Purple cabbage. Off-white Daikon. A hint of mayo. A cup of slaw. This is not a recipe--this is what I had for lunch yesterday.
I have a knack for being able to memorize and recount meals in my head, sometimes to minute detail. Meals that are worth remembering, that is. Things like kale and beet chips served with mini beet burgers at Blue Hill back in 2008. Black sticky rice and spicy mussels at Michael's back in 2007. Every piece of rotisserie chicken and chicken-soaked fries that I ate while living in Chile. There isn't one piece of food that sticks in my head that wasn't in some way simple, because it's the complex dishes that I find so easy to forget.
The reason I take to memorizing or simply remembering plates of food that I've eaten is twofold: 1. I want to draw off them. Food isn't just about reading cook books or wearing a white chef's coat--it's about experience. It's about eating one dollar tacos on a beach in southern Chile or a just-caught ceviche in the Dominican Republic. So by remembering more of the foods I've eaten and their surrounding circumstances, I can set out to recreate those atmospheres and those emotions in the food I create. 2. They bring me back to good places. Inherently tied to number 1, I like returning to points in my life that made me happiest. Duh, right? Not at all from a chef's perspective, food has often been a source of joy in my life, the comradery that comes from sharing a good meal with a friend or a loved one; the inherent feeling of satisfaction that ensues. When food becomes memorable, it is more than just food.
Fresh off the sale of a large bag of used clothes and with money to burn, I suddenly developed the craving for a Po'Boy. I knew just the place to get it--Perla's. Opened just two years ago in Austin's famed SoCo (South Congress) district, Perla's is a well-done, but inherently simple seafood and oyster bar. Even without a beach and an ocean view, their outside patio is one of the best places to sit and have a meal in the city. Inside, aged driftwood, subway tiles and beaten concrete floors conjure up images of worn-in class, textured elegance and even a dodgy bathroom (though this last image I removed from my head so I could enjoy my food). In short, the place is comfortable.
Urinals aside, it was the food that caught me most off guard, because I hadn't eaten there since it opened almost two years ago. The slaw, as mentioned above, was perfectly balanced in color, texture, and presentation. The sandwich bread, cracked and toasty, was the perfect vehicle for succulent fried shrimp, tart lemon aioli and crisp lettuce. I can honestly say it was the most perfect meal I've eaten in some time in Austin.
However, I digress, because I didn't intend this to be a restaurant review but rather a critique, an expose, on how simplicity, when done well, can truly be perfect. After two and a half years of working to achieve or simply find here in Austin what I had while working in New York as a commis, I'm starting to realize that Austin is not a gourmet town. It's a beer-drinking town. A comfort town. A laid back town. Duh, right?
Due to many, almost innumerable circumstances, I have come to discover just even in the last three weeks that since arriving in Austin in 2008, my outlook on food, on good food, and even on great food, has started to change. I came fresh off long hours at a more-than-famous restaurant in New York, eager to continue that trend of constantly pushing my own limits. I wanted to take everything that I had learned and pour it into every dish I was cooking, taste it in everything I was eating, essentially bring my own version of New York to Austin. Needless to say, that wasn't going to happen.
When I took the helm of a major new establishment I was convinced that, along with the Exec Chef, I could start to change people's minds about how "fancy, gourmet" food should look, taste or feel (in terms of the space). At the end of the day, though, I was left with complaints about pork belly being too fatty or jalapenos being too hot. The culture was and simply isn't here--yet.
Thus, simplicty. Restaurants ranging from mind-blowing taco stands to nationally acclaimed modern Japanese. James Beard nominees all over the place and cooks covered in tattoos. No Michelin stars and no celebrity chefs or, at least no prominent television personalities--yet.
What you will find in Austin is a wealth of small to mid-sized establishments making delicious food on a daily basis. Perfect raviolis in brown butter, stuffed with fresh ricotta and fried sage. Tacos filled with everything from tongue, tripe and cactus paddles to the more obvious like fajita chicken and fried shrimp. You will find menus that even a serious foodie could get behind, though, for the most part, you will receive these items without the pretense or the price tag. Perhaps you'll even get a free concert out of the deal. After all, Austin is known for being the live music capital of the world.
For me, it is still hard to accept that I need not save half a month's wages for a night of multiple courses, wine pairings and an over-stuffed stomach. While I appreciate a tranquil lunch with a perfect sandwich, I miss the decadence and splendor of food. I miss the restaurants that sit on their block like a sacred place of worship, waiting for patrons to experience food as the French more or less intended it to be so long ago.
Maybe it's time for a pilgrimage.