Strange things happen when you find yourself in the real Restaurant Wasteland of Manhattan, the one that always gets a pass because the Big Homme has a coupla places there, which for some reason does not curve the grade over on the western side of the park. My consort and I were fried after hours wandering the aisles at AIPAD, marveling at how the 1 percent are so happy to pay out the nose for images of the poors, and so I acceded to his Yelped suggestion of Dos Toros for a dinnerette before a downtown screening of “A Faster Horse.” I’ve resisted ever since trying a mediocre quesadilla at the original outlet near Union Square, but he admitted he’d always been curious. And it had the most important allure with eating opportunities: Location, location, location — 78th and Lex. So off we wandered.
It was early and I wasn’t hungry, so I just ordered guacamole and chips, and neither was either special or awful. Bob had tacos, one with carne asada and the other with chicken, and I thought the cheese the assembler talked him into lining the tortillas with saved them. When we were all finished, though, he asked whether I thought DT or Chipotle was better. And we were both shocked to find we voted for the national chain. Which makes me think all the fuss over Hillary’s Iowa stop has missed something seismic. Candidates generally do not show up at chains. Their strategists search out the kinds of places that need searching out in an Interstate-blanderized country: mom-and-pops. Something’s happening here, and it might be a better food supply. Every day Chipotle admits it can’t serve carnitas might just be a sign of morning in America. Or maybe I just have mad cow.
And my cynical side always goes into overdrive when staff meal comes up. I know I did a piece on Mexican cooks feeding the “family,” but even that was fraught with deception. I remember what my classmates ate in restaurant school, and it was nothing you’d write a book about — whenever a reporter comes close, the food always improves. Staff/family meal is the “celebrity chef upgrades airline food” BS all media outlets swallow. So I was happy to have a server of a sort validate my negativity. He split for a bit to eat and hear about the night’s specials and returned to say, when we asked: “Family meal is the most horrific part of working in a restaurant.” The best you can hope for is “protein, starch, salad.” The worst you can fear is food poisoning. Especially in this economy, it’s hard to feed staff (or family) for free. But it was pretty funny to ask: “Have you ever had Mexican for staff meal?” and hear: “No. But that would be the best.” Tell it to the Homme.
This was quite the week for the Big Homme. One day he’s hanging in the White House garden with Mrs. O, and on another his restaurant bathroom is the talk of the town. If the celeb in question had a better handler, that “cocaine” could have been laughed off as sugar from the bombolini. As it is, I’m thinking we need tax cuts for the ridiculously rich so they can trash more super-high-end restaurants. No wonder white-tablecloth joints are dying. They attract the sleaziest sort.
I’m so old I remember when the Big Homme published a newsletter on cooking what was in season, back when the idea was about as alien as pork belly in this country. And it was truly excellent; I saved the whole run in my cobbled-together binder for story ideas as editors finally caught up to the wisdom of eating locally/seasonally. So it’s doubly odd to see “his” latest column in the Bullfighters’ Mag, with a recipe for zucchini-tomato tian to go with Easter lamb. Whiskey tango foxtrot? Bad enough that so many allegedly serious cooks are already jumping the gun and using asparagus when it’s still coming from Mexico. But tomatoes and zucchini belong in basil season. They make as much sense as Peeps in August.
I’m not a bit happy that Hachette is now sending me the bullfighters’ magazine (El Decor!) instead of Metropolitan Home, the publication I subscribed to ever since it was Apartment Life and I first lived in a real one. And not just because I lost a reliable and lucrative outlet when they shut down the better magazine, or because it’s damn near impossible to tell ads from editorial. The food column carries the Big Homme’s byline, but if he typed the text and the recipe I’m Meehan Chang. Worse, the wine recommendations come from his own sommelier, and you would never guess what the first one is. (Starts with D and B on a Champagne label.) Once again, I hear the woman in North Wales railing against the government that assured them Chernobyl was no biggie: “They think we’re stoopid.”
I should have listened when a fromagey friend emailed to say he “wouldn’t go to Butter if a top model from the next table promised to blow me under the table.” But my consort reserved without putting me through the craziness of too much choice for my birthday, and I was so touched I went along after he said our friend who has infallible taste (in music) had suggested it. Calvin Trillin was right when he wrote that a relationship is not just about the pasta but about sharing the hell of finding the pasta restaurant. Plus I had no more compelling ideas; we’ve been eating so far down the food chain for so long that the usual “top chefs” just don’t hold much allure anymore. And to be honest, I was curious, having been to a good press lunch there and having heard the chef speak engagingly on a panel once. But Bob is very lucky he humored me with Mexican for lunch or he would have had to talk me off a 14th-floor windowsill after dinner. I can’t remember food that lame or a crowd so depressing: fat women, anorectic women, skanks, plus the odd beaten-looking guy. (Not across from my plate, though.) My image of New York is rooted more in Joan Didion than Candace Bushnell, so I will never understand why women feel compelled to head out on the town dressed like what we saw along the highway into Rome one Sunday morning, flagging down truckers for tricks. What’s most depressing is that the place was mostly empty when we got there at 7:30 (and they still tried to seat us downstairs, in what felt and looked like a rectory rec room where nothing nice happens) and getting zooey by 9 when we fled. Too late, we both admitted we had peeked at online reviews and noticed most of them didn’t mention the food, only disappointment at not seeing celebrities. And we’d both forged on because that was the reverse of our first experience at Le Cirque all those years ago. Somehow, though, I doubt the terror of cookbook publishing’s daughter is going to be running a Big Homme empire anytime soon.
