As we do occasionally, my sister and I decided to try a restaurant we’d never been to before. Indianapolis Monthly raved about it, it had "bistro" in the name; what could possibly go wrong? We were both underwhelmed. It turned out to be one of those self-consciously trendy places that put the haughty in haute cuisine. Elaborate presentations, painfully ostentatious decor, waiters and waitresses dressed better than we were. The portions were tiny, the vegetables exotic and the sauces adventurous. The pork loin — about 10 bites worth– I found under the exquisitely arranged accompaniments was tough and dry. Here’s the kind of place it is: They do have mac and cheese on the menu, but with goat cheese, don’t you know, mixed in with pesto. My sister and I dropped about 50 bucks each (not something we do very often) and stopped at Marsh on the way home to pick up ice cream sandwiches, just to have a dessert that had a familiar taste and feel full enough to believe we had actually eaten.
The next day, she fixed a birthday meal for me, drawing on the familiar foods of our youth: pork chops, smoked side bacon, corn bread, mustard greens, fried potatoes, pinto beans topped off with raw onion. The whole thing probably cost about $20, and I brought enough leftovers back to Fort Wayne for another meal. It was filling and, in its humble way, delicious. Man, them was good eats!
I don’t mean to claim the bistro was a bad restaurant. There are obviously plenty of people who like the place. My opinion is no better than theirs — we are talking about matters of taste, which are as idiosyncratic as the people who have them. And mine admittedly are a little more prosaic than most. But the opinions of restaurant reviewers aren’t superior, either. They might know how a restaurant is "supposed" to operate or a presentation to look or a sauce to be mixed. But how something tastes to them is no more a predictor of how it will taste to other people than one person’s preference for reds or blues should dictate the color of clothes the rest of us should wear.
Restaurant reviews tend to try to objectify something that is utterly subjective, and some people, I think, are intimidated by that, especially here in the middle of the country where we sometimes feel like rubes who need to pretend to be more sophisticated than we are. Stick a silly thing that looks like it was removed from a construction site in front of the art museum and call it art, and we’re too intimidated to laugh at it. Open a fancy restaurant and give it a five-star review, and we’re too overwhelmed to run screaming to the nearest hamburger joint. It’s an "emperor’s new clothes" kind of thing.
One of my favorite books of recent years is "Kitchen Confidential" by Anthony Bourdain, a well-known and -regarded chef. If I’m remembering correctly, this is his definition of a great meal: the best ingredients, simply prepared. I’d wager a lot of restaurant patrons on the coasts — more than here, anyway — are catching on to that and starting to demand it.
(Just in case you think I’m a total reverse snob, I do like a good meal in a high-end place from time to time. Hartley’s is my idea of one that gets it right. I’ve never had a bad dish or a less-than-first-rate experience there. They might have the equivalent of Hartley’s in Indianapolis, but my sister and I haven’t found it yet.)
Read the rest of this entry »