12 November 2010

Fine Dining in the middle of nowhere

I found myself in a slightly large town in a very under-populated area and in need of a meal not too long ago.  Now, I’ve been to the steak houses that serve iceberg lettuce in galvanized steel buckets as the only vegetable option; I’ve been to the diners with homemade pie and nothing else on the menu that requires a full set of teeth to eat; I’ve even played it safe a number of times and just gone to Subway, where I know the veggie sub will be the same boring thing it is in every other part of the country.

But I was in the convention capital of…let’s call it Cheneyland.  I wanted to be adventurous.  I wanted to live the life of a busy, important oil exec who travels around the West, being pampered by chefs and masseuses between high-stakes deals.  Well, I don’t know where those people go, but I decided to try my luck at 555.
555 was located in the decaying original downtown area of the city in a crumbling old, industrial-era brick building.  It was distinguished only by its modestly-sized sign in a simple Art Noveau font.  Classy. When I stepped inside, it was clear that someone had a subscription to Interior Design magazine: the floors were a stark concrete, the lighting was dim and sexily packaged in tiny cobalt lampshades, and the furniture was all made of thin (uncomfortable) metal tubes.  It was beautiful!  This was a restaurant I couldn’t have afforded to walk into in Chicago or New York, but here I was in bumfuck listening to low, mumbling trance music, squinting to see the exotic fish in the aquarium in the floor, and pretending I was chic enough to belong in such setting.
The menu was filled with artful-sounding risotto cakes, exotic cuts of fish and beef with overly complicated sauces, sushi, and a martini menu.  Who needs traffic and harsh, rude people on the streets?  You can recreate the city anywhere, as this place obviously proved.

Then the waitress came.  From far away she fit perfectly with the décor; reasonably slim in lean black pants and a gray top with random hunks of fabric hanging off the front, her bright purple-streaked hair and animal-print stilettos  made sense nowhere else in this town but inside 555.  Then she got closer.  Deep crow’s feet and a couple of missing teeth towards the back of her mouth subtly hinted at the fact that I was not, after all, in New York.   She spent an inordinate amount of time telling my male companion about the martini she had just “invented” that morning and that, while it obviously hadn’t made it to the menu yet, she would make them for us (well, she said “you”, but I took that to mean “us” even though she wouldn’t look at me).   We ordered two.  We asked her what she recommended on the menu and she said everything was delicious.  That is not the sign of a discerning palate or a well-trained staff. 

The special, newly-invented martinis came and they made Kool-Aid seem a bit bland and lacking in sweetness by comparison.  Because she thought vodka (the base for every martini that is not already based on gin) was too strong, she chose to make this martini with only Triple Sec for its alcoholic component; the rest was pomegranate juice and orange juice.  So, if you’re keeping track, that’s Triple Sec, pomegranate juice, and orange juice.  That was the special martini.  If she was trying to pick up my lunch companion, she was so far failing miserably.  BUT, it looked very pretty in the glass. 

My friend ordered the sushi.  As I live in a very landlocked part of the country, I am not one to be snobbish about how far my seafood travels to get to my plate, and yet I still thought this was ill-advised.  Call it woman’s intuition.  Also, it just said “sushi” on the lunch menu, not “spicy tuna roll” or “cucumber eel roll” or even “California roll”.  When asked what kind of sushi it was they served, our waitress/ martini inventor told us it was different every day, depending on what they had in the kitchen.  And still he ordered it. 

I ordered the wild mushroom risotto cake; risotto is like the rice version of mac-n-cheese, and mushrooms are easy to find, so how could that be wrong? 

As we chugged our martinis (sipping them was only giving us more opportunities to taste them) and waited for our food, there were other little telltale signs that you cannot, despite my wish for this little bistro, pick up New York and plop it down in some other part of the country.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that, while you can build it, you will still have to hire locals to work in it. 

The manager was slowly working the crowd from the other end of the room.  He was dressed in black pants (they could at least get this part of the urban uniform right in 555), a black cotton turtleneck, and a bright blue blazer that perfectly matched the cobalt blue light fixtures.  Additionally, he wore white socks that peeked out from under his slightly too-short pants and black Reeboks.  When he got close enough that we could hear him talking (and he didn’t have to be too close), it was about the local high school football team that he seemed so passionate. 

Our waitress was dressed in a reasonably urbanesque way, but the other woman waiting tables looked like she had just walked out of my junior high graduation dance.  Her black pants were accompanied by a roomy sweater with a festive, Christmas-y print.  It was March.  Her hair also conformed to the requisite fluffy code of the 80s, complete with tall garden weasel bangs.  She chewed gum and looked slightly uncomfortable, like she was really trying not to screw up. 

This was the waitress who, as it turned out, had taken over our table.  For some reason the martini-maker was no longer dealing with us.  She came over to ask us if we needed anything and told us our food would be up shortly (we had only been waiting five minutes, so I kind of hoped they weren’t rushing things past the point of good taste or safety), and it was about then that the music changed from Portishead to Whitesnake.  Someone back in the kitchen hollered “yeeeeeeeeeah!”  and began to sing along to “Here I Go Again”.  It was a scene fraught with cognitive dissonance. 

The sushi, taken surreptitiously by iPhone.
Then the food came.  Rather quickly.  It matched the music, not the interior design.  My friend’s sushi, as it turns out, was a tempura roll.  It was such a large roll that it was impossible for him to fit it into his mouth whole.  However, the tempura coating on the outside was so thick and solid (really, it belonged around a piece of cod with some malt vinegar to soften it up) that biting into a piece merely created an avalanche of flaked pieces of fish, crunchy carrot, and strips of iceberg lettuce.  The fish looked to be a pink salmon broken up into pieces.  So, he did the only thing he could do: he slathered it with wasabi, took steak knife and fork to it, and dug in. 

My risotto cake did resemble risotto, though perhaps it was more like a rice pilaf piled up and stuck together, as the consistency was hardly as creamy as one would expect.  It was also made of brown rice.  There were some mushrooms in it (not of the canned variety), and except for needing salt, it was fine; there were no herbs or other seasonings that I could detect, but I am not opposed to eating rice and mushrooms.  My biggest challenge was just eating it—piled at least ¾ of an inch high, it covered the entire dinner plate.  I could have eaten off that baby for the better part of a week.

Our 80s mom waitress came back soon after we ended our giggling fit over the sushi to ask how we were.  We said we were fine because, really, what else could you say? and she hesitated slightly while staring at my friend’s McDonald’s-style sushi roll.  “So, what is that, anyway?” she asked.  He told her it was the sushi.  “Is it good?”  “Sure, it’s fine.”  “OK, maybe I’ll try it,” she said.  Maybe she would try it. 

After we ate as much as we could without feeling bilious (well, we started to), we walked across the street to the motorcycle bar and ordered two pints of the local brew to chase it down. They were pretty good, and the bikers at the other end of the bar were debating the relevance of Nietzsche in the post-modern world.  And that’s when I learned to stop searching for fine dining in the middle of nowhere.

This story didn't make it into my book, but you can read about other hair-brained visits to too-big-for-their-britches restaurants if you buy it!  Buy my book!  That's right...go buy it!