I live in San Francisco, home to a bazillion restaurants per capita, many with very, very busy dishes and complex menus. But I grew up in a pretty food-savvy family that usually appreciated gustatory simplicity.
I - Poppy's Fish
The first of the Four Funny Food Stories will be in honor of Poppy, my grandfather. He was a great connoisseur of Basic Food; he appreciated the perfect steak, the perfect tomato, the perfect baked potato.
One Thanksgiving weekend, 30-or-so years ago, much of my extended family was in Florida, and my grandparents took us all out for dinner at one of those fresh seafood restaurants where a new menu is printed each day, featuring the day's 2-dozen-or-so catches, in the context of Italian cuisine. As we were a large party, the captain and two waiters were assigned arcs of our table and took our orders. I sat to the right of Poppy who, it was clear, was the host. The captain arrived last at Poppy's side and said, "And you, sir, what can we bring you?"
"Ya gotta piece of fish?" Poppy asked.
"Oh, yes, sir," replied the captain, gesturing over the entire menu. "Everything you see here was caught today. Do you have a specific --"
"I don't want bones," Poppy proclaimed. "I want a good piece of fish, no bones, and make sure it's HOT."
Poppy at his finest. It wasn't that he wasn't familiar with each and every variety of fish on that menu. But Poppy's knowledge of restaurants was keen to an undeniable fact: Any kitchen can turn out a dish whose busy sauce detracts from its imperfect fiieting/trimming and tepid temperature. He knew then, as I surely know now: The better chefs excel at the basics of meat/fish selection, "butchering", and simple cooking. Excellent food with nowhere to hide.
II - Trendy Compotes
Ten years ago my cousin Sandy was visiting San Francisco from New York with his wife and son. As usual, he had reservations for all of us for every meal (for 3 days) at the city's trendiest restaurants.
One evening, we arrived at a magnificent spot, were seated at the best table and handed menus. It was here I was offered ostrich for the first time and questioned the waiter about it. He described four medallions of meat, presented with "three compotes" which he went on to describe in exquisite detail, diverting from the meat itself, which he praised but not nearly as highly as he raved over those compotes.
I ordered the ostrich medallions appetizer and the glass of Pinot Noir he recommended with it. The wine arrived and was finished and I was still waiting for that appetizer: My dinnermates, too, were very curious to see and perhaps taste the special dish I'd been adventurous enough to order.
Finally, with my second glass of Pinot, the dish arrived. We all stared at the huge plate, whose epicenter contained four thin discs of browned meat, each the size of a half-dollar. The "three compotes", it turned out, were tiny, thimble-sized molds, composed of ultrafinely minced vegetable matter, whose 25-or-so ingredients had taken 5 minutes for the waiter to describe earlier. And, of course, there was the essential flourish of garniture somewhere-or-other on the huge charger; Sandy's wife gasped, "Oh, what a Presentation! You just HAVE to admire the Presentation!" What else could she say?
As we were marveling over the 2-or-3 ounces of food on my plate, Sandy hailed the waiter.
"Yes, sir? Is everything all right?"
"Look, kid," said Sandy, as he pointed at my plate. "Could you at least bring her a tweezer, so she can eat this?"
We all enjoyed a hearty laugh, everyone at the table was given an ostrich medallion, and I moved on to my prime rib main course and didn't look back.
Like Poppy, Sandy was a "senior" not afraid to call a spade a spade. But what of the younger, greener visitor to our hopelessly decadent eateries?
III - Impossible Hamburger
About fifteen years ago, I was helping a recently-arrived young Chinese woman acclimate to San Francisco, register for an English language program, etc. She had had almost no English instruction whatsoever.
The first time I took her to lunch, she couldn't read the menu and I tried to act-out each dish, pointing, gesturing, describing. She understood "hamburger", indicating that that was what she wanted. I flagged the waitress and ordered.
When I gave my lunchmate's order, the waitress asked, "How do you want it done?" Uh oh. I couldn't convey this to my friend, so I told the waitress, "Just make it medium."
"Sesame bun, baguette, or crunch roll?"
"I guess bun," I said.
"Plain is good," I replied, glancing at my Chinese friend who hadn't a clue...
"Curly fries, garlic fries, homefries or steak fries?"
"You want mayo on that?"
"Just bring it on the side."
"Pickles, lettuce, tomato and onion?"
"Sure. On the side."
Boy was I glad my friend hadn't ordered the Turkey Sandwich: ("Smoked, honey-roasted, or pepper-roasted? Dijon, yellow or maple horseradish mustard? Walnut-olive bread, foccacia, baguette or crunch roll? Cheese? Swiss, Havarti, Cheddar or Pepper Jack?" ARRGGHHHH!
My friend recognized the brand name "Coca Cola", so we defaulted to that. Next time, we went to a Chinese restaurant!
IV - Trouper of a Waiter
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, a friend and I dined at an off hour at a very popular Burmese restaurant, which usually has a line around the corner: I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Ultimately there was precious little I could order and remain within my B parameters. Every dish contained dry shrimp flakes, or oily sauces, or deep-fried-in-who-knows-what crispy, questionable-dough treats...Suffice it to say the waiter really had to earn his tip describing almost every dish in detail at our request.
I ended up with barbecued pork riblets and Asian "sangria", dodging the tomatoes, peanuts, chicken, and shellfish that flatly dominated the menu. And I didn't feel contented afterward. That's what I'm noticing so acutely. Very busy food (unless I make it myself with superb ingredients) isn't as satisfying as a clean, broiled chop or fish-steak, a straightforward salad, vegetable, maybe a potato or yam or a plate of cheeses, nuts, and/or fruits...
* * * * * *
Am I channeling Poppy? or is it simply that I'm approaching my own Seniorness? Who knows, in just a few years I may start ordering like Poppy: "Gimme something Prime, aged, medium-rare and sizzling: No sauce."
"Kid: You gotta hot yam? Butter on the side."