It’s been a while since I’ve been here. But I’ve been traveling a lot. And eating a lot. Mostly in restaurants.

Somehow I never got around to writing about it until now. I have no excuse. Is indolence an excuse? It’s probably a state of mind, merely.

May I say that since last July, when I posted something about somewhere interesting, I have probably eaten in 100 restaurants. So at least I can claim that what is to come might be statistically significant.

Of course, I haven’t eaten in every restaurant in America, so I cannot be statistically perfect. But who has? So this is, as usual, merely one man’s opinion on one night in one city in one restaurant on one particular day of the week.

Please let me start with the best.

Part of eating good food lies, I think, in the surprise. It’s like love. If it strikes you when you least expect it, you value it so much more.

So, one night, I wandered into a place called Sra. Martinez in Miami’s Design District. Miami’s Design District is like a designer loft. Pretty enough, but largely empty.

And here is this restaurant that looks like it was stuffed into an old Post Office. The decor isn’t glamorous. The greeter wasn’t even particularly welcoming.

Pan Con Tomate Sin Boquerones

But then the food arrived. Perhaps this food might be all too simple for you. For me, it was like bathing in mud with a naked Selma Blair. Yes, that sounds so rudimentary. But from the pan con tomate with boquerones, to the egg carpaccio to the wine, this was something that I want to experience regularly. And yet can’t.

My paramour and I went more than once, mind. This chef, whose name, I discovered, is Berenice DeAraujo, is so modest, so unassuming. And yet she could make chocolate from dirt. She could make ice cream from floodwater. She could pluck an old tire from the side of the road and turn it into squid or eel. I am sure that she picked up a few twigs and turned them into that egg carpaccio. Just for the fun of it.

I’m probably not selling her food very well.

Part of me doesn’t want to. It’s almost as if I don’t want anyone else (save for those I love) to experience what I experienced in this place. I went back a second time. Eleven courses later, I walked out believing that things could be simple, beautiful and memorable. I can still taste the food now. I want to go back now.

The Churros at Sra. Martinez

I don’t really have time to say more. I just wanted to share my enthusiasm. As I do for the other four restaurants over the last nine months that have moved me to paroxysms rivaling both sex and sport.

First, there is Aziza in San Francisco, but I have written about that already. It is still wonderful, still serene, still joyous. Even if it may soon move to a new and portentous home that has housed more failed restaurants than New Jersey.

Then there’s Ad Hoc in Napa. Again, perhaps I should have chosen somewhere more pretentious. Although, at least this is Thomas Keller. But last week, I had the most perfect pork rack, the most sublime asparagus and poached egg salad, some delightful French cheese and an orange cake that I would slip into a coffin for.

Yes, this isn’t writing from the snooty Bon Appetit school. But, coupled with several coupoles full of Molnar Pinot Noir, I felt entirely at one with the world, even if the world might have felt that I seemed a little blurry.

I know that some restaurants in New York should be in the Top Five. Well, I tried David Chang’s Ma Peche. It was very sweet, in a New York way. But it hasn’t pestered the memory. Strangely, Morimoto New York actually did.

This, despite it seeming like the designers of Studio 54 wanted one last chance to re-create the atmosphere before one last snort of coke sent them to their collective graves. The food, you see, was just so beautifully done. From the tuna pizza to the kobe beef to the extraordinarily dextrous service from someone who wasn’t actually an actress or a dancer.

Yes, she was a singer. No, wait, perhaps she was a dancer. But a really good one.

Finally, to make my top five as pan-American as my travels have allowed, might I add one more Bay Area offering? This place is called Marlowe. And it serves really rather simple food.

But the taste of this food is so deep and, well, motherly, that it’s as if your imagination was taken to a time when the only thing you feared was that a girl in a short gym skirt and long white socks preferred Sidney the Sideburned Dork to you.

It really is quite lovely. From the salad that is meticulously prepared and as fresh as your last advances on a teenager, to dessert that’s served in a jar and contains the kind of evil that might best be described as good.

Oh, can I throw in a sixth? Jose Andres’ China Poblano in Las Vegas. The wine was as desperate as the food was sublime. It was as if the very best of real cooking had been transported to the city of prostitution, in order to offer it a soupcon of virtue.

While I still savor the good, might I mention the totally awful? Just for a brief moment? And in reverse order?

So Citizen Cake, San Francisco. Um, why? Your service came from the Soviet Union. The food was so cold it was as if it was shipped from there too.

Gitanes, San Francisco. There really wasn’t any service to speak of. The food was mediocre. Which was a shame, as the room itself made you want to take your clothes off and have sex with everyone there.

Prospect, San Francisco. The naked king wants his new clothes back. He’s cold.

Flour and Water, San Francisco. I am sorry. I know they are very nice there. But I had a salad there that was as undressed as the King with new clothes above. It wasn’t underwhelming. There was simply no whelm at all.

And, finally, my number one and undisputed worst meal of the last nine months. Please stand and heckle the Murray Circle Restaurant at Cavallo Point.

This was not like taking a beautiful woman home from a bar in Singapore and discovering she is a man.

This was far, far worse. For a restaurant that has a Michelin star to deliver this level of sheer and complete tastelessness, you might have wondered if somehow Courtney Love had taken over in the kitchen for the night.

Here was food that was beautifully presented and tasted like paper. You know, the kind of paper you get in bulk at Best Buy.

It takes a lot for my paramour to get upset about food. She has so much sympathy with those who work in kitchens that she wants to go in there and personally tip them all.

But even she could not hold herself in any longer and asked the server for some salt. And pepper.

I can only assume that the people who prepared this food were on drugs of such a strong nature that their noses were disabled and their tongues were numb.

This was food that, if it had been served as the last meal for a condemned man, would have left him desperate to enter the next life, so as never to endure something so awful again.

Perhaps I sound harsh. But when you’re spending around $500 for three people, you hope that you might be able to tell the difference between fish and meat, between vegetable and protein.

