Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone . . .

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?


  1. Forget where this happened (probably a purposeful forgetting) but there was a bit of salmon (you kinda had to look for it) topped with foamed green tea. Talk about food that resembles pond scum!

    Big sigh. The oversized plates should always be a clue. If you can barely find your food on the plate, you're going to go home hungry.

  2. Well, I don't have any Fancy Restaurant stories, but I have had some "odd" experiences at restaurants. I'll mention a couple of them:
    When I first graduated from college I often went to inexpensive coffee shop/restaurants near my office for lunch.(I'm much smarter forty years later; I ALWAYS bring my lunch now:-) At one place, I ordered a cheeseburger, well-done, with french fries and a cup of hot tea with lemon.
    Waitress: "Do you want cheese on your burger?"
    Me: "Yes", wondering if she had not heard me the first time.
    Waitress: "How do you want it cooked?"
    Me: "Well done", thinking that maybe she was a little distracted that day.
    Waitress: "Do you want fries with that?"
    Me: "Yes" said just a little bit louder and more emphatically.
    Waitress: "Would you like anything to drink?"
    Me: "I want hot tea with lemon." My mind is getting a little numb.
    Waitress: "Do you want lemon or cream with that?"
    Me: "LEMON".
    The lunch arrived. The cheeseburger was almost but not quite well done; the tea came with cream.

    A few years ago I attended our city's First Night with some friends. It was extremely cold. We wanted to stay for the midnight fireworks but we were freezing by then. There's a Mexican restaurant across the street from the site of the fireworks. We stopped off there for drinks and munchies. Most of the others were getting alocholic drinks; all I wanted to drink was HOT TEA. The waiter, whose first language was Spanish, could not seem to understand my drink order. I repeated it several times but he just looked at me blankly. Finally, I asked one of my friends, whose first language is also Spanish, if he could help me out.
    My friend: "SHE. WANTS. HOT. TEA."
    Waiter: "What?"
    My friend (in English): "HOT TEA. HOT TEA".
    Waiter: "What?"
    This was repeated a couple of times. My friend, who had tried unsuccessfully to order hot chocolate before I tried to order my tea, turned to me and said, "Deb, I don't think they have any hot water."

    I don't know why I didn't ask my friend why he wasn't speaking to the waiter in Spanish, but I think the exchange between them was just was too distracting. A couple of weeks later when I was with him and his wife (who does not speak Spanish), I asked him why he didn't speak Spanish to the waiter. He just shrugged and said "I didn't think of it."

  3. Kate - what an image! Ick and double ick. It's enough to put you off your tiramisu.

    Which reminds me of a quote for yesterday's blog topic. Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle worrying about tiramisu, "some woman is gonna want me to do it to her, and I won't know how to do it."

  4. Oh, Deb, that is funny! Wait staff on automatic pilot. FRIENDS on automatic pilot.

    Your friend not speaking Spanish to the Spanish-speaking waiter reminds me of yet another movie line. Right after Roger Rabbit has taken his cartoon hands out of the cuffs that chain him to Eddie:
    Eddie - You mean you could've taken your hands out of those handcuffs the entire time???!!!!
    Rodger - No, Eddie, I couldn't...I could only do it when it was funny!

  5. Oh, uncaffeinated (until a couple of minutes ago) ME! I misspelled "alcoholic". See? I CAN spell it correctly if I have a couple of sips of caffeine in me!

  6. I was invited a few years ago to The Beard House in New York City, a gourmet hideout started by the famous food critic, James Beard. The caviar was incredible, but my wife, mother-in-law and myself were then sentenced to four very bad courses -- inedible. My mother-in-law stood after tasting the fourth course, described the latest offering of food as tasting and looking like "stewed bear claws," and we left. To this day I have no idea what we were served. Could have been bear claw.

  7. At the BEARD HOUSE? REALLY? I was going to say I'm so jealous -- but now maybe not so much.

    The annual James Beard Award is a huge deal for chefs. Anna Sortun of Oleanna here in Cambrige, MA won it and that really IS one of the best restaurants ever.

