Restaurants


If music be the food of love, by all means, play on, but in restaurants, when food is paramount, silence is the best sound of all.

In other words, I hate music in restaurants.

This statement is inspired by a piece about music sound tracks in Manhattan restaurants in yesterday’s New York Times written by Peter Meehan, who also writes the “$25 and Under” dining reviews, the point being that the vast majority of restaurant owners and managers don’t even consider not having a musical backdrop in their dining rooms. The main questions are what kind of music to provide and who will compile the selections, the owner or manager, the staff, or an outside company like the famed Muzak or some other company with a younger, hipper focus.

Nobody brought up the crucial issue of how loud, I mean how LOUD the music should be played.

Here’s an example. We went to The Mermaid Inn (96 Second Ave in Manhattan.) not long after it opened and found the food OK — the restaurant was slammed — but not as good as The Red Cat or The Harrison, which are under the same ownership. The chief problem wasn’t the food, however, but the music, downtown alt rock, that was played so loudly that waiters had to shout at diners, diners had to shout back at waiters and nobody at the table could have a conversation or even say “Pass the bread” without bellowing or writing a note. It was like being in a club, not a restaurant. Restaurant owners may think that’s cool, but it ain’t.
In fact, I find this experience not merely irritating or off-putting but deadly. Playing music — any kind of music — in a restaurant so loudly that the sound dominates the room, calls attention to itself and shatters the concentration that should be centered on the food and wine ruins dining out for me, and I would bet that I’m not alone in this reaction. It seems counter-intuitive to me that restaurants would continue, actually aggressively continue, in a practice that can alienate diners. Isn’t the idea in business to cater to customers?

Equally bad is inappropriate music in restaurants. I can’t tell you the times I have sat in a fine-dining establishment, trying to enjoy some splendid dish, while Tony Bennett practically stands next to the table leaving his heart in San Francisco or Frank Sinatra has a very good year or reggae throbs through the dining room. Or hits of the Eighties! Do we have to be reminded?

No, my friends, if there must be music, let it be almost subliminal, a sound that stays so firmly in the background that we perceive it only when there’s a lull in the activity.
Even better, let there be no music at all except for the sounds that should be music to all our ears: The mild clatter of cutlery, the low murmur or conversation, the sigh of enjoyment and pleasure.

I was reading a piece in the Gourmet magazine for January about the restaurant Gambero Rosso, run by self-taught chef Fulvio Pierangelini, in the Tuscan coastal town of San Vicenzo, the thrust being whether it’s the best restaurant in Italy. Well, that’s not really the point writer Colman Andrews sensibly implies. It’s just all about the food, which Andrews describes as “straightforward” and “guileless” and “surprisingly simple and pure.” moreoatmeal_01.jpg
Those remarks impelled me to consider the two types of chefs that seem to dominate the culinary world: Those who are straightforward and guileless and produce simple pure food, embodied by Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and her many disciples; and the impresarios of ingredients, the grand-standing magicians, manifest in Ferran Adria, of El Bulli outside Barcelona, frequently described as the world’s most important chef, and his proliferating emulators who have unleashed a tide of asparagus foam and spherification upon the land.

I have known people, even chefs, who dined at Chez Panisse and came back to report their disappointment, saying , “There’s nothing to it. Anybody could do that.” There is, actually and deceptively, a great deal to the cuisine at Chez Panisse and just anybody can’t do it, which is what makes eating at the restaurant such a pleasure. Waters’ doctrine of fresh, local ingredients treated with respect and minimal manipulation — but always impeccable technique in the kitchen — produces cuisine of jewel-like flavors and quiet integrity.

I have not eaten at El Bulli — there are 300,000 requests a year for the 8,000 seats available during the season — but in the summer of 2004 I dined at the restaurant La Alqueria, part of a fabulously beautiful and romantic 10th Century Moorish estate in Sanlucar La Mayor, outside Seville. The chef, Rafael Morales, trained at El Bulli and subscribes to Adria’s doctrine that a restaurant kitchen is an extension of the chemistry and physics laboratories and that a chef’s business is to astonish diners by yoking wildly disparate ingredients in startling forms.
The succession of 20 small courses, improbable and extravagant, brought on spoons or little plates, cunningly presented, led to responses that distilled to “Well, that worked” or “Well, that didn’t work,” notions that don’t have much to do with the satisfaction of one’s appetites. Not that the experience wasn’t interesting, intriguing and sometimes fun, but eating at a carnival can also be interesting, intriguing and sometimes fun. Whatever the case, I think that astonishment is not as important as gratification when it comes to fine dining.

Anyway, apropos of simplicity, a few days ago, LL said, “You haven’t made macaroni and cheese in a long time. I think not since we moved to the house,” which was about a year ago. Might as well say it: we love macaroni and cheese. My family ate the dish frequently when my brother and I were growing up, but it came out of a box named Kraft. My model is the macaroni and cheese at the Zabar family’s E.A.T.S. restaurant on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. An order brings a monumental slab of dense baked macaroni permeated by sharp, tangy, creamy cheeses and surmounted by a thick breadcrumb crust also thick with cheese.
So, my procedure is to make a bechamel sauce (good ol’ Fanny Farmer!) and stir into it in the last moments about a cup and a half of shredded cheeses, on this occasion sharp cheddar, Colby and Monterey Jack. I combine that with the cooked macaroni in a buttered casserole, sprinkle on some quartered cherry tomatoes and diced country ham and then shovel on a mixture of breadcrumbs and more cheese: Parmesan, Gruyere and cheddar. Japanese panko breadcrumbs are available at many groceries nowadays; I use those because they create a crisp crust and they last forever if you store them tightly sealed. Then bake the casserole for 35 to 45 minutes at 375 degrees. Lord have mercy, it was good. macagain_01.jpg

I dithered about trying to decide what wine to serve with the mac and cheese, and finally LL said, “How about something basic and simple.” So I popped the cork on this Da Vinci Chianti 2005 (about $16) and it was indeed, basic and simple and fruity, just the thing, though for the life of me I don’t understand why the Italians, of all people, wouldn’t call the label “Leonardo.” I mean, fer gawd’s sake, the wine in made in the hometown of the great artist, engineer and the worlds’ smartest person ever; how about a little respect?

And then yesterday, which was chilly and rainy, I said, “How about some oatmeal?” because some hot oatmeal would really hit the spot. Now you will accuse me of being excessively purist when I tell you that we use only McCann’s Irish Oatmeal, but truly I have tried every oatmeal I can find and this is actually the best. Yes, you have to stand at the stove and stir the stuff for 35 or 40 minutes, as if you were making risotto, but the result is so rich and nutty, so oaty, so hearty in flavor and texture that it beats all other contenders. LL takes hers with butter and salt; I use brown sugar. Just a bit of milk to stir in. Pure goodness. Wonderful. Satisfying.

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