21 October 2012


Photo by author of chocolate-bar packaging, front lower portion, October 2012.
Photo by author of chocolate-bar packaging for Fearless brand, back upper portion, October 2012.
I am bitter, perhaps, but so is the chocolate. Could it be that today's chocolate is more bitter the more it's trying to do good? I'm beginning to think so. That's my (admittedly impressionistic) conclusion after (unscientifically) sampling over ten brands, what I roughly guess is just under half, of the chocolate bars lately sold at my local Whole Foods.

An admirer of good package design as much as a lover of indulgent chocolate, I found myself drawn to trying as many brands of bars as I found flavors and visuals to intrigue me. I was also tempted by the eminently Whole Foodsian prospect of reconciling my hedonism with my desire to do good. Save the world by eating the best of it? Win-win.

Almost all of the chocolate brands now available at Whole Foods have some ethical angle. And the angles are gorgeously wrapped. Since nearly all brands print company stories on the verso--a packaging quirk chocolate shares with specialty juice and water drinks--the consumer "experience" of chocolate brands has a literary layer. So much care is taken, as well, with materials that to hold the narrative tablet is as texturally thrilling as a trip to a handmade-paper boutique.

For some of the exquisitely swaddled, it's enough to be organic. However, these bars are starting to seem like dinosaurs in a market where the social causes are multiplying. I see brands that save rainforests and endangered species. Others assure me they are "fair trade." The brand I've pictured above crowdsources for its causes. Organic is merely a baseline.

Still, every such brand that I've tasted is overwhelmingly bitter. Of course, I expect dark chocolate to be more bitter than milk, and I recognize that, in recent decades, there's been a mainstreaming of this more "adult" (read: bitter) taste for dark chocolate. But these facts still beg the question of why so many do-good brands fall into the bitter camp and are intentionally more bitter than commercial brands (e.g., Dove) of dark chocolate.

I associate this bitterness with medicine. I then associate medicine with something that's not pleasant but is supposed to be good for you. Could the bitterness of so much "ethical" chocolate be engaged in a kind of moral-sensory trade off, and could it be that fans of these bars, however few there may be, want their chocolate to taste of piety?

Do the bars have a puritanical streak...on purpose? I'd like to know what do you think.

20 July 2012


JoAnn Stougaard, featured with Jitlada's dishes for article by Betty Hallock, "Food Blogger's Extreme Eating Challenge," Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2011. Photo by Anne Cusack.

From a variety of food media, I gather that the expansive restaurant menu arouses starkly opposing responses.

Admirers of the restaurant Jitlada, arguably the most celebrated Thai place in Los Angeles, gush on at least as much about the astonishing breadth of the menu as they do about the quality of the food it begets. In this case, the long menu is taken as a sign of ambition and skill. More astounding still, this wealth of offerings comes from a kitchen so small that the owners were compelled to put signs up in the restaurant warning diners that their food will take a while. Some, like the always-on-trend blogger JoAnn Stougaard, mylastbite.com, have declared a desire to try everything on Jitlada's menu as if to do so might garner a gourmet prize (see Betty Hallock, "Food Blogger's Extreme Eating Challenge," LA Times, January 27, 2011).

At the same time, short menus are all the rage at trendy restaurants born of creative chefs that the food bloggerati also seem to enjoy. Apart from the separate beer and wine lists at these places, a single page on fine stock presenting a smartly limited list is the preferred solution, giving the suave impression of judicious "focus."

The small menu also gets support from other quarters. Take, for example, Gordon Ramsay's BBC show Kitchen Nightmares. Time after time, Ramsay excoriates the failing restaurateur for clinging to his long menus. Ramsay gives us plenty of justification for his wrath, repeatedly revealing the myriad horrors lurking behind long menus. On his show, they are the most dubious of documents, shields hiding scoundrels--undeservedly proud restaurateurs and cowardly cooks keeping molding herbs in undated containers in back cupboards, trays of long forgotten fish, and other soggy hashes that await their turn to be ordered but never will so long as the menu is...so long. Ramsay invariably rescues these establishments by making over their menus into something a lot more manageable--meaning, brief. 

