA often, so maybe on one of these trips...(I love tofu ice cream.)

January 09, 2008 6:52 PM  
Blogger Responsible Artist said...

We have a tofu seconds store here. It's pretty frightening, really. The parts of tofu that are too ugly to go into a regular package. I don't want to talk about it.

January 10, 2008 12:35 AM  
Blogger Adrienne Martini said...

When you go to WD50 -- can I come?

January 10, 2008 12:27 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Adrienne, you betcha! Then we'll find a restaurant where we eat in the dark.

January 10, 2008 1:14 PM  
Blogger Beth Adele Long said...

We ate at the Melting Pot last week! And we did not let our public setting prevent us from threatening each other with skewers, which is definitely one of the supreme joys of fondue. However, we did all agree that we were paying someone so that we could cook our own food. Fondue pots are on the "to buy" list.

As for everything else, I was laughing through the entire article.

And I can't believe Casa Bonita is a real place! Now THERE's a reason to go to Denver!

January 10, 2008 9:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curiously enough, my friend Ginnie and I were talking about the "eating in the dark" restaurant just this morning, and then I find the reference to it on your blog. But alas, when I tried to go to the URL, it was totally blank! Perhaps this is deliberate: if you eat in the dark, you must not see anything, ergo a blank page.

No? I didn't think so. Oh well.

I had sweet potato souffle for dinner at Balans on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. I suspect it wasn't very vegan, since I tasted butter and eggs. It was third degree South Beach though. Balans has a lot of stuff like that. I'm trying to find the recipe on the web, but everything I find has sugar, and this was a main course dish.

Lincoln Road is heaven for food.

We went to a Brazilian restaurant in Quincy Massachusetts. They carve up about ten different kinds of meat and just don't stop as long as you can sit upright. It was quite good.

I don't know what to say about being a meat-eater. I didn't invent death -- do vegans use insect spray? I have heard some vegans say if they became type I diabetics they wouldn't use insulin because it's meat derived (and of course they would die), but then when recombinant DNA insulin became available, they would use that. However, recombinant DNA insulin is a technology with its feet firmly planted on animal research.

Then there are Hindus who wear leather shoes, but only from cows who have died a natural death.

January 10, 2008 10:31 PM  
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November 18, 2009 4:42 AM  

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