I come for the food!

When I finally drag myself out of my cave/home and head for a food establishment – which can include anything from a dingy fish’n-chips shack that lies nonchalantly on a wharf and where the food is served in disposable-recyclable-compostable plates and cutlery, and where the skinny, homeless dog wants to share your plate, to a four-course glitzy restaurant, where I am seated by a pompous waiter and looked down upon by a snooty sommelier – I expect only one thing: FOOD! Now, let’s make that clear:  not just any food, but Simple, Excellent and Unpretentious fare!  I’m not terribly impressed with Organic, Non-GMO, Wheat-Free and Gluten-Free, Free-range, Head-to-Tail, Farm-to-Table, Local, Raw, Decaf or any other Voodoo stuff. You know why? Because, and despite all the current mumbo-jumbo, fancy ‘Globe and Mail’ jargon, a meal with all these ingredients can be just as bad as one made with Fertilized, Sprayed, and GMO ingredients.  I also have a hard time understanding geographical lingo, i.e. what is considered local?  Is it Canadian P.E.I potatoes from 6000 Km away, or Washington apples just 10 Km. across the border from Osoyoos?

When attending a meal I do not wish to be distracted by anything except the food; in other words, hold the ‘amazing’ lake-mountain-vineyards views, the loud music and obtrusive noises from other diners, the constantly bored and screaming children who run around and keep banging into my chair. If possible, I would appreciate a windowless, sound-proof room (a bomb shelter, perhaps?). I have left too many establishments with an oath to never, ever set foot again in their door, ‘thanks’ to inadequate service, food, noise, just name it.  I’ve been to restaurants where the food was meager and I left feeling as hungry as when I came.  Others that were extremely expensive for the quality, and yet others where the noise level of the music ruined the experience, so all I remembered was ‘boom-boom, boom-boom.’

I tend to pay attention to the smallest details and then cast the die in favor of returning to a particular establishment – or not. It’s similar to being in a marriage – it cannot and should not be perfect, but in the overall scheme of things, the pleasant and positive experiences should outweigh the annoying and frustrating moments. But here lies the catch:  since I’m unwilling to compromise on food if it means accepting a disappointing meal in return for a ‘breath-taking’ view or a well-played artistic act (or concert), I’m willing, in my full mental capacity, to narrow my criteria to the food only, and anything else I consider a bonus.

It’s said that men suffer in silence, and in this case I’m no different. I do not review local restaurants on Trip Adviser, Yelp, Urban Spoon or any other social media because of conflict of interest – a decision which too often I regret.  I’m not a person who frantically waves at the waiter and lets the rest of the guests hear what he ‘really’ thinks about the food and ‘this place.’  I’m not someone who typically sends the plate back to the kitchen.  However, a while ago we decided to dine at a known establishment in Penticton, and I ordered a New York steak. The moment I sliced through the sizzling and nicely charred chunk I realized that it was a few grades well past beyond the medium–rare of my choice.  It actually looked more like ’50 shades of gray’ and biting into it confirmed my complete disappointment. The waitress was gracious when she realized the blunder and immediately re-ordered it. The second steak was done to perfection however my wife was already 15 minutes or more into savoring her meal, and in this way the magical moments of dining together that particular evening – vanished without ever to return. Obviously, I felt tres, tres, desolequel dommage!  In this case my father would say: “Whatever you do, make it right the first time,” and my grandfather would add something similar:  “Practice makes perfect and exercise makes excellence.”  In his book ‘It Must’ve  Been Something I Ate’, food critic Jeffrey Steingarten writes about Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida that offers eight degrees of doneness after you choose how many inches or how many ounces you wish to eat. I mention this to point out that if one strives for excellence, it will eventually fall into one’s grasp.

I do not believe in the ’bad day in the kitchen’ story. Consistency should be the mantra, day in and day out, or in this case – evening in and evening out. A military-like discipline is needed. No wonder the French refer to the kitchen staff as ‘the brigade’. Unless you (the cook, sous-chef, chef, or anyone in charge of putting out dishes) lie on the kitchen floor with no pulse and your brain registers absolutely no activity – nothing should exempt you from delivering less than a stellar meal. If you are emotionally and mentally incapacitated (your wife just left you for your best friend, took your new Lexus and left behind the three kids, two Great Danes and the one blue-eyed Persian cat for you to take care of) or physically not fit (drunk, tired, cut yourself and bleeding to death, had too much B.C bud so your taste buds are out of tune, or just not focused), please do yourself and your guests a favor: close the bloody kitchen and DO NOT dare put out any food. Is this too much to ask?

“Today’s constraints become tomorrow’s reality and the day after tomorrow’s new norm – and that’s how quality deteriorates over time.”