Singularly, the most painful restaurant experience since I dated a waitress who tried to lock me in a freezer because, she claimed, I cast lascivious eyes upon one of the chefs.

And there we have it. A Side of Pretentious has returned. Who knows for how long?


I was recently introduced to “Iron Chef, Yankee Version” by she who never says “dinner’s ready”, but barks “I’m plating”.

When I watched the show, I wondered if my mind had been surreptitiously altered by science. For there stood a strange presenter, who seemed to possess an even stranger makeup artist.

He didn’t stand for long. He was soon performing scenes from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Which immediately made me wonder whether bits of cloth, sweat and foundation would be unfortunately sprinkled onto the secret ingredient.

Or whether, in fact, bits of cloth, sweat and foundation were the secret ingredient.

I had seen this man once before– on “Dancing with the Stars”, in which he was really not terribly good.

As for the so-called Iron Chefs who were standing like portly versions of statues at the Roman Forum, I recognized Bobby Flay and Mario Batali.

The short lady, whose name turned out to be Cat Cora, used to work, I subsequently discovered, at Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa. Which is nice enough for a tipsy lunch.

The large Japanese gentleman, however, I might have seen playing the sidekick to a James Bond villain. If he had played the sidekick to a James Bond villain, that is.

Rather beautiful, no?

Masaharu Morimoto seems to have appeared on the original Japanese version of “Iron Chef”, which was presented by the uncle of the strange crouching, leaping presenter from “Iron Chef, Yankee Version”.

Morimoto strikes me as the sort of man who, at school, would have happily swallowed a live komodo dragon just for the fun of it.

He has the smiling eyes and the deadly mouth of a Mafia don and his ponytail suggests he has, at times, struggled with his inner Joaquin Cortez.

Still, he seems to win quite a lot on “Iron Chef, Yankee Version”, and I am certain that he pretends not to be able to speak English, as he secretly curses some of the more ignorant judges in his own tongue.

I understand Morimoto already has a restaurant in, among other places, Philadelphia, which can only mean that there might, within, reside a penchant for sado-masochism.

Which might explain why he had opened a restaurant in Napa. The minute I heard– or perhaps several weeks later– I persuaded the Cordon Bleuhard, my companion in brine, to join me in experiencing Iron Cuisine.

Morimoto Napa, situated in a riverside part of Napa in which old bricks seems not to be allowed, has only just opened. So we thought we’d waft in at an early time in the hope of perching at the sushi bar.

Don't be fooled into thinking sushi is the thing here.

There is something quite soothing about watching the chefs ply their seaweed.

They cannot spit. They cannot drip snot. Though they can still curse in a foreign language.

For no obvious reason, I imagined that Morimoto Napa would be an intimate place. Instead, it was as if Kitchen Stadium, the pervertedly odd studio setup in which “Iron Chef, Yankee Version” is filmed, had been rewarded with a tasteful designer and a budget exceeding $20.

They fool you when you walk in. A few tables are sprinkled by the host stand and you imagine that intimacy will be possible here. But as we were walked towards the sushi bar, it felt like a walk down the tunnel at Cowboy Stadium.

The noise came down the corridor to greet us with a large hug around the ears.

Our seats, at the left end of the sushi bar, were wonderfully comfortable and the bar resembled something that I’d once done in craft lessons at high school, save that it was done extremely well.

It offered elements of rustic cabins, uneven wooden edges as they’d come straight from the trunk, matched by antler-like branches of wood on the walls.

However, as we twisted around in our seats, we began to appreciate that this place is huge. It was as if a New York restaurant had gone bust and some wily cove had bought all of the fixtures, fittings and chefs and transported them to little Napa.

The quite wondrous tuna pizza.

The tables stretch from the bar straight back to the river. They stretch all the way onto the terrace. They stretch to the right as you walk down, into another large room. Could this be why there seemed to be fifty people shuffling around the open kitchen, coming, going, and staying only to do some doing?

This isn’t a restaurant. This is one vast operating theater of war. It seems as if Morimoto has decided that you can only scale at scale. You can only gut fish if there are hundreds of people present, ready to swallow your talent and your pretexts and ready to declare you the winner.

The menu seems to have has many items as the restaurant has tables.

There are cold starters, hot starters, hot entrees, sushi and all sorts of other delightful elements. The Cordon Bleuhard and I tried to order a fine subsection, although we avoided the $75 wagyu beef. This would have been the tail wagyuing the dog.

First came the tuna pizza, which seemed to be adorned with anchovy aioli, olives and jalapeno. I have a personal aversion to both olives and jalapeno. The former taste to me only of mothballed wardrobe, the latter of a scalding poker, having been rammed up my behind, emerging through my mouth.

The Cordon Bleuhard knew this, which was, no doubt, why she ordered it.

What made me question my own being was that I loved this pizza. It spoke of an alive cleanliness I had last experienced at Tahoe in springtime. With a nun.

The crust was thinner than Amy Winehouse and the whole thing disappeared into my mouth like a secret. Was this going to be one of those meals in which the first thing you eat is the best and then everything fails to achieve precisely the same effect?

Well, yes. But wait.

Melon Tempura with Jamon Iberico

The melon tempura with Jamon Iberico was just the right side of sweet. And with a glass of passable chenin blanc– or in my resident expert’s case, a very tasty yuzu julep– it performed an excellent slide into my uninhabited regions.

It hadn’t introduced itself properly to my duodenum before along came Kakuni. This is ten-hour pork belly, rice congee and soy-scallion jus. This is utterly evil and utterly winning as its meaty richness glides between your teeth like a perfectly-bottomed speed-skater.

I know that the Cordon Bleuhard hadn’t looked at the menu beforehand. These three, her choices, were mistressful.

Because I have something of a sushi fetish, I thought I’d order a few basics to see what kind of nigiri falls from the fingers of iron men.

I looked at the menu and thought “gosh, this sushi is reasonable priced”. This was slightly before I realized it was priced by the single piece.

