Posted by Rob Eshman
Saveur magazine’s March issue is devoted to Los Angeles. But is it a little too devoted?
The best food journalism—like the best journalism— describes its subjects fully, both the positives and negatives. This package, written by some of our finest food writers, is edited to within a hairs breadth of puffery. Eating in Saveur’s LA is such a never ending garden of unmitigated delight, you’d think you were in, I don’t know, New York.
What did the editors leave out?
Among the good stuff, not much. Between Jonathan Gold’s pitch perfect concise essay summing up every variety of culinary experience to be had here, to Sandra Tsing Loh’s brief, intense ,memoir of a booze soaked gastronomic wake at the Oyster Bar, to Patrick Kuh’s rehash of the gin joints of old, to David Sax’s endlessly publicized ode to LA’s delis—it was all good. If you’ve been eating LA for a while and follow the food here, there was little new. But if your idea of LA cuisine is the sprout salad in Annie Hall, you will be schooled.
The problem is not what the editors included, it’s what they left out. LA, it turns out, has some improving to do. It is not a great food city. It is an almost-very good one. Here are the ten things missing from LA food, and from the current issue of Saveur:
1. Restaurants close too early.
This is a big problem. It’s hard to be a great food city when half the time you’re hungry, the restaurants are closed. Outside of Koreatown and a few other spots, LA refuses to shake its Midwestern Protestant roots. Starving at 2 am? Go to 7-11.
2. Much of LA is a food desert.
There are few food neighborhoods or food blocks or food streets, where you can walk from a great grocery to a great bar to a nice cafe to a butcher shop to a bakery—you get it. What there are disparate atomized food locations, and you’ll need a car, gas, time and a GPS linked to Jonathan Gold’s Visa card to find them. You can drive Olympic Blvd. from Crenshaw to Santa Monica and not be tempted to stop once. Try to find anything delicious in Palms. The Westside, where much of LA’s money lives, is particularly parched. I don’t remember any entries in Saveur’s issue from Pacific Palisades or Montana Ave. Do people eat there? In Paris, New York, Bangkok—- even Tel Aviv—good food and drink beckons around every corner. Here it’s always a drive away.
3. Angelenos eat to live. They don’t live to eat.
The unit of currency here is the deal, not the meal. Long lunches, long dinner, for that matter, are a rarity. Have lunch in the nicest spots and you’ll see barely a filled wine glass, much less a wine bottle. Outside the American South, the seriousness of a food culture is inversely proportional to the gallons of ice tea served at lunch. LA, whose movies and TV shows sell sexiness and cool, is not a sensuous city. It is a city of grasping, sweating, ambitious Blackberry addicts; millworkers with laptops. There is great food to be had in LA—no denying that—if only we’d give ourselves time to enjoy it.
4. Supermarkets and cars ganged up to strangle LA’s food culture. It is still trying to breathe.
These are the culprits, the twin hands on our food throat. Instead of walking to a great corner bakery, we drive to a mediocre bakery section in a supermarket. The development of the entrepreneurial, much less artisanal, specialty food store was undercut by the Ralphs and Vons and Whole Foods. When we are accustomed to second best in our own pantries, we settle for it in our restaurants as well. (But I don’t include Trader Joes in this indictment. TJs is another LA gift to food, which I think Saveur left out…)
5. The coffee culture is below average.
Again, you can drive to La Mill or Intelligentsia—neither of which are as welcoming and rejuvenating as Profeta—but one sign of a great food city is a plethora of great cafes. And they’re not called Starbucks.
6. Driving makes for a mediocre bar scene.
Don’t drink and drive + poor public transportation = let’s just have a glass of wine and stay home and watch Mad Men.
7. There are far too few outdoor dining options.
LA should be the “ultimate” sidewalk cafe city. Instead silly laws and heavy traffic have combined to keep our outdoor areas safe from people enjoying them. Tellingly, one of the most mediocre meals you can eat in LA is at a place called The Sidewalk Cafe.
8. We have the best beaches and the best weather, and some of the worst beachside dining in the world.
Think Tel Aviv. The wide beaches lined with cafes and restaurants open from morning until 3 am. Chairs and tables right down to the water. Servers in bare feet running out beers, hookah pipes, hummus, grilled fish and fresh chips and huge slabs of icy watermelon layered with feta cheese, the music mixing with the sound of crashing waves. And LA? We have Perry’s. And Gladstones 4 Crap. Shame on us.
