Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Most Important Food in America: Part I

I miss October. It is the best month. It is smack in the middle of my favorite season. It contains my birthday and that of my spouse. And, it is National Pizza Month. Are there really eleven other foods that warrant their own month? National Tuna Tartar Month? National Warm Frisee Salad with Farm-Fresh Poached Egg Month?

Pizza, of course, deserves more than a month, since it IS the most important food in America. It is our default food. It satisfies. We can have it any time without having to make it ourselves. We can feed tons of kids with 30-minutes notice. We can make it ourselves if we want. It cleans up easily. And the boxes make great construction material for children. It is much more important here than in Italy—really, it is. In fact, I think pizza should have more than a month of honor. We should celebrate pizza the entire 4th quarter of each year—or at least until Turkey takes over in late November.

Now, I have had dissenters tell me that Hamburgers are more important than pizza in America and that McDonalds alone is enough to make the case. First, fast food frankenburgers are not burgers. On the other end of the spectrum, if it is stuffed with slow-braised short-ribs topped with fois gras and a duck egg, it may be good food, but it is not really a burger either. A burger is meat, salt, pepper and a bun. Yes you can put some other stuff in, as long as the meat is the main thing.

And burgers aren’t particularly controversial. I like my hamburger medium rare. You like yours well done. I think you are a leather-eating cretin. You think I am a bloodsucking tick. I’ll eat mine now. You take yours off the grill, whenever the hell you feel like it, Conan. End of debate. No nuance, no subtlety. America's Most Important food must be ubiquitous. Burgers? Check! Established stylistic or regionally variations should exist. Burgers? Not Really. Able to form the foundation of an unresolvable debate that crosses decades. Nope.

So maybe Steak is America’s most important food? Sorry no, too highbrow where it matters. Not ubiquitous except among the non-PC elite. It apparently takes a bona fide American food expert to debate the merits of a good steak for more than a few minutes. Awhile back, Frank Bruni, then head restaurant critic for the New York Times, weighed in on the imperfections of various New York steakhouses. Much esoterica about wood & leather fixtures and creamed spinach (the anti-spinach)—cigars or not. He settled on the venerable Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn, and relative newcomer, Robert’s Steakhouse, which resides inside a Penthouse-operated strip club on Manhattan’s West Side. I guess atmosphere does matter in the case of steak. Of course, Bruni asserts he doesn’t go to Robert’s for the girls, just to read the menu.

I ventured to Brooklyn on a recent trip to try Luger’s and, despite my great anticipation, it didn’t float my boat. Surely it’s much better than Outback, but nothing transcendental. It felt like I was in a 100-year old landmark with surly waiters, decent food, and a room full of people, enjoying their meat because Zagat’s told them they were supposed to enjoy their meat.

I am still lobbying for a hall pass that gets me into Robert’s. To her credit, Susan is more concerned about my cholesterol than my fidelity. Or perhaps she believes that I am more likely to succumb to the Gold Label Kobe New York Strip, Creamy Mashed Potatoes and the pistachio ice cream, than the Gold-accessorized New York Stripper, creamy complexion and pistachio eye shadow. Nevertheless, I refuse to go there by myself, and have not yet found a companion brave enough to broach the issue with his spouse. Thanks to the Internet I can still read the menu.

Instead I visit local gastro-hero, Michael Mina, who slow cooks steaks in various fats before grilling them over mesquite at his Vegas spot, StripSteak and Bourbon Steak in SF. Hmmm, not enough fat on the inside of one of those Kobe rib eyes for ya? Now you need to encase a 70% fat hunk in a 100% fat shell. Definitely time to make more cardiology and diabetes investments (my real job).

I have to admit that Mina's “regular” (non-Kobe) rib-eye was a drool-inducing slab of umami amino acids and dispersing lipids, the likes of which I had not previously consumed. Yum. And the duck fries—I am not a fan of fries, French or Freedom--were alone worth the cab lines at McCarren Airport. These are potatoes fried in duck fat, not fried ducks as one companion assumed.

In LA, at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT, the best of the meat was sittin’ on bar stools not served on plates. But what I could get for $75 was delicious, if undersized, and adorned with creative concoctions of chili, fruit or jus—not for the purist, but tasty. I am talking here about aged beef, of course not the under-aged variety at the bar.

For rank-and-file steak lovers there is another famous LA spot, Pacific Dining Car. It was good beef, seasoned and cooked right. The usual sides. Same experience at Morton’s in Orange County, Donvan’s in San Diego, Drover in Omaha, Smith & Wollensky in various towns and Ruth Chris’ in Dallas, except that the latter was scuba-diving in clarified butter.

Steak then is simple: buy very good beef, age it, liberal salt and pepper, hot, hot surface—get a char, and don’t screw it up by overcooking. I learned how to do this at Bonanza Sirloin Pit during High School—everything except the “buy very good beef” part. Nevertheless, if I did not mess them up by overcooking, the Bonanza steaks tasted very good. That is why, it never ceases to amaze me that you can still go to an otherwise spectacular restaurant, love everything in site, order the steak and have all the air pop out of your balloon.

It happened just last night at Skool in SF. Fabulous creative food: inventive cocktails, great fish, veggie and vegan dishes—crab cakes, baby aji fritti, surprising eryngil mushrooms with miso aioli, shishito peppers, squid noodles in a Japanese broth, the best salad “I have ever eaten in my life” says my wife. This restaurant wasn’t just good, it was amazing. Then the steak came: grass-fed Eel River New York strip. Promising start. But wait, you cooked it how? medium-well? Are you kidding me? Dry, tough, rough mouth feel with no lubricating juices, like french kissing a large thirsty cat—how is this possible? Just don’t f**k it up; the Golden Rule of steak. Yet, they managed. Don't get me wrong. I am going back to Skool. It was too good. Just won’t order the steak—ever.

So the most important food in America is not burgers, not steak and not, my vegan friends, tofu anything. I like Kale as much as the next guy, but it is still like eating some one else's green tongue. I do make a mean kale burger chocked full veggie umami bombs like double-concentrated tomato paste, parmesiano cheese, dried porcini mushrooms and crushed anchovies, with various nuts & seeds. But this variant will never take over the nation.

In Part II, I will make the affirmative case for pizza as America's Most Important Food. Set your ovens for 700-degrees.

Labels: , , ,