While we waited for it to arrive, we chatted to our server, who explained that she’d had two and a half weeks’ training, that most of the servers were local people and that many of the chefs had been imported from the East Coast to man the launch.

Ten hour pork belly. Gone in ten seconds.

The sushi was being made only by Japanese men, although I was vaguely disconcerted to see one of them smile, laugh and even pose for some ignorant tourist’s picture.

I am sorry. I should not have written that. I should have focused on their clothing rather than making mental allegations. I will come to the clothing shortly.

The sushi was good, but certain not better than that you will find at three Bay Area restaurants: Tsukiji, Sushi Ran and Sebo. Morimoto’s inventiveness doesn’t seem to appear in the traditional areas.

It was the traditional quilts, however, that almost spoiled the whole experience. When a restaurant emphasizes style as well as substance, when its vast vibrancy offers something one doesn’t normally associate with Napa, how tempting it must be to institute a strict, if subjective, dress code.

The sushi.

On the evidence of my one visit, might I suggest a dress code that Morimoto might enforce?

1. Women are not allowed to wear quilts. I don’t care if it cost $400. I don’t care if you bought it in a boutique in St. Helena or St. Kitts. I don’t care if it’s warm and ecological. If you come to my restaurant wearing something I last saw in my dead aunt’s house on a bed (and I am not referring to my dead aunt), then you can’t come in.

2. Prints in general must be tasteful. And if you don’t know what tasteful is, don’t wear prints. There were people in Morimoto Napa– alright, yes, women– who didn’t seem to understand the most basic principles of camouflage. It’s supposed to cover you up. It is not supposed to make you look like you are modeling Bulgarian wallpaper.

3. Old white fat men must wear dark colors. Somehow, there seemed to be far too many portly gentlemen of some years who thought they looked good in white, baggy, woolly things. No. And certainly not if they’re sleeveless.

Perhaps I should not preach my peeves as gospel. But I do feel, given that the servers were largely the best dressed on, no doubt, the most meager budgets, you’d think the hoi polloi might have done something to assuage my need to pour hoi sin all over their whole polloi.

The servers were clearly models of taste, grace and efficiency. So I was slightly disturbed that, during a conversation with our server, one of the managers, in a short, unfetching dress of very borderline print, hovered over and tried to attract her attention in the style of a uniformed goon on “Prison Break”.

This seemed to herald the arrival of dessert. Which heralded the arrival of a limpid end to an enjoyable evening.

The Cordon Bleuhard prefers to rule wherever she can. When it comes to desserts, she prefers to overrule. She knows better and that is all she has to say, for it is all she knows.

No, that is not a nipple. That is your dessert.

So she ordered some kind of creme brulee nonsense. Blueberry and earl grey, I believe.

I am open-minded, but when a $12 dessert is the size of a British one pound coin, then my seat at the sushi bar tends to vibrate.

This was the size of an amuse-bouche. In reality, it was an abuse-poche.

This was the equivalent of someone throwing a brick through your window and then ringing the doorbell to see how far it went.

This is not how a generally very good meal should end. It should end with a temptation towards a dessert wine, a port, or a coffee. It should not end with the grunt of an elk with hemorrhoids. (That was the Bleuhard, not me.)

Oh, Morimoto. I will not give you scores, like those unemployed actresses and oily, unlovable food writers on “Iron Chef, Yankee Version”.

I will simply entreat you to heed my small suggestions. If you don’t I shall be forced to put on a large cloth nappy and push you into the Napa River while you shout for help in a New York accent.

I know you speak English, you see. I just know you do.

I didn’t set foot in a restaurant until I was 18.

Restaurants, like golf courses, tennis clubs and bordellos, were the domains of people who had money, connections or, at least, connections to money.

Everyone had more money than my family. Except for my uncle and his square-headed wife, who may, or may not have been a spy and may, or may not, have written an alternative and, as yet, unpublished version of the Bible.

So you might decide that, when it comes to haute cuisine, I am an haute-and-haute ingenu. Or even an haute-and-haute idiot.

But if I think back to my past, in which a steak house seemed like a sanctuary, then a visit to what I am told may, or may not, be one of the most famous restaurants in the world, is a strange event.

No, I never thought I would eat at the French Laundry. Indeed, for the very longest time, I had no real conception of what eating in a restaurant might entail. It took a friend of mine to, well, teach me.

The French Laundry's kitchen clock

Yes, just like some bumptious, bumpkin Eliza Doolittle, I was taken around to restaurants of a passable caliber by a lady of somewhat more advanced years and taught about such strange notions as which fork to grab first, where to put the napkin and how to eat prawns without ruining my shirt and the one of the man at the next table.

It’s been a long journey.

There were times when waiters would look at me with an expression that uttered: “You are truly the biggest prattling prick from whose back it has ever been my displeasure to earn $15 an hour.”

Or even: “If they’re letting people like you in here, the dry rot is more serious than I thought.”

So the road to the French Laundry was paved with cobbles, grit, potholes and mines. Yet here I finally was. In the most twee part of Northern California: Yountville.

The French Laundry, should you not have made it yet (in life), is the core of Thomas Keller’s little empire, much of which is stretched along one street, Washington Street.

This restaurant is the one that made his name, his reputation and, his ability to take some time off and play golf.

The restaurant itself looks like a nice house in New Jersey. You might expect a marketing director to live there with his three children and broadly-accented recalcitrant wife.

There is a garden across the road, in which much of your meal will have been cultivated. Anyone can walk through it and steal a strawberry or two.

Some people buy the field across the road from their house to keep llamas. These people decided to put in a cash cow.

I tried not to read anything about the French Laundry before going there.

I tried not even listening to my ever-faithful companion, she of the Cordon Bleuhard training.

For her, this was a journey into the inner sanctum of her art. For me, this was a trip into something that might hurt.

The salmon cones.

That’s the thing with places that enjoy a reputation that mushrooms into a cloud of silver, with just a small white puffy lining.