9. No one comes to LA for the food.
The sign of the ultimate food city: people go there for the food. What makes our famous restaurants famous is not their food, but the people who eat it. Take Pizzeria Mozza. It is a near perfect recreation of a Roman pizzeria. But no sane diner will ever crave it as they would a Roman pizzeria. Because it’s not the ideal. It’s the idea of the ideal. On the other hand, you get to watch James L. Brooks eat. So there’s that. There are some wonderful places to eat in LA—Campanile, Mozza, Spago’s, all the places Saveur describes—but no one talks about them with the sense of yearning for their favorite cafe in Paris or trattoria in Venice or street food stall in Singapore. The food is at the end of the day replaceable. The scene is one of a kind. If that’s your thing.
10. The fresh, local food scene has not permeated beyond the precious.
In great food cities, even a mom and pop cafe will have market fresh food, local wine, regional specialties. Here few places behind the most precious ones have that approach. Fresh and local isn’t ubiquitous—another mark of a far from great food city.
But…. in Saveur’s defense: We do have potential. And Langers.
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February 18, 2010 | 6:10 pm
Posted by Jay Firestone
In my family, women have historically dominated the kitchens. My grandmother is an extraordinary baker. My mother is a wiz at Shabbas meals. My oldest sister is the most phenomenal pastry chef I have ever encountered. And my other sister is a serious force on the grill.
But just as the women in my family assert their culinary expertise, a real man should also know how to cook.
On average, I’d say I exercise said acts of manhood about 3-4 times per week, preparing a variety of meals that range from roast chicken to turkey tacos to teriyaki salmon.
The group of about 25 arrived at the Farmer’s Market kitchen supply store at around 6:30 for a little wine and challah. Sur la Table’s Chef, Martin Gilligan discussed the recipes and safety rules, while adding a few humorous tidbits in a valiant effort to break the initial awkwardness of the room (As soon as we started cooking, everyone seemed to warm up).
After a brief demonstration of the Chinese classic, orange chicken – kosher style, the crowd dispersed into each of the menu stations.
Morocco: Fish Tagine with Peppers and Olives.
China: Mandarin Chicken with Rice Sticks and Orange Segments
India: Vegetarian Potato Samosas with Mango Chutney
Greece: Date and Walnut Phyllo Rolls with Greek Yogurt and Honey
Israel: Classic Israeli Schnitzel
Turkey: Lamb Stew with Turkish Flavors
Iran: Basmati Rice with Pistachios and Dill
Russia: White Russian Sorbet
Somehow, I found myself gravitating towards the alcoholic white Russian sorbet dessert (It was a long day, I needed to take the edge off).
Due to the limited time we had in class, we skipped a few steps, but the final product was still dripping with flavor. I quickly got an ice cream headache…maybe it was a hangover – I don’t know for sure.
When it was time to eat each international dish, the group gathered around table, as a feeling of achievement graced the room. This is what world peace must feel like.
The end result: about 25 overly satisfied Jews and wealth of worldly leftovers.
Here’s a recipe that I worked on, courtesy of the Sur la Table cooking classes:
White Russian Sorbet
Yield: Serves 4
1 3/4 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
3 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1 tablespoon dark corn syrup
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup vodka
1/4 cup Kahlúa or other coffee liqueur
Stir water and sugar in heavy medium sauce pan over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and bring to boil. Remove from heat. Add espresso powder and stir to dissolve. Pour into medium bowl. Mix in corn syrup, then whipping cream, vodka and Kahlúa. Refrigerate mixture until cold, about 2 hours.
Transfer sorbet mixture to ice cream maker; process according to manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer sorbet to container; cover and freeze until firm, about 2 hours. (Can be made 2 days ahead.)
Freeze 4 coffee cups for 30 minutes. Scoop sorbet into frozen cups. Garnish with coffee beans and serve immediately.
Photo courtesy of Birthright Israel Next Los Angeles
FYI: Birthright Israel Next offers an awesome dose of Jewish culture mixed with hip programming. I’ll be at a few of their upcoming events. Visit their website for the full schedule.
Friday February 19: Shabbat Poetry SLAM
Saturday February 20: Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard Simmons
Saturday: February 27: Queen Esther’s Old School Skate Party
February 17, 2010 | 5:01 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
We are wild, we are violent, we devour, defile, despise and destroy: that is man, unplugged.