Based on the above, I'm going to guess that there's no one answer to the question of whether long menus are a good or bad sign. I imagine it might depend on the management skills of the kitchen, including the ability to buy one ingredient and generate at least ten distinct dishes from it. I suspect this kind of smart shopping might be the case with Jitlada. Giang Nan in the San Gabriel Valley is a personal favorite I like to think, based on the delicious results, belongs in this category. Examine the long menus of these establishments and you might notice plenty of repeating ingredients, used in seemingly endless combinations.

But a mystery remains. I appeal to the restaurant-kitchen savvy to answer this: Is there a reliable way for diners to tell (without a full-scale investigation of the back of the house) when a large menu is a good or bad sign?

01 June 2012


Andy Warhol in the "Silver Factory" loft, 1964-68. Photo probably by Billy Linich.
Can anyone think of another workspace besides the artist loft and the restaurant open kitchen that, in recent decades, has become so ubiquitous as a chic, upscale commodity?

I will be speaking about the appeal of both spaces as ideal models of "creative-artisanal" labor on the "Food and Arts" panel of the "Global Gateways and Local Connections" food-studies conference. The event is jointly hosted by NYU and The New School this June. Come by if you are in town and have interest in the topic!

02 April 2012


"Philly Cheesesteak" at minibar, Washington, D.C., 6 August 2010. Photo by author.

Dining counter at Saison, San Francisco, 8 September 2010. Photo by author.

Terrific news: The University of Chicago Press will publish SMART CASUAL. It's an ideal read for anyone interested in the history and fashions of restaurants and gourmet dining. There'll be something new to chew on for the seasoned professional and the foodie novice.

SMART CASUAL is an in-depth look at how the fine-dining restaurant in America changed from a hushed scene of chandeliers and closed kitchens, strict dress codes and Continental cuisine, to a clamorous place where diner-style decor and hamburgers are no longer impediments to a Michelin star...or two. It also recognizes the simultaneous rise of new formalities, such as the elaboration of tasting-menu rituals. While they may seem contradictory, I consider these tendencies as part of a cohesive "omnivorous" turn in gourmet taste.  The book uncovers the key dining rooms and trends that mark the rise of "omnivorous" preferences, and considers the changes in taste in light of broader shifts in the definition of elite social status.

The book has academic rigor, but jargon-free prose. It draws on extensive archival research as well as participant-observation and interviews with major players. It considers the cuisine as much as the environments of restaurants. SMART CASUAL picks up in time where Patric Kuh's THE LAST DAYS OF HAUTE CUISINE (2001) leaves off, but, unlike it, puts the focus on visual aesthetics.

I will post updates here and via my Facebook page (The Eye in Dining) and Twitter (theeyeindining) as soon as I have further details to share related to the project and its release. Thank you for your interest.

03 March 2012

Special Post: VOSS for DINNER?

     On leap day--February 29, 2012--a panoply of Los Angeles food bloggers and magazine writers gathered at FIG restaurant, in Santa Monica, for a special chef's tasting menu. Sensory pleasure and good company were not, however, our only motives. The festivities were designed to benefit the VOSS Foundation's "Give a Drop" campaign.
Company at table
Glaum Ranch Hen's Egg with Truffle and Asparagus
     The event was a reminder of cultural contrasts. Chef Ray Garcia is well known for highlighting, with a spare grace, local and bountiful foods. He stocks his walk-ins from the overflowing Santa Monica Farmer's Market, and, through the restaurant's regular forager, taps other fecund fields in California. Note the captions under the special-tasting-menu items pictured here. They all emphasize the local origins of ingredients.
Rabbit with McGrath Farm's English Peas
Sonoma Lamb with Carrots and Harissa
Pudwill Farm's Blackberry Pavlova with Vanilla Mousse
Contrast this situation of local abundance and easy access to high-quality foods with the focus of the dinner's sponsor--the distant and unyielding terrain of Sub-Saharan Africa. There, even access to clean water, never mind the likes of humanely raised lamb, is a daily challenge. 
VOSS  Foundation banner
     VOSS has been addressing this discrepancy. Since 2008, VOSS has helped construct thirty-two water access points in five African countries. With their "Give a Drop" campaign, you can help the cause by texting DROP to 89544 on any U.S. mobile phone. $5 will be donated automatically to the campaign. See? Even this is easy-access for many of us over here!