May 1997
s m u g
by Leslie Harpold


You Are What You Eat

One of my favorite restaurants has recently revamped their menu to include foods that are hip and trendy. Unfortunately, I had no idea what the hell any of those items would taste like. Buckwheat pancakes were replaced by hemp pancakes, and frankly, there seems to be enough hemp-laden items to get me through a Dead show. I am not sure why I would want to eat hemp, especially once the waitress informed me it wasn't the potent kind and I wouldn't get any sort of buzz, it was merely added, and I quote, "as a culinary delight." I just wanted breakfast, thanks.

Menus have taken this turn nationwide now, and my field reporters tell me that their local greasy spoons are now offering up things that include goat cheese and sundried tomatoes. The grilled cheese is just about dead, but you can get foccacia with gently melted gruyere, if that's what you're up for. No more comfort food, although there's a rumor that some kid's mom in Skokie is selling Rice Krispie treats off her front porch for mad money, but move fast, because soon she'll have enough to retire.


So - how to navigate the new menus? What exactly is the advantage to ordering the cold pressed duck when you actually thought unpressed duck or even warm pressed duck was A-OK three months ago? Here's a good rule of thumb to follow when the waiters start to rattle off the specials of the house:

If it doesn't sound like a food, it probably isn't. This is less simple than it sounds. I got my gumption rolling one day and actually tried to eat a piece of fish that was baked in a hemp crust. Remember - they use hemp to make rope and backpacks. Having my fish rolled and baked in a backpack was not a taste sensation I care to repeat.

Arugula - this is a love it or hate it food, for most people. It looks like lettuce, but it has a bitter and peppery hot taste which some people love especially with balsamic vinaigrette. I advise against it, personally, but it has legions of devoted followers.

Mesclun is not a drug. Mesclun is a collection of tiny little leafy greens with exotic names like "Très Fine Maraîchère" and "chervil." It tastes mild and is more interesting than romaine lettuce. Some of its ingredients are also a slightly brighter green, which compels chefs to put a lot of red and yellow peppers on it for that "salad at the stop light" look we all love so much. Wait - do we really love that? I keep forgetting.

En croute generally means wrapped in some form of starch and then fried, or swarthed in puff pastry. Most foods, no matter how revirulent, taste good wrapped up in this stuff so it's usually pretty safe.

There is a recent disturbing trend to put fruit with meat. Now, I can deal with the prosciutto and melon thing, and occasionally the lemon chicken, but recently I've spotted cherries with beef and kiwi with fish. No way can that taste good, although I'm sure it looks like a million bucks.

If you see the food coming to other diners, and it's arranged into tall and artistic shapes, chances are it's good. It's not good because it's shaped funny, it's just that the architectural method of assembling dinner components has a great safety built right in. All the parts are cooked separately and just slapped together Lego style, so each component retains its individual flavor. If you're one of those freaks that has a "thing" about your food not touching, though, this will be especially trying for you.

Goat cheese. It's everywhere. Why are goats getting into the cheese business now? Probably because with recycling and advanced waste management techniques, goats are getting pretty outmoded. Now, they seem to have reinvented themselves and are promoting the use of their milk for traditional bovine-based dairy products like yogurt and cheese. Honestly, goat cheese, or "chèvre," has been around for years. Now it's fashionable. The one advantage is that it is a little more tart than cow milk cheese and not as solid, because it has lower fat. Lower fat is good, but on staples like pizza, best to stick with your basic mozzarella.

Mushrooms are changing too. Portobello mushrooms are actually so substantial they can replace meat in a meal. Like all fungi, their nutritional value is near zero, but man, are they yummy. Morels are the wrinkly kind that taste good but feel like you're doing something dirty when you eat them. Porcini mushrooms as best I can tell are grown in private colonies and kept away from bad influences so they can be dropped into the most fancy of foodstuffs and appeal to the snobs among us who feel that regular mushrooms are not good enough for them.

"California Style" means that anything that might be delicious or bad for you in a dish has been removed and possibly replaced with a soy substitute, like non-dairy sour cream. Sure, it looks like the original, but tastes bland and fibrous.

It has become mandatory for all peppers to be roasted and all tomatoes to be sun dried. Rebel against this.

Your olive oil should be extra virgin, because no one wants slutty olive oil.

Another hip thing is to combine French cooking with Thai. It's not bad actually, but beware of trying to pronounce the names of it, this is one case where pointing will help you look cooler to the waiters, point to your throat, then point to what you want on the menu. If you have a decent waiter, he will pronounce the name of the dish for you, and you'll be all set for future visits, should you care to repeat that dining experience.

If you don't want to eat foie gras - which is a goose's liver, and considered a delicacy, but is still a cooked liver, just say "it's too rich and I'm watching my cholesterol," but make sure you don't wreck yourself by ordering the triple chocolate mousse for dessert, a giveaway if there ever was one.

Any dish where the waiter starts describing the childhood of the entree, i.e. "free range" chicken or "milk fed" veal will leave you feeling too guilty to eat it. Go with the fish.

The words tomatillo, cilantro, and serrano on a menu mean that what you order will taste like Mexican food but cost three times as much.



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