There’s a theory that religion developed to tame the beast. By channelling mans natural impulses into positive forces that build and sustain society, religion keeps every human group from devolving into a scene from Spartacus, and I don’t mean the Dalton Trumbo one, I mean the soft-porn one on Starz. Those who hold to this theory of religion always bring up sex. Instead of completely suppressing a sex drive that, left to its own devices, would impregnate every orifice from a bike lock to the Grand Canyon, religion directs our compulsion for pleasure and procreation into marriage. Most religions don’t say, “Don’t do it,” they say, “Do it, but this way.”
The same with food. This is the most common rational explanation for the otherwise inexplicable Jewish dietary laws, or kashrut. Why are pigs forbidden but pesticides permitted? If kosher were about health and science, anything that could make us sick, from pork to pesticides, would be outlawed. Why is it forbidden to eat a cow together with its milk, but permitted to eat a chicken with its egg? Why is it okay to kill and eat a giraffe, but forbidden to eat an almost insensate barnacle? If kashrut were about compassion, wouldn’t these laws be consistent, or flipped?
The most common answer is that kosher rules are not about science or compassion, but about putting a fence around our appetites, instructing us that we can’t just eat whatever we want whenever we want, there are rules. Our desires know no bounds, our appetites are bottomless. Kashrut puts a fence around our natural gluttony. And the rules, like food, come from God. So kashrut is a way to reinforce God’s presence in every detail of our life, even in breakfast. It’s not about the importance of specific rules, but about the idea of rules, rules in general.
This is an explanation that makes sense, because it removes the need for rationality or consistency from a system that exhibits little. Kosher teaches that you can’t have it all.
It also removes the idea that kosher is more compassionate, which isn’t true. Maybe it’s more compassionate than the way some non Jews used to eat or still do, but it’s also far less compassionate than the way other cultures used to eat, and still do. It is far more compassionate to eat a clam than a cow. Period. Those who follow kashrut can allow themselves to feel good about many things—maijntaing a tradition, doing what they think God or their grandparents want them to, following ancient text to the letter, if not always to the spirit. But they can’t make the claim to being kind and gentle simply becuase they’re kosher. That is a whole other endeavor, and one that has been noticeably, egregiously missing from the commercial kashrut industry for years. See Agriprocessors. See any kosher butcher. I grew up believing that kosher slaughter was somehow more compassionate than a stun bolt to the forehead, but in a factory farm environment, this is likely untrue. In any case, once you decide to kill an animal, compassion becomes an extremely relative term.
( I spent the weekend with my sister, a veterinarian, and after batting the idea of “humane meat” back and forth, we decided—admittedly over three scotches—that the most compassionate butcher who ever existed was Elmer Fudd. Remember his M.O. in the Bugs Bunny cartoons? He would sneak up behind an animal with his shotgun—“Be vewwy vewwy quiet”—then KABOOM, blow it away before it even knew what was coming. Talk about humane slaughter. One instant you’re contentedly munching away in the meadow, the next instant you’re meat.)
So, the answer is, kosher can lead the way to compassion, but kosher alone isn’t enough. You have to consciously infuse kashrut with compassion. The folks behind Wise Organic meat are trying to see if there’s a market for that. They just started shipping their kosher, organic, “humane” beef to Los Angeles. A few days ago, tipped by Tori Avey, I went to Doheny Meats and found it in the freezer section. It’s about $10 per pound, and only available in shoulder steaks and stew cuts.
According to the company’s web site, the beef is raised on grass pastures on small family farms in the Adirondacks. I haven’t read any on-the-spot reporting on this, or on the actual slaughter, so for now, take it all on faith.
I bought three packages, defrosted it in the fridge overnight, then made a steak dinner. The beef, which I tasted, was less flaccid than regular kosher beef, with a denser texture: chewy, but in a good, flavor-revealing way. More importantly, it’s a step in the right direction, to kashrut…and beyond.
[RECIPE] Italian Dandelion
I made these to go with the steak and baked potato. For me, they were the highlight. My garden is full of chard and Italian dandelion this winter—I cut it and thanks to loads of fresh goat poop, it reappears weeks later. So we eat this a lot.
1 bunch greens (kale, dandelion, chard, etc)
2 cloves garlic
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 t. red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
In a large pot boil greens until cooked. Drain. Chop.
In a skillet heat oil, add anchovies and saute until dissolved, add garlic and red pepper, stil a minute, then add greens, salt and pepper and stir until blended. Serve warm, cold or room temperature.