The reputation will always be far bigger than you. The aura has already wrapped itself a couple of times around the world, gracefully enwebbing anyone with an opinion or even merely a mouth and an ear.

What you think doesn’t really matter. There will always be more people who have been seduced, who have heard, who know they must go.

For a while, the French Laundry could serve six courses of offal and people would still marvel.

Unaccountably, I expected everyone to be beautiful, everything to be pristine and cultured. What I found was an awakening akin to Kathy Bates in a very miserable mood.

This was not necessarily a bad thing.

Oysters and Pearls

However, the first impression was truly quite odd. The host was perched behind his stand like a priest behind a lectern.

But it wasn’t his saintliness that startled. It was his stunning lack of pulchritude.

For some reason, I had imagined that the French Laundry would be populated by the brothers and sisters of the 72 virgins that apparently await people of certain persuasions who wreak certain destructions.

Yet here was a man in a light gray suit who looked as if his previous job had been the punchbag in a local boxing club.

He was charming, of course. But it was almost as if someone had hired him in order to jolt the customers out of idyllic reverie and into a studied focus on the purpose of the evening.

It was as if this host was an inscription from Thomas Keller that read: “It’s the food, stupid.”

We were a little early, so the fully-gargled gargoyle asked us to wait in the garden.

The weather was warmer than the armpit of a solarium worker, so the late-evening sun massaged us into a glow.

When a pleasant and highly unassuming lady came to tell us our table was ready, there was no snootiness, no pose. This could truly have been anywhere.

We were led to a table in an alcove. Two men on an assignation were seated to my right. Behind me was a table occupied by six people– it could even have been eight– who had perhaps been there for some time.

I surmise this only because they spoke not in whispers but in loud self-satisfied bellows that suggested one bottle too many, one hour too long and one parent too privileged.

Doesn't that butter look like sorbet to you?

As we were presented with the menu, a large female voice from behind us barked: “I wonder if they have any Sutter Home! I want Sutter Home!”

Sutter Home is very serviceable, effective wine. But the chances of it being served at the French Laundry are about the same as the chances of Bono making a sex video with Queen Victoria.

Were these people, like the host, extras? Had they been hired at the behest of some reality show that my Cordon Bleuhard companion had secretly sold to Fox?

The servers, all so remarkably normal-looking that they would never have so much as a sniff at a job with American Apparel, seemed to be handling the noise with grace.

But this was the French Laundry. These people were, essentially, farting in church. Loudly. And lifting one of their buttocks from their seat, as if they hadn’t a care in the world.

What was the culinary equivalent of a celestial thunderbolt? Couldn’t it come down and sever their lips from their faces?

“Are you serious?” came a voice from behind me. Then, the reply: ‘Yes! I want some fucking Sutter Home!”

I had always imagined that, in the most refined restaurants of the world, no one could disturb you other than those with whom you had volunteered to eat. I had imagined that one of the defining characteristics of a fine dining restaurant was that you might hear a hum, but certainly not the mindless mouthings of a bum.

Yet here was I having to cast my eyes over the nine-course tasting menu while being tempted to cast a right cross to my immediate rear.

You might wonder how much one should pay for nine courses. Well, in this instance it’s $250. However, if you’d like to pay more, the French Laundry is happy to give you that option.

For example, for course number two I opted for moulard duck “foie gras au torchon”. This cost me another $30. But I could also have opted on course number six for “45-Day Dry Aged Snake River Farms Beef Sirloin.”

It wasn’t that this was an additional $75 that put me off. It’s that 45 is not a lucky number for me. I have always been partial to 44. My next happy number after that is 56. 45 simply feels a little uncertain.

The Pretzel Bread

Our server, perhaps the best looking of this curiously human crew, was again a paragon of understatement.

No faux patronizing qualities. No greasy-browed bow that signified a certain sense of desperately wanting to offer you a public humiliation involving four sticks, a box of matches, a mace and a poker and a copy of the Wine Spectator.

Oddly enough, the food wasn’t pretentious either.

I know this was fine dining. But the menu stayed just the right side of “You are pulling the other one, just as I’d asked and it really is having no tangible effect on my sense of belief.”

It all began with two little cheese ball doughnut things– so called gougeres– and moved quickly into passion fruit ice cream in a cone.

This seemed like the wrong order to me, until the Cordon Bleuhard explained to me that this was salmon.

This, she continued was a signature dish. Which, I suppose, is like a signature hole on a golf course. You’re supposed to remember this long after you’ve forgotten about some of the other holes.

It tasted like the 7th hole at Pebble Beach. A little shorter than I would have liked, but entirely refreshing and humorous.

Soon came Oysters and Pearls.

Just the pleasant side of rich, just the smooth side of decadent, this oysters and sturgeon caviar thing had the same unsuspecting quality as Viagra touching up a martini.

It disappeared in four mouthfuls, however. And I began to understand that the purpose of this menu was to tease you until you were within an inch of tumescence before whispering in your ear “not yet, not yet.”

Watermelon What?

Suddenly, they put two types of butter on the table. One looked like lemon sorbet that had been in the sun for a while. The other, well, this I recognized as butter and introduced it to a sweet little salty roll that had appeared to my left.

While I commingled with the foie gras, my companion, she who lives, cooks and thinks in mysterious ways, ordered a salad of compressed watermelon. This seemed to lean rather heavily on the compressed side of life.

It had little bits of red, little bits of green and your mother might have thought it was the leftovers after the salad had already been eaten.

Then came a squid. Not on its own, but with a couple of friends. Then came a lobster, who found himself somewhat friendless. Although the pretzel bread softened the disappointment.

The poularde's thighs, at your service

A poularde’s thighs wandered by, followed by nature-fed veal. Which is surely better than machine-fed veal.

Everything was lovely. Everything came after an appropriate pause after the previous delicacy. Nothing tasted bad. But somehow, nothing left a vast memory either.

It felt a little like going to a Frank Sinatra concert and watching Frank distill fifteen of his greatest hits into a medley.

Some of these were dishes I’d felt I’d eaten before, in some near guise, at some distant time.

