Sunday, July 22, 2007

notes (of oak and cassis) from underground

“The Grim Eater” in Pixar’s Ratatouille, in my view, begins the movie as a symbol of all that needs to change in culinary criticism—snobbery, ego (indeed, Ego is the critic’s surname), stringency, and, most of all, isolation. If he is not alone in his funereal office writing damning reviews of doomed restaurants, he is dining alone with palpable disdain.

Look, by contrast, at the critics of Top Chef. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, here’s BRAVO’s description: “A group of twelve aspiring chefs, both professionally trained and self-taught, will compete in a series of culinary challenges. Each week, one contestant will be eliminated by a group of well-known judges. The winning chef will receive…”—yes, yes, yes, they receive lots of prizes. But what’s left unsaid there is the most welcome development that America’s socially anemic foodie culture has seen since Julia. Huge groups of folks are shown coming together, eating together, talking together.

We need only note that Top Chef’s ridiculously sharp and sexy Padma Lakshmi jilted Salman Rushdie shortly after heartthrob gadabout Tony Bourdain guest-judged an episode alongside her to understand that food is, in fact, the music of love. Sharing it is a binding human ritual. Feels as if we folks in the U.S. today are alone in our oblivion to this primal need. Even on a recent trip to ancient Roman ruins of the San Sebastiani catacombs (Peter and Paul—Bible, not band—were buried there), I visited a huge subterranean room in which Christians are said to have held intimate feasts for their beloved dead. After they finished eating, they etched benedictions into the wall. They broke bread. Life had meaning worth recognizing and recording together.

The good news: underground dinner parties are, if you will, on the rise. Never heard of them? Stay tuned for a forthcoming article I’ve written on this phenomenon. I recently attended one such event hosted in a gorgeous live-work space in SF’s Mission district. I don’t think I overstate it when I hope that these parties may bring Americans the closest we’ve come yet to a legitimately Italian piazza experience.

I’ll distinguish the eating experience this way. Saturday night: I’m at Bar Bambino, where, engaged solely with the fabulous company I kept at my private table, I ignored every other soul in the room. Come Sunday, on the other hand, I’m awash in the open energy of forty souls gathered to enjoy an inventive seven-course meal of fresh, organic food all together and to scratch out some new cross-hatches in their already live social networks. More coming on this soon. In the meantime, here’s what I ate:

Poblano pepper taquito
Roasted poblano, avocado, crooknecks, coconut meat with a sauce of cilantro, lime, tamarind, seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, flax)

Tres gazpachos

Ginger tofu skewers with drunken morels
Ginger-tekka-sichimi tofu, ume-shiso kanten, sea palm, and morel

Tahini porcini rapini greens

Composed salad
Cipolline onion, haricort vert, chiogga beets, Bermuda Triangle chevre, filberts, cresses with a kumquat, tarragon, and fennel confit

Jeweled baby basmati
Basmati with barberry, mulberry, tonka bean, saffron, orange blossoms, pistachio

Stonefruit ten ways
Plum: raw, frozen, thyme
White peach: hot and cold gelee with coconut water
Poached yellow peach tart with apricot ice cream
White nectarine: raw, frozen, rose geranium
Yellow nectarine: raw, confit with candied kumquat

(That last one—stonefruit ten ways—sent me scrambling back to the Wallace Stevens poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Even the jilted literati have to admit: there is a certain inimitable pleasure to a menu—look at those noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms. It can only be poetry.)