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Taking The Fun Out Of Eating Out
by Mad Dog
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Mad Dog column has been published by Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, NY Daily News, S.F. Chronicle, Boston Phoenix and other fine newspapers.

Eating out used to be fun. You ate good food in a nice atmosphere, usually ordering things you wouldn’t — or couldn’t — make at home, and best of all you didn’t have to slave over a hot microwave or clean up the mess afterwards. Ah, were it only so simple now!

For starters you need to figure out what kind of food the restaurant actually serves, since any restaurant worth its Chowhound page describes itself as fusion these days. You know, combinations like Pan-Asian, California-French, nouveau-homestyle, vegan-steakhouse, and Thai-Norwegian. How silly. The last thing lutefisk needs is a lemongrass and coconut milk sauce. If you do find a restaurant that cooks in a non-hyphenated style, chances are it’s all burgers. But even that’s not a sure thing since they might specialize in teriyaki-burgers, in which case you should run to the nearest Wendy’s as fast as you can.

Once you give in to — I mean, decide on — a hyphenated style you’ll be confronted by the lengthy menu. Even if the restaurant offers only a handful of dishes, each description will be longer than your college entrance essay. And better written. Honestly, if I want to read a novel I’ll bring one with me. That’s why it’s important to make your reservation for an hour before the time you actually want to eat. You’ll need the extra time to slog through the menu and you don’t want to starve or eat so much bread you’re no longer hungry enough for anything more than an appetizer — I mean, a small plate. This, by the way, isn’t to be confused with a small portion on a big plate, something you see all too often, particularly in your more expensive restaurant. It used to be that when it came to portion size you got what you paid for, but now the amount of food on your plate is inversely proportional to the price. Incidentally, Einstein predicted this in his Second Course Theory of Relativity, though it might be the third. I haven’t had time to check since I spend all my spare reading time looking at menus.

A rule of thumb is that the more expensive the dish the smaller the portion, the higher it will be stacked, and the more drizzles and dustings you’ll find scattered around the rim of the plate, which is supposed to distract you from the fact that you were just handed a small plate on a large platter for an even larger price. A corollary is that the longer the description, the higher the prices. Chefs have decided that we don’t just want to know what we’re ordering and how it’s being cooked, we want to know the color, origin, lineage, age, and pedigree of each ingredient. Here’s a tip: If it takes the waiter longer to describe the dish than it does to eat it, something’s radically wrong, and it’s not the number of times you chew your food before swallowing that’s the problem. If it takes more than a sentence, stop your server immediately. Ask if he or she would start over in English this time because you left your Foofie-English dictionary at home next to your Zagat Survey of the Michelin Guide. If this doesn’t help, sit quietly, look attentive, smile, and nod appreciatively, then when they stop and ask if you have any questions say, “The third item you mentioned, is it also available on the kid’s menu?”

Take a burger, for example. All you need to know is how much it weighs, whether it’s grilled or flame broiled, and if it comes with fries. I’m really not interested in whether the cow was grass fed, hand fed, or fed up with what it was being fed, nor do I care about the name of the farmer who raised it. Actually, I’d much rather know the name the farmer’s kids gave the cow and how they felt when they learned that Chocolate Chip was going to be tonight’s chuck roast, but for some reason you never see that on a menu.

Apparently Rene Dessert Cart once said, “I cook, therefore I’m foofie.” Even the simplest dishes now get the upscale treatment. The next time you’re in a restaurant check out the roast chicken. No doubt the menu will tell you that it’s — choose any three! — free-range, grass-fed, pastured, naturally raised, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, lo-fat, decaffeinated, shade-grown, free-trade, and/or organic. Not long ago I saw a menu that described the chicken as “humanely raised.” How humane is it when they end up wringing its neck and butchering it so I can eat it with wood-fired oven roasted fingerling potatoes that have never even seen a map of Idaho better yet the ground there and heirloom micro-greens that were cut down before their prime?

It’s enough to make me actually want things like eggplant, capers, and watermelon in my salsa, something that would give any Mexican a heart attack if they heard about it. Another thing that doesn’t belong in salsa is antidepressants, though someone should have mentioned that to the Iowa woman who was arrested for putting Trazodone in her salsa cheese dip. She was charged with administering a harmful substance though the truth be known, her friend just didn’t understand when she told him she was serving chips with “a psychoactive compound created in Italy in the 1960s that lacks the typical fused ring structures.” Will someone pass the Fritos Chili Cheese dip, please?

# # # # #

©2007 Barry H. Gottlieb All Rights Reserved.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: His compilation of humorous travel columns, “If It’s Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?” is available from Xlibris Corporation.

Published: Sep 5,2008 16:52
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