Sunday, October 20, 2002

Food Fright

The trip featured the usual assortment of aggravations. There were some high-powered executives. A local crew we had to get used to. Any number of missed meals. And of course, mixed in were the usual airline headaches, rental car hassles and strange hotel rooms. But none of that was really a problem. After all, if your job includes any kind of travel, especially today, you get used to dealing with the unexpected, used to coping with the unforeseen, used to rolling with the punches without getting too cranky or uptight.

So leave it to the menu to stress us out.

Directed to the latest and greatest restaurant in town, we were thrilled to be able to score a reservation where the local movers and shakers liked to see and be seen. And indeed, the décor was unusual, the crowd good looking and the aromas tantalizing. The attractive young lady who was our server took our drink order, and returned with libations and some menus. We chatted a bit more, sampled the wine, and then picked up our copper clad, hand-printed, four-color rundowns. And that's when it hit us.

We're not in McDonald's anymore, Toto.

After all, restaurants can be broken down as much by the cuisine they serve as by the way to describe it. Some places offer simple fare described likewise, with entrees like "Burger Deluxe" and "Chef's Salad." You know what they mean, they mean what they say, and assuming the food is up to snuff, it's a comfortable place to get a bite. Still others cloak these rather pedestrian dishes in elaborate monikers, like the "Joe DiMaggio Meatball Wedge" or the "Larry King Grilled Cheese Sandwich." Even the aforementioned Mickey D's plays this game, grafting a "Mc" onto the front of virtually everything in the shop. But despite the clever turn of phrase, the underlying dish is usually fairly easy to decode, affording you the opportunity to order something pleasing to your palate.

However, as restaurants go upscale, they try to turn their menus into the culinary equivalent of a Tom Clancy novel, going into excruciating detail about each ingredient, whether the diner cares or not. They seem to care not that it means little to any poor sucker who doesn't have a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. The result is "Free range capon crisped with a demi-glace of passion fruit, accompanied by a ragout of rendered new potatoes finished with a Cajun influenced chipilote sauce." Uh, are we talking chicken with a fruit sauce and some spuds with a spicy topping? I think that about covers it. And no, it still doesn't justify the $22.50 price tag.

Indeed, this was the black hole that we had fallen into on a quiet Wednesday night in San Diego. To be sure, we had been warned. The food was described by one of our local hosts as "eclectic," a mix of cuisines, ingredients and styles, all presented with a flair for the dramatic. And that was a good place to start. But just as comedian Robert Klein had a classic bit called "Every Record Every Recorded," this wasn't merely a menu; it was a recitation of every vittle that ever crossed someone's griddle.

The description of the place in the posted reviews at the entrance should have given us ample warning. "Pigeonholing the cuisine is tough. We'll call it updating the indigenous fare of the Americas. An audacious mix of Mexican, Pacific Coast and Native American flavors, the food reflects cooking that originated in a simpler time with a modern adaptation." Or in other words, what the magazine reviewer was saying is "we have no idea what it's all about."

Our local contact had told us to start with the baked brie. But not just any warm cheese was this. Instead, "Pumpkin & Sesame Seed Crusted Brie on a fresh corn tortilla with mole negro, honey roasted garlic & grana-scallion flatbread with serrano jelly." Uh, OK. We passed on the "Arugula, Frissee & Radicchio dates wrapped in pancetta, cotija cheese & prickly pear dressing," as well as the "Grilled Romaine fried capers, chipotle-anchovy crème on fig jam flatbread." The reason was simple: try as we might, we couldn't figure out in advance what anything might actually taste like.

Forget comfort food. This was one of those menus that required huge amounts of effort just to get in the ballpark. The only way to cope was to say each ingredient in a given dish out loud, conjure up a picture of it in your mind, and then add the next. Interested in the fish? "Whole Scarlet Snapper..." Wait... I think I've got that. "Roasted with avocado leaf & epazote..." Uh... I didn't know avocados had leaves, and what the hell is a epazote anyways? "Coated with a citrus pibil broth..." Citrus? Like lemon or lime? And do you squeeze or milk a pibil to get its broth? "Accompanied by an oven-fired root vegetable skewer." Do I eat the root, the vegetable or the skewer?

And that was just one entrée. After much discussion, speculation, consternation and outright guessing, my companion ordered the "Alderwood Plank Salmon with cucumber-dill moleto on horseradish flatbread, with squid ink pasta & smoked oaxacan cheese," while I went with the "Mojo Bone-in Rib Eye stuffed with huitlecoche & honey roasted garlic, white cheddar tamal & acorn squash with bourbon-walnut butter." It all tasted fine, if not a little confusing. And no, I have no idea what a huitlecoche is, and if I can be arrested for doing it to a minor.

I admit we left more than full, and the next morning gave a suitably positive appraisal to our local hosts. On reflection, I think it was all tasty, but I might merely have been punch drunk. All I know for sure was that the next night on the way out of town, we looked at the gaggle of options available to us in the whole of the city... and each, without hesitation, decided to order a piece of pizza.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes ordering in sushi bars by the pictures. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.