HALLIE EPHRON: As I was rooting around among movie quotes, I came across one of my favorites: "Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone." This is what the character played by Stanley Tucci says in BIG NIGHT.
Which in turn got me thinking about meals at restaurants where that very motto should be pasted on the wall. Restaurants that overdo. Like serving perfectly lovely salmon encrusted with over-seasoned pecans (sometimes the salmon likes to be naked). Or serving avocado ice cream. Or remember the overwrought, decoratively arranged, microscope main courses of nouvelle cuisine?
Recently there was a review in the New York Times about a restaurant in which each dish in an 11-course meal is paired "with a lukewarm flavored water in a lidded grappa glass. One water might be infused with leek and radish, another with jasmine and dried seaweed. Most taste like indecisive teas, commitment-phobic broths or pond runoff."
Apparently the server delivering these announces to the diner, who presumably knew what he or she was getting into: "Feel free to smell them. And to taste them. Make a memory of them."
Apparently, too, the chef is a neurologist. According to the reviews I see on Yelp, the place still in business and there are at least a few people who really love it.
But I was equally baffled by a VERY popular and decidedly down-scale culinary offering in Cincinnati - Skyline Chili. Which I've written about here before. Skyline Chili is sweet (main ingredient maybe chocolate?) and is served on overcooked spaghetti and topped with a huge mound of hairy cheddar cheese.
So, Jungle Reds, please share a restaurant meal that left you scratching your head.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: My culinary contribution is more in the form of a "huh?" Or, in a line I should have thought of yesterday, a Jack Nicholson moment.
Jonathan went to a sandwich place, and ordered a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato and mayo. NO cheese.
The person behind the counter says: they only come with cheese.
Jonathan says, but I don't want cheese.
Yeah, well they only come with cheese.
It was clear the sandwiches were made to order, so Jonathan says: are you making the sandwich now?
Well, just make it, but stop before you put on the cheese.
The guy would NOT do it! "The sandwiches come with cheese."
And at a different restaurant, my producer Mary ordered a pastrami with only pickles on a wrap. (Don't even ask me about Mary's eating habits. That's a whole nother blog.)
So the counter person says: The pastrami sandwich comes on rye, with sauerkraut. Mary says, yeah, but I don't want sauerkraut. You're making the sandwich now, right?
So, just leave off the sauerkraut, and put it in a wrap instead of on rye.
The woman would NOT do it!
The next day--almost done here--Mary sent her cute boyfriend in to ask for pastrami with only pickles on a wrap. The woman told HIM--sure. And made him the sandwich.
Now that--is NOT baffling.
RHYS BOWEN: Hank, this is so funny and I've been there too. My mom ordered poached egg on toast in a cafe in Australia. The server said "We don't do that."
Mom: "Then I'll have egg and chips."
Server: "Okay. How do you want the egg."
Mom "Poached. And bring me a side order of toast. And hold the chips."
HALLIE: Which brings us back to movie quotes! Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces trying to order wheat toast with his omelette. The waitress: "We don't do substitutions." So Jack orders his omelette with a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. "Now all you have to do is hold the chicken."
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hallie, that is too funny! I think I'll pass on that particular restaurant next time I'm in New York...
The overblown descriptions made me think of scotch. If you think wine descriptions can be bad... For a while I was a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which I discovered when I was researching a book. Even though I could seldom afford the scotch (not just single malt, but single cask) I kept my membership up just to read the tasting notes every month. They cracked me up! One peaty, west coast scotch was described as "redolent of burning tar, Fisherman's Friends (a very menthol-y throat lozenge), with just a hint of old boots and dirty laundry."
I can tell you I went right out and bought that one!
Sometimes scotch just wants to be scotch.
LUCY BURDETTE: Love the neurologist/chef--our guest from last week, Scott Haas, probably knows him...
A number of years ago, John and I splurged on a super-expensive restaurant in Vezelay, France. We were all dressed up, sipping a drink, and waiting for our table when a waiter came around with a little tray of hors d'oeuvres. He spoke French with such a strong Italian accent that the only part of the explanation we could understand was "fermez la bouche." Close your mouth. So we shrugged and off he went and John bit into one of the little cubes. Hot, liquid fois gras squirted all over his shirt, tie, and jacket. Ahhh, now we got it--pop the whole thing in your mouth and then close it and chew!
One of the other courses I remember from that night was a mound of fois gras encased in a thin shell of caramel that you had to crack open with a knife. Sigh...I'm much more comfortable in a hole in the wall with spaghetti on my plate.
JAN BROGAN: This reminds me of New Year's Eve two years ago. My favorite restaurant on the Vineyard bought my favorite hot spot for music on the vineyard and they were having a new year's eve gig. Our good friends were coming with us and we all decided it would be worth it to pay the ridiculous $$150 per person or whatever it was because it would be such a great night.
Although the food was good, the restaurant did not translate to the new venue, it has lost all its intimacy. We were one of only three couples there all night in the restaurant and the only people dancing to the AWFUL band in the other room were the restaurant employees.
As my husband put it, we were at the MOST EXPENSIVE, LEAST HAPPENING place on the entire vineyard or possibly the vineyard for that New Years Eve. The rest of the weekend, we kept overhearing people talking about the great time they had had somewhere else. And FYI, the restaurant we went to went out of business shortly after..
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hallie's mention of nouvelle cuisine triggered some bad-dining memories for me. People who vacation in Maine probably think of Portland as a place to get lobster and scallops, but if you live in the Northeast, you know it is a SERIOUSLY foodie city. When the nouvelle cuisine trend hit back in the late eighties, it hit hard, and for a while, it was impossible to get a normally-sized meal.
I recall once Ross and I went out with several other young marrieds from his law firm to THE hot new restaurant in town. The food had gotten glowing reviews, so neither Ross nor I had eaten much of anything before the evening.
We arrive, we're seated, we order asparagus con prosciutto and mussels as appetizers - and what we get are three spears accompanied by a fan of wild grass and capers and three mussels arranged on a bed of multicolored greens. (For some reason, three is the magic number in nouvelle cuisine.)
The rest of the evening went on in that vein. Two inch square entrees on huge plates with elaborate, artistic garnishes. Dessert was a piece of cheese cake the size of a domino with the chef's monogram written in raspberry reduction all over it.
The wine was good, but we were all half in the bag because we had nothing in our stomachs to absorb the alcohol. When Ross and I finally got home (after paying our share of the staggering bill) I made spaghetti with canned sauce, and we ate it like starving Dickensian orphans.
HALLIE: This is making me hungry for a nice plate of spaghetti, homemade please, with a little olive oil and garlic, and maybe a shave or two of parmesan. That's all.
So Red readers, what have your more over the top restaurant experiences involved?