Where HAS all the real food gone? Nitrogen poached eggs, pinecone sorbet, food so smothered in an exotic sauce you can't recall if you are eating fish or chicken!!
As the world advances with scientific discovery, it seems that to maintain an edge in the restaurant industry, chefs must do the same. You only need look at the San Pellegrino Top 50 restaurants each year to realize that innovative cooking that challenges the palate is the way to a Michelin star and celebrity in the world of food.
Recently I dined at Heston Blumenthal's "The Fat Duck", one of the most amazing food experiences available. Not because the food tastes delectable, because to be honest, I would never order any of the dishes again for their flavour.
It is amazing because of the innovation in the preparation of these dishes - the presentation, the theatricality and flair of the overall experience, and the downright bizarre combinations of food that actually work. The challenge to your senses and palate and preconceived ideas about what should work with food combinations is what makes these restaurants so successful. Snail porridge? I like neither snails nor porridge, but when served this in combination at The Fat Duck, I was filled with curiosity to see how it could work. It was actually extremely palatable and pleasant, but would I ever choose to order this again? Thank you but no.
My contention with this type of cooking is that in order to get much of the food to the weird and wonderful thing that arrives on your plate, it must first undergo far too much change from its original state. Yes, it truly is a great accomplishment for a chef to manage to create a dish that tastes so far from what you are eating that you need to look at the menu to remind yourself of what it IS you are putting in your mouth. However, each time I have eaten food like this, I am left feeling more than a little queasy, which after the cost of the meal at top establishments, is far from the desired outcome.
In discussion with others about this issue, it was pointed out to me that we choose to dine out in order to eat food that we ourselves cannot prepare. Valid point. I get so excited before trying any new place that I cannot wait to be seated to read the menu, so usually have scoured it thoroughly online the week beforehand! However, cooking the very best ingredients, with interesting but equally fresh and natural accompaniments seems to be a lost art.
Recently in a gastro-pub called Harrisons in Balham (London), I ordered a steak. It was good, not incredible, but tasty. What was incredible? The lightly roasted tomatoes that accompanied the steak which were sprinkled in herbs and ever so slightly caramelized on the top, and were without question, the best roast tomatoes I have ever had. Tomatoes! They still looked like tomatoes, tasted like tomatoes and I have every confidence that not so many days beforehand they were tomatoes sprouting from a green vine somewhere...but they were exceptional. This is what I want. REAL food and real food that tastes exceptional!
One of the best meals I have had out recently was at a little Italian Restaurant near St James Square (London), Al Duca. My starter of Grilled Vegetables consisted of slivers of courgette, carrot, eggplant and tomato, grilled to perfection and drizzled in an outstanding olive oil. Is it easy to get food to taste that good when it is so simple? Because so few restaurants manage it, I would have to conclude "no".
My main at Al Duca was a Pan Fried Fillet of Sea Bass on a Bed of Spinach. What arrived at the table was exactly that... a pan fried fillet of seabass on a bed of spinach...nothing else. It was the most incredible food I have been served in some time. The spinach was fresh and abundant and cooked perfectly in a little olive oil. The fish was so fresh, delicate, subtle and exquisite. The sauce? A little of the same olive oil that had been poured over my vegetable starter, and a drizzle of balsamic. This was simple food at its peak. Traditional, simple, elegant cooking that I will definitely go back to enjoy again.
So where has all the real food gone? It is still out there, but is now well hidden under sauces and spices and the notion that fine-dining need be synonymous with scientific wonderment on your plate. For my money, I want exceptional food that tastes like food. Things that my body recognises for what they are, and knows how to digest!