With Cheat Sheet and Calculated Cool, Nouvelle Novice Finds Foodie Identity

 By Zuzu Keller


 
The prices make my left eye twitch. My shoulders converge on my ears, and I fear I am out of my tax bracket.

I can never remember the definition of Paillard, Rillettes, or Remoulade.

I get bloated from the salt and won’t get on the scale for days. Even my shoes are tight.

Still, I love nouvelle cuisine.

The prices: I have actually flinched at a $42 a la carte seared Georges Bank diver scallop. Real foodies don’t even look at the prices, but we novices are easy to spot. Our eyes slide to the right side of the menu and we are either resigned or horrified. We quickly calculate the glass versus bottle pricing and wish that we’d had a martini—or two—at home. We convince ourselves that we aren’t really that hungry after all. A small plate of Hamachi crudo will more than do it. Diet starts now! But, when the dessert menu is presented, we must choose: Splurge on the chocolate fondant with Bartlett pears and almond nougatine or save $20 and settle for the Ben and Jerry’s vanilla bean in the freezer. Oh hell, I can eat Ben and Jerry’s any night. I’ll have the fondant, please. Diet starts tomorrow.

An R Word that’s Not Rillettes or Remoulade: Recently I perused an upscale Sonoma County restaurant menu and spotted “Creek side ramps from the mountains of Oregon.” Ramps? What to do: Ask your kind waiter an open-ended question, such as: “Would you please tell me how the ramps are prepared?” Or, “How do your ramps compare to the ones served at the French Laundry?” Answers to these questions may illuminate if a ramp is a northern cousin of a crayfish or more akin to watercress. Or, at least, reveal if a ramp is an animal or a vegetable.

Certain foodie terms are staples on high-end menus: confit, coulis, and hyssop to name a tiny few; all of which I’ve looked up more than once and forgotten. In my weaker moments, I’ve imagined that even the bus boy thought: “The poor thing wouldn’t know a confit if it bit her.” So, I’ve created a cheat sheet of foodie terms that I keep on my cell phone. (I’ve been asked repeatedly by friends and family to pull out my cliff notes at restaurants.) Speaking of terminology, you can be pretty sure that anything ending in otti or ette is pasta.

Salt and bloating: Sorry, you are on your own here.

With cheat sheet handy for ordering—although not conspicuous—and a credit card prepared to do some heavy lifting, my husband and I booked an anniversary dinner at a pricy Napa Valley restaurant. The wine list was expansive and expensive; but beyond the zins and the merlots, the salt was flaked, the mustards were artesian, the salad greens were tumbled or tangled, and the olives were cracked. I love this literary preface to dining. Beyond the cuisine, are restaurants also competing with the creativity and playfulness of their nouns, verbs, and adjectives? And who is lucky enough to write this lingua franca for the well healed?

Our meal began with a trio of beets: A golden. A light creamy pink. And the dark burgundy of “real” beets. Now, each sliver of beet was no larger than a pat of butter, but they were sensational. The golden beet was topped with a petite wedge of roasted onion. No ordinary onion, this was the heart and soul of how God created the savory bulb: equal parts sweet and pungent and carmelized to a perfect al dente resistance. The blistered edges accentuated the onion’s sensuous curves. The creamy pink beets—strewn with a delicate crumble of Laura Chanel chevre—rested on crinkled strips of mache (cheat sheet checked here) intertwined with shaved baby turnip. The deep red beets—sewn with Ellie’s vintage blue and offset by lightly charred hazelnuts—reclined on a bed of micro greens. All were splashed with an olive oil evocative of the hills of Tuscany. Flaked sel gris married the ingredients into a perfect union.

Our next course was an heirloom gazpacho. Before us, our waiter placed a trapezoidal white soup bowl with high irregular sides. At the bottom of the bowl two poached and chilled tiger prawns curled into their final embrace. To me, gazpacho is tomatoes; so I was surprised to see the unorthodox crustaceans. But then, from behind his back, he unfurled a beaker of coral-colored mélange and doused the little sea creatures. We tucked in. Delicious.

I could go on about the slow braised short ribs, caramelized brussels, and black radish; but honestly, when fennel pollen is an ingredient, can there be many more links up the food chain?

In the spirit of fair balance, there are a couple of very minor details about nouvelle cuisine that I don’t like one little bit. The first is foam. I hate foam on my food. Whose idea was that? And foam is never listed on the menu. Is it meant to be a delightful little surprise? An exquisite detail too precious to mention? Foam on food reminds me of soap or fermentation; the former of which I certainly don’t want to ingest and the latter of which should only happen in a glass. I also hate vertical food. It may look avant garde and imaginative, but honestly how do you eat a tower of anything without it falling all over the plate, or worse yet, you?


As foodies, we celebrate the wild king salmon “Carpaccio,” lipstick peppers, or a sublime Kumamoto oyster, but it might be a simple tomato that is just as unforgettable. I admit that, as onions go, the one escorting the golden beet was likely the best I’ve ever eaten; and those embracing prawns were so adorable. But the tastiest tomato I can remember was a yellow sungold picked from a friend’s garden on a summer afternoon and popped into my mouth. The most luscious ice cream: a pint of Haagen-dazs Jamocan Almond Fudge enjoyed in bed with my husband before we married. And the most exquisite beer: A summer night in Palm Springs. I’d been out waking and was very hot. I sat in the breeze way of a desert bungalow fanned by a whisper of cool air. A moth beat its wings against a yellow patio light. I placed an icy glass of Heineken on the side of my flushed face, then put my lips to the perfectly bitter foam, took a long drink, and knew I had never tasted anything so delicious.

While the only thing I have in common with Thomas Keller is a last name, and Alice Waters does not ask for my advice, I’ve become comfortable—dare I say at home—in high-end eateries. Yes, my pocketbook may be anorexic while I’ve gained pounds from the heaps of sel gris I’ve consumed, but after a few days of subsisting on steamed zucchini, swigging gallons of water, and walking miles, I am ready to return and indulge in yet another gastronomic delight. Pass me the ramps, please, with the coulis on the side.