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  9. Early in our relationship Bruce took me to Paul Bocuse in Lyon where we were served a dizzying array of food - and it went on for hours. Much later we went to Greece and in a very charming, rustic place we were offered Fish A or Fish B. Guess which meal I enjoyed more.

  10. I'm not anonymous, I'm Rosemary - attempting to post from a tiny shack on JVD where the dining options are fish, chicken roti and fish. All good. Roberta, I think I ate at that place in Vezelay! We stayed at Chateau Vaut de Ligny (spelling?) You?

  11. Paula - you are a STITCH! Hope you're using these in your writing.

    ANONYMOUS - Ah, but Greek Fish A or Fish B is fresh from the Aegean and cooked to order. Did you go into the kitchen to pick it?

  12. RO! How's the food where you are now?? Dish!

  13. And now from the other side of the dining table... :)

    Me: Would you like soup or fries?
    Customer: Yes.
    Me: Which, sir?
    Customer: I'll take the super fries.

    Customer: What are the dressings?
    Me: Thousand Island, Creamy Italian, Bleu Cheese.
    Customer: I'll take Ranch.

    Customer: What kind of meat is in the Beef Stroganoff?
    Me: Chunks of chuck steak.
    Customer: Oh. Beef.

    Customer: Are there beans in your Ham & Bean soup?

    Me: Would you like whole wheat, rye or white toast?
    Customer: Raisin bread.

  14. Thanks, Hallie! Sorry I deleted my original comment--the typo was driving me nuts.


    A reminder to not be so anal about typos?

  15. Facebook forgives typos. It's part of its charm.

  16. Hallie, as a Cincinnati native, I have to strongly disagree. Skyline is one of the basic food groups here, and comes in 3way, 4way (with onion or bean) and 5 way varieties.. I would have to have it imported if I lived anywhere else too long!

  17. Karen and I were eating at a place in Franconia Notch. The comedy club next store was advertising amateur night.

    We ordered our meals and Karen complained that hers was too salty so we switched (what a picky pants). Turns out that it was actually not too salty. It was inedible. That's when Karen discovered that the shrimp in my shrimp dish were rare.

    We sent it all back, and I suggested that they must be doing amateur night in the kitchen. So we moved on. But there was a candle on the table seated in tissue paper. Sure enough, the tissue paper caught fire, and the waiter had to come over and put it out.

    He joked, "You didn't like the food so you're burning th place down?"

    At the end of the night the waiter asked, "Is there anything we could do to make your next visit better?"

    I said, "Yeah. Fire the cook."

    "But then his kids couldn't eat."

    "If he's cooking for them, then its probably the best thing for them."

  18. Hallie, I have to defend the Skyline Chili. It is a Cincinnati thing. My son took several cans of it back to Boston when he was here at Christmas. We may have to send a care package to him before we visit again. I'll be stopping there after picking the grandkids up after school. Nothing like a three-way before homework.

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  20. Because I am half Cornish, I was always drawn to Wisconsin's historic village of Mineral Point. In 1974, I talked my husband into visiting it. While there, he got an offer as a job as photographic cataloguer -- something he was already doing in Iowa. We moved days later.
    The town had been settled by miners from Cornwall, the same miners who deserted when the first cry of "Gold" was heard. For many decades it has been a tourist destination. Known for its number taverns (more than any other type of business) and one restaurant praised for its high end cuisine and Cornish specialties. In our ten years there, the Walker House changed hands at least 7 times. None of its owners ever had the funds to restore the hotel. Rumors of ghosts circulated regularly. Mineral Point's first and only hanging had taken place just a few yards away.
    On one of his semi-annual visits, adder friend had insisted on taking us there. We warned him that it had just changed hands, and that some of the incarnations over the years had not been worth a visit there.
    Richard and I ordered Cornish pasties (I can never get enough of them). Bill, a meat man through and through, ordered steak. "Can't ruin that, can they?"
    The pasties arrived first. After a few minutes, Bill bid us to start eating. They were still hot, we demurred. Fifteen minutes later I spied our waiter coming out of the kitchen with a steak, which sure enough he placed in front of our host. A browned chunk of beef nearly smothered in greens with a curlique of sauce. We tucked into our pasties only to discover they were frozen solid in the middle. At the same time Bill said, "What the…" He had started to cut his steak but the knife didn't do the job. He had turned the steak over, then, to find it completely raw! Only the top had been broiled.
    Of course the waiter was summoned. He heard our complaints, looked at the bright red steak. And we were surprised when he and said, "You did realize all meals our guests' meals are complementary tonight -- being chef's first night and all." As he took our plates away, Bill said, "Bet it's his last, too."

