Friday, November 12, 2010

Top Chef Disappoints

The good thing about being a vegetarian: how superior I felt when reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma." The bad thing about being a vegetarian: how inferior I feel whenever I go out to eat.

I tend to think my little neck of the woods is crawling with vegetarians, the same way that when I get together with my family, I have the sense that all people are shorter than 5' 5". I forget that I'm part of what's still a fairly small minority. Fortunately there's always a restaurant menu handy to bring me back to reality. Doesn't matter whether the joint serves burgers and fries or 3-star French cuisine, there's typically a lone concession to non-meat eaters. Often it involves a portobello mushroom or eggplant, always combined with goat cheese, as if by swearing off meat I also took an oath against cheddar and gorgonzola. For the record, I hate mushrooms. I hate eggplant. I hate goat cheese.

"Nothing here for Patty," I say, disappointed by yet another chef's limited approach to meatless cuisine, as Dave and I wander hopelessly from restaurant to restaurant, like Mary and Joseph searching for a room at the inn.

My email constantly fills with messages announcing trendy underground or farm dinners, great bargains on prix fixe menus at the latest hotspot, grand openings of the newest gastropub. A revolution is taking place in terms of innovative, fresh cuisine--could there be more cooking shows on TV--and I'm stuck with my nose pressed up against the glass. I don't need someone to throw me a bone, I need them to throw me an avocado.

(I know what you're thinking. Aren't there vegetarian restaurants? Why don't you just go there and shut up already. Trouble is, I don't much care for "vegetarian" food. Tofu has all of the appeal of a pencil eraser and seitan resembles congealed oatmeal or, worse, vomit. I don't want weird food, I want the same stuff as everyone else, without the meat.)

I thought, mistakenly as it turns out, that a bona fide Top Chef like Rick Bayless would be more progressive in his offerings. On a recent weekday that happened to be a holiday for Dave, we headed downtown to XOCO, Bayless' latest downscale restaurant, intended to satisfy people with gourmet tastes and fast-food budgets. We stepped up to the counter and perused the list of tortas (Spanish for "sandwiches made with round bread"). Lots of pork and chicken. Last and most definitely least, oh look, mushrooms. With goat cheese. And black beans cooked with pork.

We could have walked away and gone to Potbelly's but, dammit, all they have is mushrooms too and besides, I would not be denied yet another opportunity to taste the creation of someone who had appeared on The Food Network. My options narrowed to vegetable soup or a churro. Churros I can get at Costco for a buck so I ordered the vegetable soup in spite of the fact that I hate soup. Someday, when I'm 90, and I don't have any teeth and my jaw doesn't work, I'm sure I'll feel differently. But at this point in my life, I still have the ability to chew, and that's what I like to do with my food. As consolation, I also ordered a hot chocolate, the Barcelona, described simply as "thick."

A hostess-type person led us to our table, explaining for the second time that this communal table seated six, and other people that we didn't know would eventually be joining us. (As if restaurants aren't typically filled with strangers.) Our drinks arrived first and our mystery companions shortly thereafter.

The Barcelona, how to describe it. You know those chocolate cakes with the molten centers? It was like drinking that or, perhaps a more accurate analogy, warm brownie batter. I had to finish it with my soup spoon, which was a better use of the utensil than scooping up my sad, salty black bean broth, about which I have nothing more to say.

The Barcelona saved the meal. Not just because it was so magically delicious, but because it was the spark that lit the conversation with our tablemates. "Now I wish I'd ordered that," she said. And we were off and running. We learned that they were originally from New York but now lived outside Philadelphia--he wanted to move back, she wanted to explore other possibilities (I suggested Portland, my personal obsession, though I've never been). They talked about their experience with Amtrak (hey, we hate flying too) and their impressions of Chicago--deep dish pizza overrated, Lincoln Park Zoo a total gem, with which we were in total agreement.

It was a delightful, serendipitous 20-30 minutes, what Michael Pollan would term the difference between eating and "dining." XOCO completely failed me in terms of the former; the communal table completely delivered the latter.


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