Now, of course, press parties are altogether different, and the one the Big Homme gave at his under-construction latest was worth the journey for sure, especially since it got us within three subway stops of our final destination, Dumbo for the photo festival. The menus were all posted, but even he admitted the food is still a work in progress (only photos of his eminence on a ladder were cleared for publication), so I expect there will be more pizzazz in the sausages etc. in the end. The design looks pretty promising, too, with copper cookware donated by Bocuse et al to create what BH jokingly called “the Hard Rock Cafe for food.” The high point was this exchange with a nice guy as three of us dodged the menace of a ceaseless conversationalist: “She’s about 40 percent sane.” “And about 2 percent interesting.” What was most fascinating about the whole elaborate affair was that I recognized so few old-media people, and at least two of those have more presence online. Then I came home and read the huge laudatory feature in Sunday Business and realized the mission was already accompli.
I was chagrined to think we might have been just catapultees, but my consort and I still had an outstanding time mingling by the fire the other night in an apartment just down the street from the Bloomberg palace. Real critics were there, and at least one real blogger, and a whole cast of other characters I both recognized and didn’t. The super-savvy and always-gracious boss turned up, too, with French journalist in tow, and that made me even more appreciative of the marketing wizardry on display. What better way to signal how nimble your organization will be even if apple carts are cluttering the streets? What better way to instruct hyper-wealthy clients on entertaining at home than DIY in a real home with a buffet of cheese and killer charcuterie, with no waiters beyond the hostess and one supremely efficient bartender? As that superb and agile hostess said, always serve one homemade thing (mushroom soup in demitasse, say) and you can get away with buying the rest. It was one great performance. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether to feel reassured or terrified when the top of the food chain is demonstrably tightening its links. . . .
Thanks to my NRN pal, I now know I am somebody. But I disagree on the imperative of obeying the Big Homme: I saw a number of tables sitting empty on at least one side of the room at that amazing lunch. I’ve only been to the place a few times in the 10 years that have just certifiably flown by, but the food this round really was outstanding. As intended, it made me want to head straight for Vancouver that very evening. As for the redesign, the room will always look to me like the swimming pool at San Simeon. But the graciousness on display more than made up for it. Which is why I stayed on my best behavior, even though I did freak a little when the last of my tablemates to be open-seated turned out to be the head of what I heedlessly refer to as Enron on 12th Street. Luckily, she heard only the word “freelance” when she asked what I do and pretty much paid me no mind the rest of the lunch. Nobody is sometimes a very good thing to be.
I did have to chortle when one of the trained-like-Rockettes waiters rushed over to furnish the unlikely reformer with a little chair for her bag. As I said to my erstwhile colleague (I love using that word, knowing whom exactly it drives crazy over at the Taj), didn’t Alain Ducasse get no end of shit for providing just that ostentatious amenity when he blew into town?
The best part of making time for the lunch on a day when I did not have the time to make was having my faith restored in really high-end cooking. Just a few days before I had wasted the better part of a morning trying to find a suitable mid-range destination for friends in from Portland, O., and rejecting old favorites and new possibilities alike for the usual reasons of eardrum-shattering noise levels, impossibility of reservations, cramped conditions, predictable flavor combinations and, most offensive, ridiculous prices. (Finding a doctor who takes my crappy insurance would have been quicker and easier.) My days of reveling in $30-plus entrees I could make at home are definitely over. And they will be for the next year at least, but I realize there is pricey and there is thoughtful. I’m not sure I would be able to tolerate the futziness of a real meal at the made-over grand temple of New York cuisine, let alone the crowd that can unthinkingly spring for it, but I realize afresh why those who can, do. The funny thing is that I used to ponder writing a piece about the 20 pounds that crept up on me before I had my eating habits changed the hard way: It would have been called “I didn’t get fat eating at the high end.” With brilliant food, I can just taste and stop. Mediocrity makes me keep forking through it, hoping for satisfaction. Today that would not be true. To get the full effect of a typical entree arrayed in three stops over a wide plate, you have to clean your plate.