  21. Ok, Rosemary, what is it about those nasty typo gremlins today! I deleted and reposted and there are still some, but I'm not going to do it again, as Hallie says they are forgiven.
    But one I do want to explain "adder" is not meant to mean snaky friend -- it was suppose to be "a dear"

  22. Now I must have the Skyline chili...do you think they serve it in Cleveland too?

    Ro, we made the mistake of staying right above the restaurant. In a room so small, you had to climb onto the bed to open your suitcase. and then they wanted 50 francs for breakfast--we drew the line there!

  23. Jeffrey, Jane -- I'm guessing Skyline Chili goes in the same bin with my grandmother's spaghetti (overcooked spaghetti with warmed-up Campbells tomato soup and a pat of butter) -- you had to grow up with it.

    Do they say how many calories are in a 'serving'?

  24. Ray - you're reminding me of the night we ate at the fancy restaurant at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and their computer went nuts - they kept bringing out the wrong dishes. We finally just took what they delivered and ate them. Fortunately the chef was not computer-driven and the food was fine.

  25. Ann, so funny! In retrospect of course.

    We had a 'chef's first night' experience on New Year's Eve of all times -- at Boston's Parker House. There was a band and champagne, three lovely courses, only their regular chef quit the day before. Our main course finally arrived well AFTER midnight. First time I ever lost weight with a meal on New Year's Eve.

  26. Once again, from the inimitable Peter Brady: :a food critic , in an article on " food trends we'd like not to see next year." cited ... blackened meatloaf. He saw it on the menu, ordered it out of morbid curiosity, and said that it tasted like the contents of an ashtray.
    about an hour ago

  27. Oh, too funny, everyone! This is starting to sound like an episode of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Whenever I watch that, I vow never to eat out again...

    I refrained from posting my worse-ever restaurant experience, but am giving in to temptation now. Many years, ago, on my first solo trip to the UK, I traveled on a coach (bus) pass. Somehow I ended up at an Indian restaurant in Birmingham. Both food and service were horrible, but the crowning moment was when a mouse ran up my leg and across the table.

    It was years before I would go in an Indian restaurant in the UK, and I have never been back to Birmingham.

  28. I was with Hallie at that famous New Year's Eve dinner at the Parker House. It was the turn of the century evening...do you remember Hallie. and it was the last time that I wore a fancy outfit that my son said reminded him of an enormous bumble bee wearing very large rhinestone buttons.

  29. Thank god I'm home from the nonexistent appointment at the polio clinic in LA and can focus on fun Jungle Red stuff like this!

    So okay, here's my entry of the day.

    Born in Salem and growing up in Marblehead, Massachusetts a girl like me knows lobster is boiled. Or maybe steamed. Hey this is all I knew.

    Long, long, long ago. My date. My new guy. Now my husband, took me to Essex for lunch. I protested. Gently. Of course. He was new then. And he won. Of course. I really liked him.

    We arrive at Woodman's - a really great place, even if it isn't in Marblehead and has the same ocean, boats, sand, rocks, buoys, all that stuff.

    I see everybody eating boiled lobster, so I let Scout do the ordering. I say, "I'll have lobster."

    What did I know? Did it ever occur to me lobster could be dipped in batter and deep fried? Did I mention I'm from Marblehead? You would be arrested if you were to do that in Marblehead, but you wouldn't even think about it. You can do it to a bunch of clams and put them on a hotdog bun. And that would be great! But you you would never do it to a lobster. Not in Marblehead.

    But I ate it. He was really the one . . . despite.

    So years later, Scout and I were married about 20 years then, and we go visit Auntie-Mom in San Diego, California. He looks out at the ocean and asks Auntie-Mom if there's a restaurant nearby that serves deep-fried lobster. She looks at me and says, "Where'd you pick him up . . . Essex?"

