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The Art of Trying

Restaurants have taken the road to simplicity to its vapid, tasteless end

By Troy Johnson

“Quality ingredients, simply prepared.” This is the philosophy dominating American restaurants right now. It’s the Tao Te Food Ching. And it needs to go back to Zen Mountain and leave my dinner alone.

A few weeks ago, I ordered the catch of the day at a high-end seafood bistro. I received little more than a hot filet of striped bass in lemon, butter and herbs. After years of seeing it coming, it had finally arrived on my plate: The extreme, brilliantly dull apex of simplicity.

“Quality ingredients, simply prepared” has become “quality ingredients, just kind of warmed and put there.”

I understand it. When Dow Jones was still high on designer IPOs in 2006, modern cuisine became fairly precious. Young chefs with tattoos of Wylie Dufresne’s comb-over got way too excited about molecular gastronomy.

Over in New York, Dufresne suspends eggs above bacon in a geyser of cryogenic hollandaise so that it looks like Georgia O’Keefe with penis envy. His WD50 is part restaurant, part art project. Chefs saw this and realized just how boring poached salmon was. So they bought centrifuges and maltodextrin and liquid nitrogen. The results were cauliflower “blankets,” port “pearls,” elderflower “snow” and foams of all kinds.

At the peak of the economy, foams were especially out of control. Chefs had figured out a way to make our childhood dreams of eating bubble bath come true. Used as a garnish—the taste equivalent of a scent—foams are genius. They’re like food hologarms. The collection of air bubbles in front of you tastes exactly like Point Reyes Blue Cheese! Your mind is telling you this should be a thick, solidified mass of gourmet milk. And yet, it evaporates at the first hot breath. It’s as if your mouth is no longer your boring, pedestrian mouth. It is David Copperfield The Mouth.

Like any good idea, foams got coopted by the over-enthusiastic and under-talented. Your local pub started putting nothing but rosemary-scented bubble bath on a plate and charging $30. Diners finished these “designer” meals, then left to go find something to eat.

When the recession hit, foams were ridiculed as the fine dining equivalent of a beret—a trivial cliche that identified its proponent as largely un-dateable. Critics also ridiculed gels, dusts and most any innovative food form as “pretentious” or “culinary card tricks.”

I liked to think of it as “trying.”

Shamed into simplicity, chefs started going to organic farms, picking great veggies, sautéing them in pans with oil, and calling it cuisine. At another restaurant last week, I was served perfectly cooked beluga lentils that were completely, absolutely unseasoned. I’m not even sure the chef salted them. I keep waiting to order a salad and receive a single, beautiful floret of broccoli. Or see the waiter lower Marcel Duchamp’s urinal onto our table.

It’s as if, instead of selling shoes, Nordstrom decided to sell long tarps of high-quality leather. We have overestimated the power of our raw materials.

I can heat food just fine at home, drunk and unmotivated. I go to restaurants because they can do culinary card tricks. I don’t want to eat yuzu that’s the shape and texture of a pencil eraser. But it’s time we realized Lao Tzu would’ve been a really mediocre chef.

We took the road to simplicity. We’ve reached its unremarkable, vapid, tasteless end. Stop walking, guys.

The Art of Trying

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