Perhaps the brain, the mind and the stomach simply cannot process too many good things at one time. Perhaps one’s chemicals force one to be selective because not everything can deserve the same level of positive reaction.

Perhaps, though, one simply expects better than very good from a meal that, with wine, will leave you enough for the parking meter from a grand.

But then there was the cheese.

Now I know what it tastes like when a dog chews a shoe. Now I know what some oral experiences those who are lost for weeks in the woods must occasionally encounter in their desperation to stay alive.

This cheese, called Humboldt Fog, was the oral equivalent of a mugging.

The wonderfully awful cheese

I cannot conceive why anyone would enjoy, tolerate or even stomach eating this, what seemed like the largest course on the whole menu.

Perhaps it was there as the straight man. I would have tossed it straight at the table behind, if it hadn’t been for the fact that they had all by now disappeared into the garden in order to annoy the local wildlife.

After the Humboldt Fog, there was no real recovery. An apricot sorbet was followed by some blueberries that arrived with pine nut nougatine, limone cagliata and buttermilk sherbet.

It was pleasant. Very pleasant. It was good. Very good. But pleasant, good and even very good can be found in many places at many prices.

For the whole evening, the service had been subliminal and sublime. The sight of people working hard, delivering a performance, made one think of the utter genuineness of the contestants on “So You Think You Can Dance?”

These were young people whose only relief could come from perfection, whose only pleasure could come from uncontrolled praise uttered at one in the morning, when the last customers (us) had wandered into the night, ready not to sleep for another three or four hours.

We were given a tour of the kitchen, during which the head chef sat wearily on a stool, as if he was waiting for his cornermen to patch him up and send him back out there for the next round.

And still they work

How hard it must be, when your name has been spun by so many media cycles, when it has become a symbol as much as a real place, to create an experience beyond that of human imagination.

How hard it must be when you can never surpass expectations, only either confirm them or disappoint.

In some ways, unknowingly, I had waited my whole life for this.

The sadness is that though I know that I enjoyed every course– except for that painful, stinking, unnecessarily cruel cheese– I can’t remember precisely the taste of anything.

I know they say you should leave them wanting for more. But I remember the people more than the food. Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Perhaps it shouldn’t. That’s entertainment.

Sometimes, one ends up at restaurants for strange reasons.

For me, it could be because someone else has a particular enthusiasm that I simply have to tolerate. It could be because someone knows someone who works at the restaurant and, well, the restaurant’s not doing very well. Or it could be because someone wants to have a good laugh at me trying to go to the restroom.

I cannot guarantee that the restroom reason is the one that brought me to CoCo500. But it cannot be discounted.

This, as much of my life experience, was not my choice.

CoCo500 is in a part of San Francisco where techies carrying laptop purses attempt to ignore street people pushing supermarket trolleys.

It’s not an edifying site, and if some of the street people happened to be paid by unscrupulous producers to punch some of the techie types on camera, I fear this would not be entirely unenjoyable. Nor, indeed, unjust.

My companion for the evening was she who “knows” more about food. Or, rather, she who knows “more” about food. Or perhaps she who knows more about “food.” Anyway, she “knew” that this was a restaurant not to be missed. Or at least a friend of hers did.

I am a trusting soul. I have the heart of a labrador. However, I also have the legs of middle infielder from the Dominican Republic. Both these facts are relevant.

CoCo500 bustles like a train station at Thanksgiving. Staff seem to be heading this way and that, as if trying to ensure that everyone gets on the right train to see the right lover. And, as I wandered in, I noticed a stunning flower arrangement just to the right of the bar.

The greeting, which my regular reader will know is extremely important to my insecure soul, consisted of a hearty eyeful of contact and a surprisingly measured sense of control.

Then my rear end entered someone’s entree.

This was not at their invitation and caused a little embarrassment on both sides. I was not aware, at this stage, whether the restaurant offered pork cheeks, or, indeed, cheeks of any kind. So my back end becoming a side serving caused a rather elderly man the sort of discomfort he might last have experienced at the D-Day landings.

The tables, you see, are closer together than the sides of a virgin starling’s sphincter. This place makes Frances seem like it was one of those Alain Ducasse establishments where each table is helpfully given its own zipcode.

The famous fried green beans.

I tried to be gentle. I moved my thighs very slowly, very gingerly, truly believing that if I just kept the whole of my body parallel to the table edges, no crockery would be moved, no old people would get an extra helping. But I was hungry, and therefore unsteady.

The only saving grace, perhaps, was that the gentleman in question was not eating a large plateful of creme fraiche. He was not angry. Though I could not see the size of his thighs, I feel sure that, as he wiped a little of his plate, he knew what I had just been through. And not merely his main course.

A little flushed, and not with pride, I ordered a chenin blanc and the food of life. Yes, they have sardines. To my heart’s palpably pained palpitation, the former was warmer than the latter. And the bread, while not as ancient as the chap next to me, was clearly part of a method acting group that delighted in mimicking the age of the guests.

Still, there were the sardines. Which looked beautiful. There was only one small issue. They didn’t taste like sardines. Honestly, they didn’t taste like anything, which meant that the only sensation my mouth enjoyed, other than attempting to regain some moisture, was the oil in which the sardines were paddling.

Thankfully, my companion, she who strangely believes in the power of dreams, the pain of love and the ability of  CAV Wine Bar and Kitchen to serve interesting food, arrived and demanded succor.

She does not have large thighs. Not that this made a difference, as she was not required to squeeze between tables to take up her repose. This left her to find a positive frame of mind and order for us.

She told me, because she knows, that CoCo500 is famous for its fried green beans. It is good to be famous for something, as Danny Bonaduce might say. Soon, not only did we have beans, but there materialized a ceviche, a crab dish, a duck terrine, some tripe and some mushrooms.