  30. Oh, what fun stories! I'm loving reading them -- though I think tonight, it'll have to be stand-alone spaghetti for me! (And a glass or two of chianti -- hold the rubber tires, please!)


    In our house, the lobster definitely likes to be boiled. We go up to Portland (great eating city!) Maine where the lobster shack pulls them right out of the ocean and bags them up. It's like my mother used to talk about starting water boiling, and then going out into the field and picking the corn. Though how she, a New Yorker, had any idea about that I couldn't tell you.

  32. Hey, TJO! I wondered if you were out there.

    Yes, it was a memorable evening and I remember your bumble bee outfit. You should have saved that outfit for Halloween. Actually, you looked very cute. But black and yellow horizontal stripes? It was inevitable.

  33. Hallie, I knew you would understand. ;)

  34. Ray,

    Did you actually PAY for that meal? Yikes.

    Ann, you are half Cornish? I never thought of Cornwall before Doc Martin, but it now it's a destination for me. I'll have to get the name of that restaurant from you - to avoid - if I ever get to go.

  35. Darn, I was traveling today and missed this whole discussion. What a fun topic.

    I live in Cincinnati, but I grew up in Hamilton, about 40 miles away. Back then it might as well have been on another coast, since we had no such thing as Cincinnati chili. Both of my husbands liked it, but I've never quite figured out why. All that cheese, and a half pound of spaghetti. Yikes! The Coneys are good, though, especially with chopped onions. Mmmm.

    Precious food that costs an arm and a leg mystifies me. I'd rather just stay home and cook it myself.

  36. Ah, nouvelle cuisine or as my dad calls it: a dirty plate.

    Anyone else ever see The Darling Buds of May, UK telly programme in which Ma and Pop Larkin go out for a high-faluting but titchy dinner in an underheated posh house and then come home to sit at either end of a hot bubblebath with a plate of bacon, egg, sausage, fried bread and grilled tomatoes balanced on the bath tray?

    Now if we ever find ourselves faced with two scallops in a puddle of saffron butter with three halved peas on top, Neil says - "fry-up in the bath, later?"

    Never actually done it. Yet.

  37. Hi Hallie,

    Just looked up the calorie count. 380 for a small 3-Way.
    A great Cincinnati lunch.

  38. My example is from--gasp!--a book review. Publishers Weekly on Alan Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty":

    "Among its other wonders, this almost perfectly written novel, recently longlisted for the Man Booker, delineates what's arguably the most coruscating portrait of a plutocracy since Goya painted the Spanish Bourbons. To shade in the nuances of class, Hollingsworth (sic) uses plot the way it was meant to be used—not as a line of utility, but as a thematically connected sequence of events that creates its own mini-value system and symbols…. While Hollinghurst's story has the true feel of Jamesian drama, it is the authorial intelligence illuminating otherwise trivial pieces of story business so as to make them seem alive and mysteriously significant that gives the most pleasure."

    Sometimes a book just wants to be a thumping good read!

  39. Karen, sorry we missed you, too!

    Okay, what's a coney? Had to look it up: hot dog in a steamed bun, with mustard, covered with their original, secret-recipe chili and diced onions. You have that as a side dish with a plate of 3-way? Just askin...

    And for JANE! Looked up those calorie counts, too. 390 is a SMALL 3-way. A REGULAR is 780 with 1550 mg of sodium and 4 grams of sugar. Just sayin...

  40. Catriona, your dad sounds wonderful. So funny!

    And "fry-up in the bath, later?" -- could have used that the other night when we were invited to dinner and wonderful but distracted friends served us 3 ravioli each for dinner. Delicious lobster ravioli. Fortunately hors d'oeuvres had been plentiful and the company was grand.

  41. Hallie, I never, ever have the spaghetti stuff. If I'm forced to eat in one of those establishments I choose to have a coney or two, with cheese, chili, and mustard.

    However, may I add that I have only eaten them about a half dozen times in the 40+ years I've lived here?

    The stories about choices that aren't choices crack me up. Makes you wonder.