My husband and I just got back from San Francisco, a city known as a mecca for foodies and culture vultures. Some people live for the Rocky Mountain high. I always thought they were on drugs.
My beloved girlfriend since ancient times is one of these hearty sorts. She is nature girl, and likes nothing more than to be roughing it in the wild with her hubby and the bears. Not for me. I am a confirmed urbanite who prefers that a hike end in a café that serves up Illy espresso; where temples of fashion and art are all within walking distance, and the ‘wildlife’ wears green hair and Doc Martens, not fur attached to mile-long fangs. I prefer mints on my pillow to ants in my pants.
And if I want to see the top of Mt. Whitney, I’ll watch the Discovery Channel.
San Francisco is a city I love for many reasons; their love of art, design, and architecture is expressed in multiplicity. Relative to the creation and enjoyment of food, in San Francisco the bar is held higher than almost anywhere else in the country. It is the city’s religion, discussed in depth by people of all ages and genders.
Food, how it is grown (locally and sustainably), how it is prepared, and then by whom are subjects of common discussion and a great way to break the ice with the locals, talking about one of their defining passions. I found it amusing how passionately they try to distance themselves as far apart from their Southern California cousins as possible. Truth be told, San Francisco is closer to my native city of Washington, D.C. in temperament than to Los Angeles.
In LA we have movie, television, and music stars. In SF they have celebrity chefs, whose names were murmured to us in hushed tones like this should set off flashes of immediate recognition and culinary orgasms of anticipation. In this age of information overload, we just politely nodded and gasped, as names flew over our heads.
Our culinary journey began with a resounding bump in the LA airport. This is a no-man’s land where caught unprepared with a delayed flight you will have to – gasp! – forage for something to eat. We settled on some sandwiches and cappuccino from a faux-Euro café which we will call ‘Café Bastille’, because its victuals conjured images of what one might have been fed whilst waiting for one’s appointment with the guillotine. The rats are just for ambiance. (I jest.)
Still, two stale tuna sandwiches from a refrigerator bin proudly labeled ‘Organic and Prepared… Recently’, a bag of BBQ potato chips and a weak cappuccino later, we were cursing. Not only because the sulfates in the sandwich were making us sick and spacy, but because this lunch had cost us $28! Our flight cost $128. You do the math!
Luckily, San Francisco and its bucolic spread of restaurants and bistros of all persuasions awaited us only an hour's flight away. It is very hard to have a terrible meal there, though some are better or pricier than others, which brings me to the interesting epiphany we came to whilst exploring this gastronomical landscape.
Haute cuisine does not necessarily a good meal make.
In my opinion, good food is a combination of quality in ingredients, care and deft creativity in creation, with a respectful nod to tradition. A chicken should look like chicken in my humble opinion, not the wreckage of an alien space craft. There is primitive comfort in food that is – well, recognizable as edible, and which does not seek to reinvent the wheel. Also, there is a point at which the price of a meal becomes ridiculous, and value becomes a matter of conjecture.
The best meals we enjoyed in San Francisco were Mediterranean or French bistro fare, frequented by locals and crafted from locally produced meats and produce so that one had the feeling of eating in the comfort of a farm house in Provence; a fond fantasy, since we were only an hour away from our smoggy home base.
These places made sensuous use of local fruits, pairing cherries with lamb or figs with duck breast. I would describe this cooking as inspired variations on a theme by Bach, rather than the pretentious strivings and clattering of Charles Ives, who scorned musicality and inserted fire alarms and barking dogs in his pieces.
To merely enjoy music, in his opinion, was to be banal. However, if it seared your ears like fiery hot tongs and you still managed to tape a clenched-jaw smile on your face and rave like a lunatic, then and only then could you claim to appreciate music and lay claim to being an intellectual sophisticate whose tastes and understanding rose above the rabble. This is a colossal load of hogwash with regards to music, and the same metaphor applies to cooking and the enjoyment of food.
One restaurant comes to mind as I write this. Since my husband picked it, I was blissfully blame free, while he could only mutter and laugh at himself before pondering whether he’d need to order something from room service later. He finally settled on a protein shake mixed up with tap water from our boutique hotel’s bath.
Since few things make a man more irritated than to leave a restaurant with an empty wallet and a grumbling stomach, he left a scathing review on the city restaurant board online, giving some much needed balance. Taking a turn at cultural commentary, he raved, “Kate Moss would have left hungry if she ate there!”
Well done, darling!
Poor thing. He had been all excited to try the ‘true suckling pig’ when it was described to him, and expected something like a Maori feast. Even I had visions of Polynesian bonfires, or Elizabethan tables with burnished piglets served up with an apple in their mouths, but it was not to be.
What arrived was something that looked two-bites-shy of an appetizer. Actually, they sent us out an appetizer compliments of the chef… if you can count one mussel next to some regurgitated melon-wasabi froth to be an appetizer. This was presented with much fanfare on extraordinary plates with the serving part the size of a silver dollar, and rims the size of one of the rings of Saturn.
For my dinner, I ordered the ‘poulard’. Are you confused? Don't worry. So was I. Even my computer’s spell check doesn’t know what to make of this. A poulard is not a ‘canard’ who plays pool, but a type of red hen.
When my own meal arrived, I was speechless. My husband asked if I was okay. I must have looked shocked, which the clearly pleased waiters interpreted as unabashed awe, but I was genuinely confused for a moment.
It wasn’t clear what I was looking at.
It was like contemporary art, or an alien’s idea of a good chicken dinner! Curls of barely cooked red hen wrapped around tiny new vegetables and strips of zucchini, and there was a piece of deep fried gristle I was told was a pounded wing… I was struggling for context.
As it was, it had taken two waiters apiece to pour out our soup, simultaneously, if you please. This is cuisine by way of Cirque de Soleil, and really a bit much. The relentless atmosphere of arch hyperbole seemed strangely necessary in order to keep the diners in a continual state of submissive shock, so as not to question anything, but only bob their heads and babble expected superlatives. We had equally good soups at other places without conjuring images of Las Vegas magic acts or the Wizard of Oz.
Did I mention the entree portions were minuscule?
Hungry as we were following the main course, we resisted the tempting cheese course offering of local goat cheeses, suspecting this was going to lift our bill straight into the stratosphere. It was well on its way already! These Euro-inspired cheeses are created by people who left their jobs as stockbrokers and entertainment PR agents in LA to raise goats in the surrounding areas of San Francisco, but then expect them to begin minting money from their teats and turning them into millionaires.
They remind me of alchemists, hoping to turn goats' milk into gold.
There is a lot of exaggerated inflation and massaging of egos that go on in these temples leading to the impression that you are in a theater where you are part of the production, perhaps its feted pasha. It is only later that you realize you have been the main course, as the bill is presented to you with a flourish and the fawning performers all flee!
No one is there to hear you scream.
We paid our bill and left, feeling vaguely rubbed down, goosed, bewildered, and over two hundred dollars lighter – and still hungry. Had we actually attempted to satisfy our appetites, dinner could have easily sailed past the three hundred dollar mark, which we weren’t about to do.
In the end, walking back to our hotel, we chalked up the evening to adventure and a lesson learned, and for the remainder of the trip enjoyed the more soulful traditional bistro offerings which proliferated around us. We felt much more satisfied with this, and much better fed after our days of hiking in the urban jungle and pondering Matisse. We also got more value for our money, which is important for digestion as well as enjoyment.
Good food is one of life’s great pleasures. It can be like art, but it is not art; and that is an important distinction. It is especially not art, and fails in its very essence, if in the end it ceases to resemble food and feeds neither the body nor soul.