Sunday, February 10, 2008

Just a rant (having nothing to do with Thailand)

Julia Child once said, when asked about what she thought of haute cuisine, “it’s so pretty on the plate, you just know someone’s fingers have been all over it”. And I reckon that her reaction to the esoteric food craze sweeping the nation right now might be similar.

I had a meal recently (before leaving for Thailand) that was so spectacularly bad I would sound like a jerk if I were to write about it because nobody would believe me that it was truly as bad is it was. It began with the Amuse-Bouche. From the moment it hit the table I adjusted my expectations, certain that I had five courses of disappointment ahead of me (and I was right). The Amuse spoke volumes about the chef’s ability and creativity. “Beets Three Ways” the menu proclaimed. We received a shot glass with diced beets, pink beet foam and a thinly shaved yellow beet. I suppose this could be viewed as a fine demonstration of someone’s knife skills, ability to use a mandolin and a hand blender, but not much else. There was no flavor what so ever to the dish, not even a sprinkle of salt. Where we supposed to taste the essence of the ‘terroire’ that the beets had been pulled from? Or was it tarragon scented oxygen that had been pumped into the foam? I was lost. Perhaps I’m just too dense to grasp a dish so esoteric in nature. From there though our dinner quickly slid into a Nietzsche-like abyss.

On another occasion, I was at a wine tasting and the visiting chef to the winery made vegetarian sushi with “green tea and lemongrass caviar”; a glistening pile of crystal clear, flavorless pearls atop the sushi. After tasting the sushi and “caviar” I inquired with him as to how it was made. Very enthusiastically, he pulled several syringes from underneath the table and explained how he had mixed some noxious-sounding chemicals together with a “lemongrass-green-tea-infusion” and then, using the syringes, dripped that mixture into a bath of some other chemical that formed the balls. An audible gasp escaped me, I had just unknowingly consumed three different chemicals that sounded more like they should be used to clean car parts rather than as an ingredient in cooking. With a big, pleased-with-himself grin on his face he went on to enlighten me to the concept of “molecular gastronomy”.

With all do respect, there are some chefs that do that “esoteric thing” well. Despite leaving hungry and broke, I had a fabulous meal at WD50, Wylie Dufresnies restaurant in New York City. And, like a Muslim saving for a trip to Mecca, I’ve been saving my pennies for a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Il Bulli and the Fat Duck (I just keep getting distracted by places like Thailand, and the West Indies). But, a majority of my “molecular gastronomic”, and otherwise esoteric eating experiences have left me unsatisfied and hungry for an answer to a nagging question: when did novelty win over flavor when it comes to cooking? I fully understand the desire of a chef to come up with something new and interesting but what is so novel and new about copying Ferran Adria, the “grandfather” of molecular gastronomy, who’s been doing foams and faux caviar for over a decade? I also understand the importance of presentation and that we eat with our eyes first, but our taste buds should come in at a close second. No?

There are two basic concepts that, for me at least, cooking should accomplish – the first is to taste good and the second is to nourish the body and soul. If you cannot accomplish this, then what is the purpose of being in the kitchen? A Picasso on the plate is great if you want to eat canvas, acrylic and acetone. But, I like to think that good taste never goes out of style…

I broke my fast with a beer and a cigarette...

Ok, not really… I did, however, break my fast after a mere two days of clay shakes and espresso colonics. Call me crazy, but I prefer to take my food orally.

Princess is still fasting but fortunately for me I could wait it out at The Sanctuary’s fantastic avo-dairy-fish-vegetarian restaurant. The restaurant makes it quite convenient for “fast breakers” as they have a whole “cleansing menu” from which to order; full of bright, fresh, veggie salads, veggie dips, raw and cooked soups and fresh juices. And, although I learned the hard way to steer clear of those Indi-Thai-Euro-American restaurants – The Sanctuary is definitely the exception. For the “non-fasters” they offer a range of dishes from Indian fish curries, Thai dishes and pizza to a full (vegetarian) English breakfast, a Sunday brunch menu that will make you want to stay through the weekend, and fresh fruit juices, fruit smoothies and wraps, a full bar and wine list.

At 7:30pm (almost) every night they offer a communal “family style” dinner ranging between 150 – 180 bhat (about $5). The menu could be anything from Thai to Mexican, usually 3 or 4 dishes, and everyone sits together, a great way to meet fellow travelers – but you could just as easily keep to yourself and whittle away an entire month swinging from a hammock, reading a book and slurping down fresh coconut water.

The Wellness Center at the Sanctuary offers several different fasting programs with a super friendly, supportive staff that is there to guide you and assist you every step of the way (they guided and assisted me, but when I became too light headed to walk, they also said that I should stop fasting). Moon, a hyper-energetic and always smiling Thai from the North who’s been fasting since he was 11, runs the fasting program. But, the fasting program itself is based on a program set forth by Dr. Richard Anderson, author of “Cleanse and Purify Thyself”. There is a juice bar and “social hall” for fasters only, with a library and hammocks where everyone who is fasting knows to come at certain times each day to receive their shakes or herbs, to sit around and chat with fellow fasters, or to watch movies in the evening before the room closes for the night. A sign is posted, “Out of respect for fasters, please do not eat in this room”, and the Sanctuary bar and restaurant is a distance enough away to keep the noise and food smells at bay. The Wellness Center offers a full spa with everything you could possibly need to relax; massage, tai chi, steam room, mani-pedicure, waxing, belly dancing, meditation and a full gym. And, at the various bungalows around that same beach and one beach over, there is reiki, Thai boxing and at least a dozen other offerings for health-minded folk.

After a breakfast of fresh, sweet, cold mango sprinkled with sea salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon; lunch of a spicy, crisp Moroccan carrot salad and dinner of fresh veggies with garlicky, smoky roasted eggplant dip – I finally feel myself again. Poor Princess, she’ll just have to listen to me talk about all the yummy food while she goes hungry.

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