Restaurants of Future Past
On Friday, I linked to Robert Moss' piece in the Charleston City Paper expounding on that city's fine dining past, haute present and unknown future. Another story I missed, that every tweeter with a tongue and an opinion found worthy, was Pete Wells' latest review for the New York Times. Wells' review of Rôtisserie Georgette, noted for its "a refreshing lack of creativity," echoed Moss' worries that a modern, hyper food culture casts humble, dedicated cooking to the shadows.
Earlier this year Rôtisserie Georgette put a new chef in charge of its spit-roasted chickens and fish, its fries flecked with tarragon and its baby potatoes heavy with meat drippings, and I couldn’t tell the difference. This is meant as praise, and not the damning-with-faint kind.
The cult of the new in restaurants has brought us many wonders, but it has also left us with the curse of compulsory creativity. It’s no longer enough for chefs to cook hot food that makes us happy; they are supposed to dumbfound us with flavors the human tongue has never tasted.
This is why writers like me devote energy to, for example, puzzling postmodern taquerias while taking for granted the simple excellence of traditional ones. The change in restaurant culture is something like the shift that overtook popular music after the Beatles. Singing old Cole Porter tunes was out; suddenly every kid with a guitar and an amplifier was supposed to have the songwriting chops of Lennon and McCartney combined.
The quote everyone tweeted: "If this restaurant had a clock, its hands would be stopped at five minutes before nouvelle cuisine," which adds a few decades of history to the soulful, well-intentioned but seemingly trendy experimental status quo of Southern food (and all fine dining, really) Moss (sort of) laments.
Writers and creators, naturally, chase after what's new, to be the first to cook it or cover it. But there are some writers whose speed is set a little slower.
New Orleans Times-Picayune food critic Brett Anderson is one big city restaurant writer whom I think balances the future and the past well. His adopted home's cuisine is both roadside and gold-shimmering. Cooks there re-imagine the region's foodways just as they do in Charleston, and the culture grew out of, or broke through, the traditions of Commander's Palace and Galatoire's. He celebrates both regularly; the classics rub elbows with the upstarts in his best-of lists.
Now, Anderson is a favorite of mine, and the first to pop into my head. Feel free to offer other food writers with a similar equilibrium. I'll be looking for parallels here in Athens and Atlanta.