Sunday, August 2, 2009

Steingartening at Night

I started reading Jeffrey Steingarten's "The Man Who Ate Everything" recently. I picked it up on the recommendation of Chef Norman Van Aken, who gave a "reading list" as a preview of his new restaurant in Coral Gables, due to open (fingers crossed, everyone) this fall. I had read Steingarten's pieces here and there in Vogue and found his writing wildly inconsistent. Sometimes it seems he'd really nailed a subject with insight and wit, other times like the piece was a first draft thrown together at deadline. I enjoyed him early on as a judge on Iron Chef America but think he's now limited himself by being the self-appointed panel curmudgeon. The book, a collection of essays mostly written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has been much more consistent, showing a willingness to really dive in and research subjects and also a great comedic touch.

I just came across his latest piece in Vogue, "Favorite L.A. Restaurants." Perhaps not surprisingly, given the above comments, there are points where I think he's right on target and others where I'm left scratching my head.

I won't blame him for the preposterous sub-title to the story, which was presumably written by someone else: "Vogue's inimitable food critic Jeffrey Steingarten discovers five hidden gems." Can you think of any L.A. restaurants that have been more talked-up than José Andrés' Bazaar, Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo's Animal, and Mozza, the pizzeria from the power trifecta of Nancy Silverton, Joe Bastianich, and Mario Batali? "Hidden gems"? Anyway, the piece sparked a couple random thoughts:

In speaking of Bazaar, there was this, on a subject that's been kicked around some here:

Many of Andrés’s dishes are what seems these days to be called “molecular gastronomy,” or sometimes just “molecular.” (This is a foolish, misleading way of referring to the very modern methods of creating novel dishes by using technical and scientific tricks to surprise and amuse the diner, enhance the flavor and texture, and in the ideal, provoke thought. But the term continues to increase in popularity, and for now, there’s no fighting it.) Molecular gastronomy was named in 1992, but the concept was discussed at least five years earlier and practiced independently by Spanish chef Ferran Andrìa (José Andrés’s mentor) and has penetrated mainstream cooking in small and mainly insignificant ways. Andrés’s dishes are technically creative and unusual, and they (nearly) always taste extremely good. That’s why his food is important and worthy of our attention.
I tend to agree with the "foolish, misleading" part; I may have to reluctantly concede the "there's no fighting it" part; I'm not sure I would have given credit to Ferran Andrìa [sic] over Herve This; I'd like to think further about the "small and mainly insignificant ways" comment; and I whole-heartedly agree that food is important and worthy of attention if it tastes extremely good.

On the other hand, I continue to be baffled by the repeated fawning over Animal as if its meat-centric menu is an equivalent revelation to Niels Bohr's discovery of the structure of the atom. It all sounds good, but as I've noted previously, I just don't see how this is so different from much of what's being served at any number of other places around the country - including Miami (which of course means there must be a dozen places like it in New York as well). Except for a couple inspired signature dishes (the foie gras "loco moco," the bacon chocolate crunch bar), this looks like any number of other restaurant menus I've perused. It certainly seems over the top to say "I doubt there's another one like it." Steingarten gushes, "I must learn to replicate the homely crispy hominy served with a wedge of lime; maybe I’ll find it in Jon and Vinny’s popular cookbook, Two Dudes, One Pan." Or he could just ask Michael Schwartz for it.

Of course, no food column is complete these days without mentioning a pizzeria, and this one follows suit, paying homage to Mozza, the L.A. legend. In fairness, Steingarten is no Johnny Come Lately to the pizza thing, having written about his quest for the perfect pizza several years ago (note: this is definitely worth a click-through).

Speaking of which ... coming next, Pizza Crawl Part IV - the final crawl.


  1. Come on... didn't you know that Ferran Adria discovered 'foam' as well...
    Tell Steingarten to pass that hominy recipe onto me when Schwartz

  2. "I tend to agree with the "foolish, misleading" part; I may have to reluctantly concede the "there's no fighting it" part"

    I wish I could have convinced you myself, Fro'-but I'm glad that Steingarten was able to.