Friday, May 30, 2008

Imitation, Flattery, and Everything in Between

Are you familiar with the concept of the "Plague Doctor?"

In the 14th century dudes dressed up in a long overcoat and leather breeches sealed with wax or suet, donned a wide-brimmed black cap and a freaky bird-beak mask stuffed with aromatic herbs and which had red glass lenses over the eyes. They went around town with a long stick and poked sick people to determine whether or not they had the plague.

Some people say the outfit had mystical properties to draw out illness when in fact it probably had the very real property of protecting the doctor while simultaneously making him a handy disease vector as he roamed around town in his leather and animal fat outfit, high off of rosemary fumes.

A Plague Doctor probably looked like this:
The inimitable style of the Plague Doctor would then be oft-imitated by many a goth or medieval fetishist, while also making for a pretty spooky Halloween costume.

The Plague Doctor costume is number two on the list of "What to Wear to a Party to get a Chubby Goth Girl to Go Home With You." Number three on the list is Ogre from Skinny Puppy strapped to your back. Number one on the list is a Fine Christmas Ham.

What's my point in this random madness? Why it's an opportunity for me to discuss yet another interesting distinction that I see in the restaurant business here in LA versus back home in San Francisco.

For those of you not attuned to the obtuse clues I've been leaving, I moved to Los Angeles about a month ago.

In SF very few restaurants would deign to serve something that another restaurant also was serving, unless said item came from that Hallowed Pantheon of Culinary Things--fish and chips is a "thing," steak frites is a "thing," foie gras and brioche is a "thing," roast chicken and bread salad is a "thing," et al.

But say a restaurant served some sort of mild white fish crusted with herbs, olives, and bread crumbs, on a bed of fondant leeks; no other restaurant is going to do that. That would be ripping them off. As delicious and simple as portobello fritters are, no other restaurant is going to serve them because that's one of Rivoli's signature dishes.

Though last time I checked fried mushrooms were on the menu at TGI Fridays for a long time.

That's not the case in LA. In fact, you can find certain menu items at many trendy new restaurants (particularly those with a "wine bar" emphasis) in disparate locations. These include blue cheese-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates, truffled grilled cheese sandwich, truffled mac and cheese, truffled frites, and lollipop-style petit lamb chops.

LA, even among the upper-echelon of restaurants, is perfectly willing to do what another restaurant is already doing. Because hey, if it works for them, why not?

While I don't inherently object to this trend, it definitely goes a long way to showing the restaurant's hand. It immediately exposes the restaurant as a place that is all about providing an immediately appealing product for the masses as opposed to a restaurant that wants to provide a innovative quality product. They want to go with what works.

It's sort of a classier version of fried calamari or fried shrimp. It's just something that Joe and Jane Midwest expect to see on the menu at every restaurant, regardless of location or cuisine.

I admire restaurants that don't want to do that. I admire restaurants that offer food that people haven't heard of. I admire restaurants that challenge their diners.

And the funny thing is, a helluva lot more restaurants that cater to the masses got out of business sooner than restaurants that are pushing that oh-so-cliche envelope.

So I raise a proverbial (and literal) glass to those restaurants that achieve success on their own terms. To those restaurants that force their diners to experiment, learn, and enrich. To those restaurants who show their customers that there is more in this world than filet mignon, roast salmon, and Caesar salad.


No comments: