Overrated/Underrated: Food, Glorious and Otherwise
The world's best cuisine? Worst? Are tasting menus moving mankind forward? And more.
This week, we discuss cuisines of the world, along with, let us say, the dining and gustatory habits of the leisure class, matters on which we all have fairly firm opinions.
I’m Italian on my mother’s side, and I’m predictably all-in on Italian food. I could eat pasta five nights a week with no trouble. I am not, however, sweet, so to speak, on Italian deserts. Awfully cloying. Even tiramisu.
With respect to restaurants, I tend not to like the fanciest places. You spend $350 for two people and you usually walk out thinking, “Well, that was good, but it was just a lamb chop, really; why exactly was it $45?” I’ve also come to believe there’s something a little obscene about spending that kind of money on one meal, so I don’t go to those places, and I am not a “foodie” because I’m enough of a liberal stereotype already, thank you. Hence my loyalty to college football and my fondness for beach kitsch.
All right, then, ready? Below the fold we start, and we start with a challenge to traditionalists and a bit of a surprise (at least if you weren’t reading me at The Guardian; if you were, you know this).
1. French food. I love to shock people by joking that you can’t get a good meal in Paris. That’s an exaggeration of course, but it is quite true that loads and loads and loads of Paris restaurants are coasting on a decades-old reputations. Last trip, we ate at a couple of brasseries on the Left Bank that wouldn’t last in Pittsburgh. I am not just inventing this. Read Michael Steinberger’s definitive Au Revoir To All That on the decline of French cuisine (and wine, for that matter). The street food there is still good.
2. Sushi. This is just a personal thing. It’s not that it’s raw. It’s just that I like my dinner warm, thanks. If dragged to a Japanese restaurant, I can usually find a beef or salmon dish and make do. Fun fact: Levon Helm loooooved sushi, according to his book, which I read long ago, so if forced to eat it, I remind myself of that.
3. Tex-Mex. Sits too heavy on the tummy. I like me some vegetables with my food. I need to have something green, broccoli rabe (rapini to some people) being the obvious world number one. But regular broccoli will do; also rough greens—spinach, kale, dandelion greens, Swiss chard. Rice and beans don’t do it for me. In fact, one thing that shocked me about those Paris brasseries is that they didn’t serve a vegetable. Meat or fish with potatoes or rice. Maybe three carrots.
4. Tasting menus. Spending three hours in a restaurant isn’t my idea of a good time, but mostly I just despise the fussiness with which these one-bite courses are presented. Generally speaking, I leave these restaurants hungry.
5. Coffee after dinner. What in the world is this about? I have never understood. The postprandial moment has never struck me as a time for joe. It just seems like people taking up a ritual because everyone else does it. But then I have a pretty utilitarian relationship to the bean.
1. Indian food. Okay, this isn’t really underrated, but it’s just so good. There’s a lot more to it than Vindaloo, too. Nepalese food is awesome. Southern Indian food, more fish-based, is just incredible. One of the best meals I’ve ever had was at a Southern Indian restaurant on Charlotte Street in London. Twas a beautiful thing.
2. Lebanese. Perhaps not exactly underrated either, but not nearly as ubiquitous in America as Thai and Vietnamese and several other things. I’ve never eaten like I did in Beirut. Wow. This is a cuisine deeply expressive of the broader culture, and of course having the world’s best fruits and vegetables popping out of the Levantine loam helps.
3. Peruvian. In Santiago a few years ago, I ate at a high-end Peruvian restaurant, which was amazing. It turns out that Peruvian cuisine is one of the key bases, along with Mexican, of what we sometimes call Pan-Latin (i.e. Douglas Rodriguez) food. Real Mexican cuisine, by the way, by which I mean real restaurant food and not tacos and such, is incredible. But as to Peru, ceviche is really Peruvian, por ejemplo. (By the way: what’s this—DRod doesn’t have a Wiki page? wtf.)
4. Brussels sprouts. I single them out for praise. Roast them, let them caramelize. Add toasted nuts and caramelized onions.
5. The pepperoni roll. Because I’m from north-central West Virginia, buster.
There you are. I left a lot of room for you. Any fans of anything I didn’t mention—Jewish food? Filipino food? How about British food—any blood pudding devotees? Greek food is great, except I don’t like olives. Ethiopian; Moroccan; German; Russian; and of course Chinese. I have mixed feelings there—the great stuff is really high in fat, while the low-fat stuff is pretty bland. And finally, good old American food. Is apple pie overrated? Meatloaf? Pot roast? Fried walleye? That’s kind of obscure. I’m pandering to you Wisconsin Democrats there in the hope of ginning up the vote.