It was on a cold winter Sunday evening when we decided to go out for a meal at the Naramata Pub. Following a steamy shower and a close shave that would be deemed suitable by an Italian barber, I dressed nicer than usual and out we went braving the cold, just a 5 minute drive away from home. We stopped in our tracks when the waitress delivered the dreaded news that the kitchen had closed at 7:30 pm. because of a lack of customers. Refusing to return home on an empty stomach we headed to town in search of a decent meal and decided to try a fairly new establishment that had created a ‘buzz’ around its thin-crust pizzas.

Sitting close to the entrance, my posterior froze every time the unusually large double doors opened (an air-lock would work magic in keeping the warm air in and the cold out). The server suggested a variety of in-house brewed beers with exotic names, and reluctantly I asked for a sample. Craft beer is not my cup of tea since the large amount of hops makes it bitter.  I confess, bitter flavors actually numb my palate and I definitely don’t enjoy any food accompanied by an extremely bitter overtone . . . MEA CULPA.  As expected, it was quite bitter and I politely declined to have beer with the meal and opted for a glass of wine which proved to be quite expensive. Not even a light Lager on the horizon for consolation, only Ales and IPAs with an ‘in your face’ bold attitude. But hey, what do I know? . . . I’m just a baker. . .

We ordered a large pizza and a large Caesar salad to share. I tend to disregard the common thinking that empty restaurants serve bad meals and crowded ones serve morsels fit for the gods. The place wasn’t crowded, just a few tables were occupied and the order arrived quickly. I have to admit that a strange feeling befalls me every time I visit a new restaurant:  it’s a combination of excitement and anxiety – hope and doom coexisting in a strange harmony that only a quasi split-personality could accommodate.

From here, the situation deteriorated with lightning speed:  at the center of the table was a large tin can that was supposed to hold the pizza tray and which actually blocked the view across the table. All I could see was Sharon’s head popping up and down on top of the tray in a grotesque and gruesome way, resting on a layer of red tomato sauce and surrounded by pieces of Calabrese salami, artichokes and Sicilian black olives. She looked decapitated, yet her head was talking about how bad this Feng-Shui was.  From her perspective I probably looked no different, so we looked like a couple of bobble-heads rolling our eyes and shaking our, yes…HEADS.  I moved the heavy can and the tray to the side, and lo and behold – Sharon’s body was instantly re-attached to the talking bobble-head (she was a ‘babbling bobble head’ – an endearment which I kinda like).

Someone has to pull the Pizzaiolo aside and explain to him that a soggy pizza crust, no matter how thin it is – is a big NO NO, and in some parts of the world, is considered to be a transgression without redemption. Imagine picking up a slice with one hand while the other has to direct the ‘limp’ end into your mouth. At the same time try staving off the rolling olives (yes, whole olives) so they don’t hit your face (since there wasn’t enough cheese to ‘secure’ the olives in place – they were rolling everywhere).

After close observation I concluded that these weren’t merely plain olives, but ‘Siciliana Spiritum Liberum Olea,’ long thought to be extinct Sicilian free spirit or free-range olives.  The importance of this recent discovery of the lost Sicilian species in a small B.C. town is matched only by the unearthing of dinosaur skeletons in Alberta.  I would strongly urge the government to create a breeding program to slowly reintroduce them back into the wild, while Dr. David Suzuki could film an interesting documentary about the day those free-spirited Sicilian olives finally broke loose and ended up on my pizza.

Neither did the Caesar salad do much to improve the mood:  the only resemblance to the traditional was the Romaine. White broken crackers, strangely looking like Matzo (did Passover start earlier this year?) replaced butter-sautéed, plump garlic croutons.  Instead of Worcestershire, garlic, anchovies, Dijon, olive oil, lemon juice, egg yolks, red wine vinegar and white wine vinegar dressing, the order of the day was a beer-based concoction. The food on the plate was disjointed and I felt aggravated. Was it another ‘bad day in the kitchen,’ or was it just me? I was tres, tres, desole again – and somehow it felt like déjà-vu. I kept thinking about the customers who had written stellar reviews about the food and wondered if sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The moral of the story: If you want to break the mould, steer away from tradition, make your mark and boldly go where no chef has ever gone before – go with a bang and make it memorable, for mediocrity is not a trait widely rewarded.

I will end this story with an anecdote about something I learned from one of my customers:  it was two years ago, late on a Saturday in the summer. The Cannery was deserted and no living soul was to be seen. Walla was quiet as usual since everyone was at the downtown market. A gentleman sat at an outside table and ordered an Israeli tuna salad sandwich. He savored it slowly, paid, and left without speaking. A month or longer passed until he reappeared on a Saturday and repeated the ritual: sat at the same table and ordered the same dish. This time before leaving he spoke laconically:  “I just wanted to see whether it was a one-time thing.” Since then he keeps coming once in a blue moon for the Israeli tuna salad sandwich…

There are still a few righteous establishments among the sinners in Sodom and Gomorrah, do not fear… . .(to be continued…).