In more than five years of writing food columns for CL, I still get excited as I enter a new restaurant. There’s usually something positive to report, and sometimes I discover a dish that’s truly thrilling. In fact, it’s really rare to encounter an item that’s flat-out horrible. I’ve found Bay area chefs and restaurants work hard to please their clientele.
But, there are occasions when things go awry. That’s why for this year's Horror Issue, we’re revisiting The Inedibles.
I’ve left out names or identifying details to protect the guilty — although several have gone out of business — because I’m not here to pour even gourmet sea salt in the wounds. Each week I endeavor honestly to report my experience. I look for balance while I hope for surprise. As chef Thomas Keller, of French Laundry and Per Se fame, once said in a TED Talk, “cooking = ingredients + execution.” It’s no urban legend that attention to detail and freshness are half the battle.
What if no one cares, though? I’ve only given a single one-star review, and it remains the nadir of my critical experience. Almost everything we were served — including a sangria so medicinal we had to return it — made us question whether there was any guidance in the kitchen or any concern on the part of the owners. The wait staff didn't help — relaxed, yes, but also distracted and untrained. The bottom-line issue: The restaurant had no idea of what it was trying to be.
In other restaurant encounters, I've run into single dishes that turn the whole meal into a misadventure.
At times, the issue is one of unpleasant texture — like an all-too-memorable tomato bisque, so thick and cheesy I felt like “a first grader with a paste fetish.”
Or there are off flavors that never should’ve left the kitchen, like the Caesar salad that tasted “like old fish, not anchovies, and not in a good way.”
And speaking of seafood, sometimes you run into not-so-fresh fish that tastes like it came from the periodic table of elements, not the sea: like the sushi I tasted that “mushy instead of firm, with a metallic aftertaste in place of ocean brine." In short, inedible.
I still remember the shock on my tongue from a beautiful-looking dish with sour dressing that was well on its way to becoming the base for a fruity beer: “The roasted peach and prosciutto salad is a nice idea, but the raspberry vinaigrette is bitter and tastes slightly fermented.”
And there was the unfortunate cassoulet in which the white beans were soggy and the kitchen seemed to have had way too much thyme on its hands. The dish was so woefully over-seasoned that we couldn't believe anyone in the restaurant had tasted it before it left the kitchen.
Every once in a while, a serving piece provides an unwelcome surprise — like a plate with not very strategically placed dips, so that before I noticed “a flowing stream of water has snaked its way from the lovely sculptural plate off the table and onto my seat cushion to create a startling lake between my legs.”
Other times, you wonder what a chef was thinking in the creation of a new dish: “The dense, rubbery dessert that tastes of sugary artificial fruit infusion is only made worse by a garnish of breakfast cereal that most palates eschew by the time they’re old enough to read.”
What about a schizophrenic offering where perfection meets disaster?
“The thick, cracklingly crisp crust is as perfect as any crème brûlée I can remember. That’s why the Tahitian vanilla bean custard underneath is so maddeningly disappointing; it has zero flavor. The custard is creamy enough, but it is neither sweet nor vanilla. I kept going back to the wonderful glass-like topping, only to return to the custard thinking that surely I must be mistaken. Sadly, it seems that the sugar and vanilla bean ran off and got hitched in another dessert.”
I just wanted to cry.
When a restaurant gets sloppy in storing its food, unwanted flavors may appear, too.
“As it turns out, the layers of thinly sliced potatoes bathed in cream are perfectly tender. Sadly, they taste funky, as though they were made ahead and not stored properly.”
Luckily, the horrors of dishes that look like dog food (a phrase that never saw print) or taste of freezer burn are hard to come by. The same is true for metallic fish and fermented salads.
More often, dining out is not as capricious as asking, “Trick or treat?”