February 10, 2010 | 7:58 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
In 1984 I moved to Israel and lived there for two years. One of the first people I met was an aspiring journalist named Ilana DeBare. We worked on stories, met some of the same mildly shady Old City characters, hung out, and then eventually Ilana went back to the States for J school. She worked for the Sacramento Bee, published a terrific book on founding a private school of girls— Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools (Tarcher/Penguin 2004)—and now is pursuing the dream of being of novelist. She’s also blogging.
Our paths crossed again this week when Ilana sent me a link to a very thorough blog post she did on a conference held by Berkeley, CA’s Saul’s Deli that featured Michael Pollan and others discussing the idea of a sustainable, ethical deli. I’ll excerpt a chunk here, but click through to read the whole thing. Nice to hear from Ilana again… we once shared a lot of hummuses together at Lina‘s, now we’re virtually eating again:
Jews! Food! Ecopolitics! or, how to green a Jewish deli
By Ilana DeBare
Did Saul’s Deli just fire the matzah ball heard ‘round the world?
The Berkeley eatery hosted a panel discussion Tuesday night on Sustainability and the Jewish Deli, featuring foodie superstar Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma), green business consultant Gil Friend, and urban farmer Willow Rosenthal, along with deli owners Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt.
And since this is the Bay Area – where people love to opine about the politics of food as much as they like to eat it – they drew a sold-out crowd of 250 people at $10 a pop.
Saul’s owners have had two missions for a long time – the official one of operating a traditional Jewish deli with all the comfort foods that American Jews know and love, and a second stealth mission of trying to “green” their business and serve food produced in a environmentally-friendly and humane manner.
They’d done a lot of the easy stuff over the past decade, such as switching to Niman Ranch and Marin Sun Farms beef, replacing industrially-produced rye bread with locally-baked Acme rye, and purchasing organic or local produce.
More recently they started taking on the harder stuff – the stuff likely to cause patrons to yell “shonda.” They stopped carrying Dr. Brown’s soda and replaced it with their own house-made celery tonic. They limited borscht to the summer months when beets are in season. They stopped carrying salami, since they couldn’t find Jewish-style salami that was sourced from grass-fed beef.
And they started tinkering with the sizes of their sandwiches, figuring the planet really does not need people trying to wrap their jaws around 10 or 12 ounces of pastrami.
Traditional corned beef sandwich from Carnegie Deli
(Or more! The Carnegie Deli in New York sells a $17.95 corned beef and pastrami sandwich that contains 1.5 pounds of meat.)
“We felt a need to communicate (with our community) around the time when using local pickles tipped the cost of a sandwich past $10,” said co-owner Adelman, explaining the genesis of the event. “We needed permission to drag Jewish deli cuisine out of the museum.”
As a deli, Saul’s faces some challenges in trying to “green” itself that a more upscale fine-dining type restaurant wouldn’t:
Organic and artisanal foods often cost more than mass-produced versions. Will deli patrons – looking for a casual meal, not a $40 white-tablecloth dinner – be willing to pay slightly more for sustainability?
Delis like Saul’s are selling memory as much as anything else. How will customers seeking beloved foods from their childhood respond to changes in the menu?
Eating less meat is a key environmental goal. That means smaller portions. Yet a lot of Jewish culture around meals is based on providing a surfeit of food – eat, bubelah, eat! – as a way to show love and economic well-being.
At first glance, trying to green a deli like Saul’s might seem to present a black-versus-white clash of warm ancestral traditions against rigid political correctness.
But in fact, the history and economics of delis are more complicated than that.
Saul’s owners said they lose money with every traditional pastrami sandwich they sell, due to the huge meat portions that customers expect at a low price.
“People pay only $10 for the same amount of meat that would cost $30 or $40 if they bought it as a steak,” Levitt said. “But it’s harder to put on the table than a steak, and they don’t buy wine with it…. The more pastrami sandwiches we serve, the worse our business does.”
So smaller portions are not only more sustainable environmentally: They would help the deli sustain itself as a business.
And the giant portions that we associate with places like the Carnegie Deli are in fact a relatively recent twist in Jewish deli history.
“These foot-high sandwiches are from the post-World War II era,” said Friend. “So this is not about the deli. It’s about post-war America. My dad grew up eating in New York delis in the 20s and 30s, and this is not what they had.”
In fact, there is another deli tradition that precedes the large portions and huge menus – and that is a tradition, based in eastern European poverty, of eking meals out of the smallest and most obscure pieces of meat.
