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Salt is salt. I have never bought into the pompous crap that is spewed by some famous food writers and even many chefs that special ingredients are, well, special. If Chef Arrogant’s chicken recipe doesn’t taste damned good with supermarket chicken, there is no way on God’s green earth that I am going to try it with artisanally raised, organic, new-age, beer-fed, massaged, free-range chicken (at $5.95/pound!). So when my local upscale supermarket realized that it had to compete with Whole Foods or risk failing, it brought in lots of silly ingredients like 17 different cuts of ostrich meat and stupid-sounding special salts . . . like Hiwa kai Black Hawaiian Sea Salt. I bought some (and its relative, Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt) because it was on sale and I thought that it might look interesting on scrambled eggs. I then promptly forgot that this stuff was in the kitchen.
A few nights ago, at a loss for anything remotely interesting to cook, I punted and grabbed a couple of nice-looking steaks. Because it was snowing, and I am becoming weak and cowardly when it comes to the weather and grilling, I decided to drag out my trusty 8-pound cast iron pan. I had a goofy thought that the black salt might look good on the steak, so I tossed a pinch onto the meat. Actually, I tried to grind it up in the palm of my hand, because the grains are quite large and I thought that it might not spread evenly enough to salt the steak correctly. All that did was stain my hand black. Hot cast iron pan, nice steak, three minutes on each side. What could be better? Well, add Hiwa kai Black Hawaiian Sea Salt and it becomes much, much better! And, at the risk of irritating my wife, who has silly notions that profanity does not belong in any writing, it pissed me off! How dare a silly, pompous, pretentious — I am running out of deprecating adjectives — ingredient actually make a difference! And the wost part is that the Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt, which is sort of a weird, dark-pink color, made Hanukkah’s roast chicken extra special. I am embarrassed. I can no longer feel superior to the worshippers at the altar of “fresh, seasonal and expensive.” What’s next? Free-range broccoli?
I cooked in someone else’s kitchen last night. Nothing earth shattering in that news, but it was more difficult than I expected. No, the concept of the silverware drawer being to the right of the stove rather than the left wasn’t the strange part. It was the electric cook top and an excellent electric oven. The cook top was tough to adjust to the appropriate temperature, so I had to keep checking the paella rice to see whether it was cooked. And the surface was tempered glass, so I had to lift the pan to see where the heating element was, and how red it was getting. I just couldn’t figure that one out. The oven was a different story. It was correctly calibrated and consistent, so the recipe for molten chocolate cakes, which I thought was flawed, was actually correct. It really does take only 15 minutes to bake! At least if you are using an accurate oven.
So now I have oven envy, and cook top pride.
We had another crappy meal last night. And I chose the word “crappy” carefully. My wife has told me that using the words that came out of my mouth during the dinner would not be appropriate. Lest you think that I am a curmudgeon whose only joy is in criticizing others, I would have happily ignored the 25-minute wait before a waiter showed up at the table. My wife is an excellent dinner companion, and we were enjoying ourselves. But a glass of wine might have been nice, or even a menu? The service issues just got worse from there. When I finally got up to complain to the greeter ( I hesitate to call him a maitre’d), our waiter happened to be chatting with him, and he promptly (the fastest thing he did all night) chastised me for not speaking with him directly! I then looked him in the eye and told him that my wife’s side of crispy French fries was cold and soggy, and my “medium-rare” pork tenderloin was well-done, dry and inedible. When he finally arrived at the table with a fresh (not really — they were warmer than the first batch but not crispy at all) batch of fries, he looked down at my uneaten pork and said, “I guess we can’t please you at all tonight.” Charming! He did recover slightly by bringing the dessert in a reasonable amount of time, and he even threw in a taste of their signature chocolate mousse. To be fair, he did improve his service once he realized that I was really, really irritated. And he took the pork and the fries off of the bill. Fortunately for him, my wife is a sweet and gentle soul who believes that all waiters are starving students who deserve a good tip, no matter how badly they screw up.
Oh, the rest of the food? Great crab cakes, an excellent crab bisque, a thoroughly mediocre Caesar Salad, and a flourless chocolate cake that was edible. The sad (for me) part is that the place was full. Who are my fellow suburbanites who can’t tell the difference between good service and truly awful service? And why do they think that this quality of food is worth paying for? I have ranted before about this problem, and it won’t get any better until my fellow diners decide that eating at home is more desirable than being treated shabbily, and being served a bad meal in a local restaurant.