"No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize." - Julia Child

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fusion on a saucer

Cupcakes. Bacon. Only french fries. Only grilled cheese sandwiches. Exotically flavored ice cream. Eggs in everything. Offal. Pork belly.  (Pork belly, pork belly, pork belly!) What's next, crispy pig skin? (It should be, it's GOOD.)

Food goes through trends constantly, and I don't necessarily buy into many of them. To me, a good meal with ingredients that are fresh and thoughtfully put together, cooked well and obviously presented with care and pride is better than any deconstructed, foam-embellished, truffle-oiled morsel forced into a metal ring and laid out on a bed of baby greens/grains/flower petals/somethings. I'm not saying all food trends are bad, because many are not (see: cupcakes, eggs, anything pork-related), and as a matter of fact, I am quite fond of many of the foods that become trendy. But when I'm either cooking or seeking out a good restaurant, I don't tend to pay much attention to the trend factor. I just want a place with something delicious that I want to eat.

I recently went with a friend to a restaurant that is newish to my neighborhood. This place does Asian fusion food presented on small plates. The first concept I'm not so into. The second one I love.

I understand that fusion is a way to take familiar cuisines and mix them up with elements from other cuisines in order to make something new. Sometimes it works, with astonishing, surprising, pleasing results. Sometimes it just tries too hard, putting overwrought, overthought, and bizarre combinations on the plate, which makes one wonder: what was so wrong with the way things were that someone was presumptuous enough to believe that they could make it BETTER by completely changing it?

When we ate at this particular restaurant, some of the dishes really shone. They were satisfying, flavorful, and a true success. Tiny fried sweet potatoes? Yes. A pork ragout on a bed of noodles, a perfectly poached egg nestled among them? I could have eaten a second bowl. The pork belly on soft, cloudlike Asian buns? Perfection. Like a bacon cheeseburger slider without the cheeseburger. But the smoked tofu? Mediocre at best, and lacking robust flavor. The crab and jicama salad on a bed of egg custard? Disappointing texture combination, jarring and dissonant flavors. Overall, enough of the meal was good to keep it from being a completely mediocre restaurant experience. But what I really liked was the small plates concept (or Asian-fusion tapas, as I referred to it).

This is one of the reasons I love being Spanish. The cuisine is second to none, and the tapas concept, featuring Spanish food or not, has really caught on in the States. Viva foods on toothpicks! Americans embrace what many other food cultures already know works beautifully: small plates meant to be shared, so everyone can try a variety of foods, rather than eating a massive portion of a single food. It's a fact that after the first few bites of any particular food, our taste buds relax/disengage and the food's taste is just not as intense and satisfying as it was initially. The small plates concept is brilliant because the constantly rotating repertoire of foods keeps the taste buds engaged and primed for action. Small plates encourage eating to become a social event, with everyone getting a taste of each dish. Everyone can try more, and everyone can discuss how something tastes. I find that I much prefer this style of eating, because to me, food is at its best when it is about celebration, socializing, spending time with people we love. And when we graze, eating off these small plates of variety, I feel like we eat less than when we are presented with one huge pile of food at once. Keeping the plates moving keeps the conversation going and the lag between getting each dish allows you to really feel in tune with how your stomach feels physically. Eating more slowly lets you realize when you've had enough. And if you don't like one particular food, you can wait for the next one to come around.

I found that during my meal with my friend, we talked more, spent a lot of time talking about personal things, but also talking about what we eating, saying what we liked and why. So even though everything we ate wasn't fantastic, it was still nice to both be able to try things and talk about why certain things worked more than others. Any time I've ever eaten in a small plates style, or in a way where everything is shared and passed around, I find that I've just enjoyed the meal more. So fusion? I can take it or leave it. But small plates? Keep (many of) them coming.

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