Chicken soup was an effort to get second and third meals out of an already-eaten chicken. And long before stuffed kishkas became frozen, factory-produced entrees involving sausage skins, they were a meal made by stuffing flour and chicken fat into the leftover neck skin of a goose.
“There are two traditions,” Pollan said. “One is the post-war Cadillac sandwich, but then there’s the earlier tradition of using every part of the bird.”
Levitt and Adelman said that the biggest change they hope to make is to narrow their menu from four pages to two, focusing on ingredients that are locally in season.
Read the rest here.
February 7, 2010 | 3:22 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
You’re having a long contentious day. At the end of it, you need to relax, regroup, grab some perspective, get in touch with your other Inner Self, the one that’s not angsty, nerve-wracked and short-fused. Do you:
a) go to church/shul/mosque/Wiccan altar to pray
c) go to a good restaurant
The answer for the vast majority of people would be “c.” And yet somehow we think of a and b as “religious” experiences while “c” is just going out to eat.
Food does what they do, for sure.
Last night—after one of those days—my wife and daughter and I drove a few blocks to try out the new Pitfire Pizza in Culver City on Washington Blvd.
Forget the name that makes it sounds like an Italian-Kansas City concept restaurant. This place has exceptional food, wine and hospitality.
But first I need to mention one important fact: it was free.
That’s right. The three of us decided to try out the new place, and when we got there a handwritten sign on the door read, “Closed for Private Party. Open Tomorrow 12 pm.”
My wife—from Brooklyn—walked in anyway. The host greetd her and explained that this was a pre-opening night try-out for friends and family.
“Well,” my wife said, a big friendly smile on her face, “we’re from the neighborhood.”
“Then come in!” The host smiled back. “Welcome.”
The place was packed, with friends, family…and us.
A large open kitchen, walls of windows onto the street, exposed beams. What pulls focus on the large room is a wood-fired oven, sheathed in a bright red cylinder, stoked inside with flaming logs.
The menu is a shock. You expect California Pizza Kitchen and you get Pizzeria Mozza, Oliveto, AOC—at CPK prices. Farmer’s Market Roasted Vegetables with whipped ricotta; Burrata Pizza with Arugula; Field Mushroom Pizza with Crème Fraiche & Fontina; Tuna Lucca Panini with marinated tuna, eggs and capers.
I ordered some of this and that, along with homemade sangria and a Watermelon Lemonade, whipped out the credit card, and the cashier said, “It’s all on the house tonight.”
But here’s how good it was: I ate at Pizzeria Mozza last week and the pizza at Pitfire was more satisfying. The tuna Panini was simply better. It was all so good I would have paid for it—and I would have paid almost half of what the same meal costs at Mozza. That doesn’t speak to Mozza’s value—it is excellent—but to Pitfire’s ambitions. Mozza has its butterscotch budino, one of my favorite desserts in LA. Pitfire could settle for tepid tiramisu, but instead offers organic soft-serve Straus Dairy ice cream with homemade caramel sauce and Malden Sea Salt.
I’d been to the Pitfire downtown on 2nd street, but this one is a step up in décor, spaciousness, and menu. What happened? I found out in The Los Angeles Times:
If you’re a fan of Pitfire Pizza’s BBQ chicken salad or their mac ‘n cheese, you should hurry and place an order before April 2. The local mini-chain with outposts in North Hollywood, downtown L.A. and Westwood (which recently acquired a beer and wine license), is changing its menu this Thursday and will eliminate both of those popular dishes. Pitfire is also getting rid of the Baked Ziti, Fiery Chicken Soup, Dixie Chicken Penne, Papardelle Pasta, Pumpkin Pizza, Folded Sausage Pizza and Folded Chicken Pizza. (The folded pizza is their approximation of a calzone.)
They’ll be replaced by approximately 15 new dishes created by chef/owners David Sanfield and Paul Hibler along with executive chef Mark Gold of Café Pinot and the Water Grill. (Gold earned three stars from Times Restaurant Critic S. Irene Virbila when he cooked at Leatherby’s Café Rouge in Costa Mesa.) The new dishes include the signature chicken salad ($9.75) featuring sous vide chicken on a bed of baby arugula topped by toasted pine nuts, pickled currants, shaved scallions and hand-torn bread crumbs tossed in a champagne vinaigrette; clam and bacon linguine featuring littleneck clams and Zoe nitrate-free bacon in a tomato broth. And a new mushroom pizza ($9.95)—with more whole mushrooms—will replace the old version, which had shaved mushrooms.