The fried green beans you might know as tempura. You’d probably prefer the tempura you’ve had many times in a Japanese restaurant than this perfectly acceptable, but hardly characterful affair. The ceviche was a success. It seemed sure of itself without being Tom Cruise. It knew how to hold a conversation without hogging it. And it certainly didn’t feel the need to shout.

The mushrooms. Note the wine forest characteristics.

As for the rest, oh, despite the fact that the mushrooms were apparently from a wine forest and the tripe was, for all I know, shipped straight from a local council meeting, somehow the taste was all too Ann Taylor.

Just at the moment that my accomplice was ready to order dessert– neither her heart nor her voice are faint– the kind elderly man seated on the edge of my hip finally got up and said his goodbyes. He inadvertently offered both of us a kiss on the cheek.

Neither of us took the risk, but I had to hold on to my newly-arrived and perfectly understated pinot noir while examining the fine tailoring on his rear pleats.

I almost feel like a French history professor staring out at his audience of dullards and trying to excite them with the line: “And then there was Robespierre!” For then there was Vacherin!

For those of you whose French is limited to swingers parties, the first part of the word is French for “cow.” I personally know several cows that could not possibly have eaten this dessert. Not because it tasted bad. It was a good, solid, ice creamy, meringuey sort of thing.

But the presentation reminded one of the head of a plotter, post-Guillotine. It was as if a cow had been dropped from the moon, with hope rather than precision, and these were the parts that had landed on the plate.

Had I eaten it all, I would never have been able to go to the restroom. Because my thighs would have swelled to the width of Sarah Palin’s gall.

The vacherin. Just look at that thing.

Please feel free to consider me an idiot when I tell you that the most successful part of the meal cost $3. They were called Cococups and they were little peanut buttery, chocolatey things that were tasty and would not have caused an alteration in your tailoring measurements. (Yes, my companion had ordered two desserts. She can be like that.)

This was a difficult experience, because the staff were attentive and good-humored throughout, yet the food did not sufficiently disturb the memory.

It took quite some negotiation with the couple who had come to occupy the seats on my left hip and my companion’s right in order to leave my seat without considerable lacerations to my thigh and what remains of my self-possession.

They told us they were married and had met at Burning Man. “What’s good?” the lady asked me, with all the excitement of this being their weekly date night.

“The service,” I replied. “Oh, and the beef cheeks.” They come with watercress and horseradish, in case you wondered.

Never having been asked to design a restaurant, I sometimes wonder whether chefs and their moneymen sit around dreaming of the kind of clientele that will wander through their doors.

Do they imagine how they might be dressed? Do they dream of “Chanel” rather than “Channeling Paris Hilton”? Do they tell themselves that the wise, the beautiful and the sweetly eccentric will exclusively chew on their food, leaving no place for pin-striped suits, pin-headed pipsqueaks from Poughkeepsie or the shorter members of the Baldwin family?

This thought sat quietly in my head like an acupuncture needle as I sat quietly at Bouchon. This, for those who have been under house arrest since the fall of Pol Pot, is the Thomas Keller restaurant next to his bakery in Yountville.

Yountville seems little more than a place where you eat, drink and then have it expunged by colonic irrigation experts wearing colored rubber gloves. But its main street, named after Denzel Washington, is full of buildings with facades that birds don’t dare defecate upon.

These include four establishments owned by the very famous chef who is not too proud to tell you how to roast a chicken on that very strange man Bourdain’s TV show. (It seems to be something to do with a figure-of-eight and bondage. The chicken technique, not the show.)

Bouchon is intended, I believe, to be a French brasserie with a few little tasteful twists, such as a menu that is rolled up on your plate and bread that pops out of the oven next door and tempts you into believing that Kirstie Alley’s is the next big look.

This was a business meeting and a weekday, which, in my estimation, would show the restaurant in its normal repose, free of the false French and the Real Housewives of New Jersey. At least that’s what I thought.

It was early evening and four of us were placed inside the restaurant, which, while it looked perfectly akin to a French brasserie, somehow made me wish I was on its little terrace.


The funeral of a legendary Indian trout.

The air was full of professionalism and empty of character. I lie. It was empty of characters. I looked around the room and everyone was white, size medium to large. Even the servers seemed to have been taken from central, very central casting, exuding the sort of pleasant that reminds one of those new biodegradable bags from Sun Chips.

Oh, I’m 400 words in, so let’s just survey the food. We ordered all sorts of things. Because we could. The mushroom soup, with huge numbers of tiny pepper sprinkles was creamy beyond a cow’s imaginings. It didn’t bother knocking on the door. It merely poured itself through tiny gaps and said hello from your inside.

The goat cheese salad was affectionate, yet one of my table ordered some deep fried something, which was so battered as to leave the something to one’s imagination rather than one’s digestion.

Still, there was the trout. Perhaps one should never become excited by something so mundane. Yet here was this silver bowl, like a large version of the one in which surgeons place their implements, containing a fish that might well have been dead, but had been buried with full military honors.

It was almost like one of those funeral pyres on which Indians place their dead maharishis. Almonds and green beans had been so carefully placed into the trout’s innards that I really did want to set it all on fire rather than eat it.

In the end, eating it was a wonderful experience. Especially when the server brought fourteen side orders of french fries, all stuffed into a giant vase and claimed that, yes, sir, this was just one order.

croque madame- Bouchon

The croque madame. With a couple of French Fries.

Around the table there was a rabbit cassoulet, stuffed with beans, which had one small cold section, but was hot on the whole. There was also a croque madame, which, were you to eat it regularly, would certainly have turned you into a crock, madame.

Though it was decadent, I feel confident that its brassy wonderfulness might just as well have cured several common diseases, such as the hangover, and, perhaps, even the one-night stand.

However, a trip to the restroom temporarily sent my palate, and my will to live, rather askew. On the way back I looked at the bar, which seemed to have been surrounded by extremely wealthy patients of Dr. Phil.

Though Bouchon is not exactly cheap, here was an extraordinary collection of overpriced and rather tasteless men’s shirts, pants and what might politely be called (by the deranged) “leisurewear.” The ladies outfits were no better. Pale yellow trusses that seemed to have been converted into blouses, cardigans of unlimited beige.

