Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Rant: California Cuisine

Take a recent selection of entrees appearing on notable restaurants’ menus:

Grilled California white sea bass with cucumbers, beets, and yogurt (Chez Panisse Café)

Rosemary and garlic braised pork roast with grilled nectarines,
white corn pudding and snap peas and baby carrots (Rivoli)

Poached California sea bass with Romano beans, gypsy peppers, corn, cucumbers
and chili oil (Café Rouge)

Roast rack of pork with slow-cooked Romano beans, tomato Provençale and red wine sauce (Bay Wolf)

What do these all have in common--besides the fact that the chefs creating them have all gone down (I speak metaphorically—probably) on Alice Waters or Judy Rogers at some time in their lives?

That’s right, all these entrees are not actually entrees! They’re lists of ingredients cooked nicely and plopped on a plate for your (and your $25’s) pleasure. Each component is seasonal and delicious by itself but just because you combine them in one bowl and call it dinner does not make it so.

There was a time when fine dining meant creating something greater than the sum of its parts—pies, chowders, gastriques, napoleons, soufflés, quiches, custards. Cooking stuff in other stuff. Cooking stuff with other stuff. Combining complimentary or disparate flavors for the very purpose of how they create new flavor sensations together—not because they all reach their peak on July 22nd.

A bowl of plums is not dessert!

California cuisine appreciation can be described, at its uppermost complimentary limits, in the satisfied declaration of “Damn, that was a good tomato.” But there’s no gestalt to dining at Chez Panisse. There’s no feeling that this is an extraordinary experience. And any uniqueness can be ascribed solely to the ingredients single-sourced from ¼ acre farms. And for which the Chez Panisse Foundation pays top dollar. It’s one of the few restaurants for which the bottom line of profitability is simply a tertiary concern.

And it spreads like that wet spot on the sheets. All over Berkeley and Oakland you can’t roll over without feeling its cold clammy chill. At the zenith of this tragedy is Pizzaiolo, which has sacrilegiously applied California Cuisine dogma to the beatified realm of the pizza—resulting in perfectly prepared pies devoid of taste.

I don’t mean to decry freshness or seasonality. These are very good things. But that should be the beginning of creating a dining experience. Whenever I hear the words “the best ingredients, impeccably prepared” I reach for my Browning: It’s an expensive gourmet restaurant, you’re supposed to have premium ingredients and you’re a fancy chef in a gourmet restaurant, you’re supposed to prepare your ingredients impeccably. That’s the foundation of what you do, not the end.

We’re hopeful (albeit still skeptical) with the emergence of the “New American” trend in which restaurants are going back to what made eating great—salt, spice, fat, and grease. Casseroles, fried chicken, and breaded pork chops. In short, flavor. But so far this is a San Francisco phenomenon that has yet to establish a beachhead on the Berkeley Marina’s hallowed, condom-strewn shores.

I knew before sitting down and at Rivoli what I would be tasting just by reading the menu. Because I’ve tasted those things before. I know exactly how those flavors taste together. I’ve cooked those things before. And I didn’t overcook my halibut. Now when I would go to the late Bendean and try chicken pot pie, spicy lentils, pork chili rojo, et al I had no idea what to expect or how to cook it. What I got was a pack of flavors that made my palate do somersaults and completely invigorated me. It was rad.

California Cuisine was a welcome innovation in dining that is well past its prime. The point’s been made. It’s a groundwork for great dining—the skeletal framework for a culinary cathedral that’s remained unfinished for over two decades. Let’s add some fucking gargoyles already, yeah?

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