This was a gutsy move. No Caesar Salad! No BBQ Chicken Pizza! The menu takes locavore/gastropub/organic and injects it into a mainstream fast-casual dining format. Plus good wines, beers and welcoming service—then again, we are “friends and family.”
The highlights were the burrata pizza, creamy burrata cooled with a mound of fresh arugula atop a nicely wood-charred crust; and the Roasted Vegetables, which were simply ideal: tender brussel sprouts, cauliflower, rapini, finger potatoes, onions and fennel, all roasted separately and laid out in wide platters as on a Venetian bar, then scooped out and served together on a plate with a dab of whipped ricotta and grilled bread. That is breakfast, lunch and dinner. I want it again now.
You can take your wounded soul to church or shul. For me Pitfire was a spiritual pitstop, I left utterly rejuvenated, satiated, content.
(I’ll have pictures up tomorrow)
Pitfire Pizza Culver City
24 Washington Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90066
For map click here.
February 4, 2010 | 5:24 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
There are two types of restaurants in the world: authentic and inauthentic. Right now I’m sitting at one that’s right on the fence, and can go either way.
I’ve been going to Surfas for 20 years. I liked it better when it was a jumble of kitchen supplies and eclectic gourmet items in a stuffed warehouse on National. When it moved to its new spacious Williams-Sonoma-esque location around the corner on Washington Blvd., the selection improved, the prices rose slightly, and the whole experience began to fall off.
A café adjacent to the store is bright and honey. The menu has all the right words: Nuetske this and organic that. 72 layer biscuits with imported raspberry jam. Cinamon canelles. It’s got the menu. It’s got the look. But it lacks.
Hard to put my finger on it, but it’s something missing Cafe surfas as there is from a lot of restaurants. The servers lack a certain engagement. The kitchen turns out food from the fridge, not the heart. Customers chew decent food like feeding ruminants. The atmosphere is transactional, unspontaneous. The place is organized but uninspired. Every one does their job. It’s like a boring day in shul: Mouthing the prayers, unmoved by the spirit.
What results can never be great, and is often just plain not good.
I ordered the fried egg sandwich: two pieces of fresh whole grain peasant bread, mayo, tomato, white cheddar and a fried egg. A high-end self-conscious foodie gourmet café should be able to pull that off, right?
What I ended up tasting, then picking at, then putting aside, was a greasy little sandwich with a strange non-food flavor. Hmm. Grill grit? Rancid oil? Grill cleaner and burned butter? Inside the cheese sweated grease. The toasted bread was slathered with mayonnaise. The egg picked up and dispersed more of that mystery taste. I didn’t bother biting into the yolk. I calculate calories in a dish by how much tennis I’d have to play to work it off. I’d have to go five full sets and a tiebreaker with Federer to burn through the goo in this concoction.
So what are the signs of the authentic café? Here’s what’s bizarre: they are same three signs of an authentic religious experience.
I’m not talking about a peak religious experience, what William James described as transcendence, a sense of the ineffable, a dramatic change in one’s life. I mean, it’s a fried a egg sandwich. I’m talking about an authentic moment, when you’re trying, and focused, and open—it may lead to a peak experience, to transcendence, but it’s no guarantee. For that I think you need three things:
First, commitment. It starts above all with the owner. The person who cares, who loves food and feeding people, is there and enthusiastic and inspiring, or at least has created a felt presence. Surfas in general feels like no one’s in charge, the café even more so. Slackness, diffidence, a kind of friendly resignation to mediocrity.
Then, intention. That’s where the kitchen comes in. You can train anyone to copy a recipe, but you can’t teach them to do it with love, intention, what the masters of Hebrew prayer call kavanah. The food you serve is feeding a body that feeds a soul that creates the world. Don’t just throw it together and throw it on a plate.
Finally, openness. That’s the customer. Are you open to having your world rocked, your taste buds jazzed, your heart racing? Are you just there to eat food, or to taste it, to enjoy it, to experience it. I have to say, when it comes to dining out, I’m almost alays open. My wife rabbi would confirm I’m a lot more open to authentic experience in a restaurant then I am, bitching and moaning, in shul.
And when it comes to Surfas, I’m still open. They are one good manager away from being a good, and true, and authentic cafe.
In the meantime, I’ll just make shakshuka at home.