Tuesday, August 16, 2005

How good can good food really be?

Read enough restaurant reviews or watch Iron Chef (especially the original one) long enough, and you'll see people describe food as "breathless," their meals as "transcedent" or "a religious experience." Barbara Fairchild praised one of Mario Batali's dishes as giving her a "food-gasm." (I still shudder at the thought.) For instance, just read the average review of Per Se or Masa.

Now, by this point, I've been to many of the best restaurants on Long Island, and I haven't had any food-gasms. (I did hump a Twinkie when I was 15, but that's not the kind of food-gasm I want.) I mean, I've had some good meals, with very good individual dishes as part of the meal, but I wouldn't describe any of them as "a religious experience."

Incidentally, I haven't had a complete, truly great meal on Long Island. I've had bits and pieces here and there, but from different restaurants, on different occasions--seared foie gras with a red-wine sauce at Louis XVI; the pot au feu of lobster in a lemon-grass broth at Mirabelle, the duck confit at the Mill River Inn. Now, as good as those dishes were, individually, I would not describe eating them as any kind of religious ("ecstatic" is the proper word to describe such experiences) experience. If the entire meal were as good as any one of those individual dishes, then, maybe, but no restaurant on the island has managed to put together a truly great meal, beginning to end.

So, this leads me to two possibilities: (1) if such transcedent food experiences exist, they are not to be found on Long Island; or (2) the people using such grand superlatives to describe food are idiots and don't know what the hell they're talking about.

Now, I'm well aware that, for whatever reason, the best Long Island restaurants can't compete with the best restaurants in the city. But there are some very talented chefs at the places I've eaten, and as I said, I've had some very good individual dishes. So, I think it's fair to surmise that food doesn't get too much better than it is at Louis XVI, Mirabelle, the Mill River Inn, Panama Hatties, Polo, etc. Therefore, at this point I'm leaning towards possibility #2. I think, while the food on Iron Chef or at Per Se, Masa, Daniel, etc. may be very good, describing it in such exaggerated, exalted terms is idiotic and misleading. But if it really is a religious experience for these people, good for them, I guess. I'm not as easily impressed.

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