27 October 2007

Frustrating Feasts (Art? Food? Both? Neither??)

There are many parts of enjoying a restaurant experience beyond the taste of the food: the coziness of the decor, the level of noise, the attentiveness of the waitstaff, the quality of the drinks, and so on. An important aspect is the presentation of the food, or "plating" as the Food Network is irritatingly fond of calling it. That is, arranging the food on the plate in such a way that it has visual appeal versus just slopping something on a plate any which way. It requires some forethought to consider not just a balance of flavors in a dish but also a balance of colors, textures, shapes, and so on. Much like an artist must consider all elements of a composition, so must the chef.

When it's done right, it is a pleasure to both the eyes and the taste buds. But sometimes chefs get carried away with presentation. Salads seem to be a particular struggle for them. It's like at some point as they are putting their menus together they each say, "Well, anybody can put a spinach salad together but if we're going to charge $14 for $3 worth of ingredients we have to find a way to make it memorable!"

A few months ago I ordered a salad and received a tower on a plate. Truly an architectural wonder. But to eat it required destroying it. There was no other way in. As soon as I tried to ease a small piece out of the configuration it fell to pieces like a bad round of Jenga. [Note to self: Is there such a thing as a good round of Jenga??]

Last night I had a very good restaurant meal. But still... I started with an arugula, pear and Parmesan salad. Sounds good, no? You know what I got? 6 1-millimeter thick slices of pear that were cut lengthwise so you got a set of pear profiles--about 3 inches long each--on the base of the plate, all facing clockwise at equal distance around the plate [June Taylor couldn't have arranged it better]; a large mound of lightly dressed arugula; and 1 2-inch by 2-inch finger nail-thin square of top-of-the-line Parmesan cheese centered on top. It was lovely, yes. I could only sit and admire it so long, though, and then I wanted to eat it. But do I want to eat the slice of cheese followed by the mound of arugula followed by the pieces of pear? No! I ordered them as a unit and I WANT THEM MIXED TOGETHER IN PIECES SMALL ENOUGH TO FIT IN MY MOUTH! Is that too much to ask? It's a SALAD fergawdssake. I'll give you the $14 if you'll just TOSS IT!! Presentation be damned!

Want to get wild? Sprinkle a little fresh herb around the edge of the plate for presentation and get over yourselves, chefs of the DC metro area. If I wanted "do it yourself" I'd have stayed home.

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