There must have been $20,000 worth of tastelessness amongst the ten or twelve people there.

And then there were the faces. Here is where you go to see that money doesn’t buy you happiness. Faces longer than a Hugo Chavez speech hung over the bar. Their lower eyelids rested upon their top lips, as if they had seen too much and done too little.

It’s not that these people were old. It’s just that they looked as if they thought they had been the lead in some dazzling Hollywood movie, only to discover, on viewing the final cut, that they were extras.

tart citron-Bouchon

She dresses with such taste. Unlike so many at the bar.

Had these people made a ton of money, moved to Napa and discovered that even sunshine and decadence had its limits? Were they all thrice-spliced soaks who couldn’t now smell the difference between a cab and a lab?

At times like these, there is only one thing that can save you. Turn away and order dessert. Oh, there were profiteroles, alright. Perfectly good. Perfectly bad for you.

But there was something else. A tarte au citron, which, our server warned us, in an act of stunning honesty that might have suggested he thought we weren’t from “around here”, was not very popular.

It was the tarte au citron that wasn’t from “around here”. This was the perfect Frenchwoman. Just bitter enough, just sweet enough, and just sensuous enough to create an indelible relationship between your throat and the hairs on the back of your neck.

As we left, I couldn’t help but look back at the bar. The faces were still long, the eyes still empty and the glasses still full. Would I end up this way? Or could I still hope for something better?

I could. I walked straight out the door, straight into the Bouchon bakery and bought some more bread.

The wine bar was originally created for two reasons.

One, it was a place where women of improved self-perception could go to chat without being molested by men. Two, it was a place where men of improved self-perception could go to pick them up.

So I was struck by a curious development in the culinary/sexual paradigm, when I read on Open Table that there existed a place that had designed its menu around the wines it served. And the place was a wine bar. CAV Wine Bar.

Situated next to a prostrate old lady with a slightly tattered dress– her name is Zuni Cafe– CAV Wine Bar sounded like the perfect place for a Saturday night. With a date. You know, a girl that you didn’t need to pick up because you already had.

I booked a table, expecting the place to be packed. Instead, there were a few people at the bar, eying each other in the expectation of hope. We were led past the bar by the very nice greeter person to the restaurant part.

If you would like to call it the “restaurant part”, I cannot stop you. I wouldn’t, however, encourage it. This was a “restaurant part” designed by a bipolar acid dealer with a domineering mother.

To my left, a photograph of an old Bosnian. Or perhaps Mongolian. In front of me, a wall of corks. Yes, corks, plugged into the wall as if the “restaurant part” had suffered many mice-induced floods. Behind me, a wall of graffiti that had been, perhaps, sprayed on by someone on work experience. Or crack.

Still, I reminded myself, there was the food. There was the excitement of enjoying a menu designed around the wine list. There was the excitement that had clearly not yet been enjoyed by everyone, as there was only one other occupied table in the “restaurant part.”

Our server, a slightly elfin-like lady, came up to us, gave us the menu and, shortly afterward, asked us if we had any questions.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “Please tell us something about how the menu is designed around the wine list.”

She stared at me for a mite less than a nanosecond and replied: “It isn’t.”

This was a little like walking into Starbucks and being told they only sold knitting needles. This was like walking into Wal-Mart and discovering the greeter was not a cadaver.

The cold, cold, cold duck.

The server seemed to have no conception that the menu had ever been designed around the wine list. She seemed to have every conception that I had recently been released from a protective establishment and she explained that the chef simply cooked whatever he felt like.

I ordered a relatively cheap bottle of Portuguese Douro and tried to focus on the menu’s very few dishes. I am always reassured when there isn’t so much on the menu. It gives the impression that the chef must have both chops and cojones. Rarely does it ever occur to me that perhaps the restaurant has no cash flow and a fridge the size of Danny DeVito.

My liege and I ordered three starters, as she is fond of experiencing the full range of any man’s capabilities. However, I will admit to being a little taken aback that a wine bar could charge more than $20 for a charcuterie plate.

We ordered a salad, which was pleasant and sweet. We ordered crispy pig’s trotters which tasted good and meaty. And we ordered a grilled Monterey squid with housemade kimchi, which might best have been described as housemade kimchi intended to separate your toupee from your scalp with a prize for anyone who could taste any squid.

Still, my companion explained to me that everything was beautifully plated. While I explained to her that I needed assistance from the Fire Service.

Then we waited. And we waited. And we waited. Which was curious, because someone who resembled the executive chef (you know, sweaty person with clean, white clothes and a prominent tummy) was hanging around the doorway to the kitchen as if he had nothing better to do.

Our entrees came just as my tongue renewed its relationship with my positive sensory system. Before us were halibut cheeks with sea beans and radish and duck breast with faro and spring garlic.

They had all the warmth of Arab/Israeli peace talks.

Please, I am not implying lukewarmity. I am not implying that they ought to have enjoyed slightly more heat. These dishes were as cold as a Goldman Sachs heart.

Moreover, while the plating was, no doubt, inflating, the meating was fleeting. This was food for a ravenous garden gnome. There was barely anything there.

Oh, if I’d thought about it, I might admit that it didn’t taste bad. We were so hungry, you see, we had waited so long (well, another two tables were now occupied) that we just got on with it. Getting on with it took approximately two minutes and forty-five seconds to leave the plates empty.

The Baby Food Gateau.

In an act of misplaced respect, my companion of honor insisted on dessert. She liked the sound of it. I feared the size of it.

I was made to declare myself for the tres leches cake with something called horchata sherbet and puffed rice. It reminded me of baby food, sweet and ineffably pointless.

Also on the table was a rhubarb/fennel terrine with thyme ice cream, mini buttermilk biscuit and vanilla creme fraiche. My table partner batted her lips up and down like a rabbit espying, well, another rabbit at a certain time of year. She muttered erotic sussurations that seemed to include words like “inventiveness”, “playfulness” and “joy of sex.”

I found myself as impressed as I was by Mariah Carey’s performance in “Glitter.”

Her Highness insisted that this chef had worked at the French Laundry, that he was clearly experimenting, that he was obviously an artist. I insisted that the sun was not fuschia, cars did not have gills and that mold could affect the mind, especially as winter became spring.

So one left CAV Wine Bar with my companion giving the chef the benefit of the doubt, while I largely regretted giving him the benefit of my credit card.

This was not awful. It was all just so misplaced, mismanaged and misconceived.

Which is strange because this was supposed to be a restaurant with a concept. It seemed that from the walls to the service to the food, the concept was merely to confuse your gray matter until you were happy to believe you were a Bosnian graffiti artist with a penchant for cork. And baby food.

It’s one thing going to a wine tasting. It’s quite another when the wine tasting comes to you. In person. From Barcelona. While you’re having dinner. In San Francisco.

It happened like this.

I found myself in need of a business dinner that would involve four people. We ended up wandering into Contigo, a tapas establishment in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. We didn’t have a reservation. Thankfully, just as we tiptoed through the doors, some halfwits had canceled their table for four.

Oh, I can’t prove that they were halfwits, but who other than a halfwit, or someone with far too many unruly children, cancels a table for four a minute before the reservation time?

Still, we were immediately led to table with a view of the kitchen. Seated on the outside half of the table, I had an excellent view of, well, the freezers. They’re actually in the restaurant. And they make you feel like you’re eating in one vast open-plan designer home that has only been slightly remodeled to feed the fifty or so people that seemed to be there.

The wine list was rather Spanish. So we asked for advice and it was suggested that we might try a strong earthy red from the Odysseus winery.

It arrived, was opened and one’s initial reaction was that a whole load of fine dirt went into making this concoction. Before we had a chance to decide whether we liked it or not, a gray-haired man with a large tummy came over and began to shake our hands.

The sardines. Things of beauty.

Personally, I am not used to gray-haired men approaching me in restaurants unless I am seated with their ex-wives who took at least half their money.

So I was temporarily flummoxed when this chap not only shook my hand, but then sat down with us. It just so happened that the winemaker of the wine that the server had just so happened to recommend to us was this gray-haired man with, I suddenly imagined, a gray-haired large tummy.

We began to chat with him aimiably and his stories, which began on the second floor, soon rose to the penthouse. He had dined at El Bulli, the world’s most famous restaurant, six times. Not five times, not seven times. Not so many times that he might not remember. Not including one time that he might have got so drunk that he couldn’t remember.

He had also cooked a paella in Jose Andres’ El Jaleo in Washington for fifty people. You know, Jose Andres, the chap with the PBS show, the burgeoning fame and the difficult combover.

I have no reason to disbelieve our guest, whose name, I believe, was Jos. Indeed, it was rather lovely how his stories opened out with a similar rhythm to his wine.

He sat, merrily chatting away, his love of food and wine (I suspect song and women might also have been preferred pursuits) emerging from his mouth like an aria from a large lady who will die in the end, while we began to enjoy the food.

(I fear Jos may have already eaten several small plates before he arrived at our table)

The food. Ah, well, yes. There was this simple green salad, which the person who had prepared it had bothered to season so that it wouldn’t taste like a simple green salad. Don’t ask me what was in it, but I saw a hazelnut or two and the dressing tasted like it had been painted by an artist rather than poured by an intern.

The anchovies were not for those who delight in beige. They slide into your mouth, bare fangs like drunken conger eels, then happily perform an end-of-party conga down your throat.

Then there were the sardines.

I am told the owner of Contigo has a quasi-sexual relationship with sardines. Something about them makes him weak in certain places and very, very strong in one other. He even has a blog called In Praise of Sardines. Though he doesn’t seem to have posted much since the beginning of the Obama Administration.

These sardines should have been given a lifetime achievement award. They exuded something so regal, so exquisite, that anyone eating more than eight would have a death wish, but one that resembled being strangled by Raquel Welch in her pre-animals-are-cuddly-and-better-than-humans-and-must-live-forever phase.

While this was occurring, we availed ourselves of some more Odysseus, by wafting into a carafe-size quaff of some white, which was more subtle than a come-on from a recently-deconvented nun and blended with the sardines with all the unexpected grace of a Turkish diplomat at a Greek toga party.

The churros. Things of love.

Oh, we did have some meat at one point. But this was generally loved by my dining companions. They praised the tripe, they lauded the meatballs. There was some lamb thing. But, no. My head was buried in Contigo’s water creatures, while my ears were glued to Jos the winemaker’s Tales of a Sybaritic Life.

Dessert did not contain any sardine dishes, which came as something of a return to the ground floor. Jos had bid us goodbye, nodding when I asked him to come to my house to make a paella for my friends. (He was off to Beverley Hills. He was practicing his nodding for that, I fear.)

Absent-mindedly, I had Blue Bottle coffee ice cream. What’s with this Blue Bottle thing? It tastes like, well, coffee. There was an order of rhubarb pie, which was remarkable in that it tasted wonderful, and therefore not at all redolent of rhubarb.

However, I must reserve a last word for the churros, which were more decadent than many a Latin American government. One would not want to re-elect them, but, goodness, did they feel good for a little while.

Drifting away from a very heartening evening, my mind finally drifted away from the sardines to Jos. And when I got home, I discovered one small fact.

According to his website, Jos Puig is not the winemaker at Odysseus. It is Sylvia Puig. (Jos is merely the owner.) A wife, perhaps? A second wife, perhaps? Or a daughter? I don’t want to know. Because now I know that the subtlety in the wine comes from a woman. This is all I need to know.

If the man who joined us was not Jos Puig, if this was some elaborate joke to which I have fallen victim, might I apologize to the real Jos Puig unreservedly? Perhaps, next time, Sylvia will join us for dinner and tell us she is to buy El Bulli and turn it into a sardine bar.