the downfall of many restaurants – which is not to say their failure, goodness no, but in sad point of fact often the key to their very survival – is in my opinion the readiness to pander. too many restaurants make too many sacrifices (or perhaps just don’t care about food, about the honourable humility/nobility of the board), and ultimately end up serving what might be describable, after A.J. Liebling as Food That Does Not Know Its Own Mind, appealing only to two sorts of folk: The Defeated, and Those With Apathy To Decided Flavour, who
prefer processed cheese because it isn’t cheesy, and synthetic vanilla extract because it isn’t vanillary. They have made a triumph of the Delicious apple because it doesn’t taste like an apple, and of the Golden Delicious because it doesn’t taste like anything. (Between Meals, 1959)
the above, admittedly, argues a little beyond our present purposes, but it speaks to same sad resignation that one encounters all too often in restauranting around (to say nothing of being forced to eat the kind of produce which populates most markets). be this in terms of the watering down/blanding up of regional cuisines deemed too exotic for the tastes of the everyman (by the everyman his or herself, or the well-meaning and perhaps lamentably correct restauranteur), or in the stale taste of a chef’s dream deferred, settled into a restaurant that has sacrificed its purity of vision to the demands of keeping the homefires burning in a cold, cruel world.
but please don’t let me be misconstrued, i am not hating the player, i am hating the game.
* * *
Tony Shalhoub, as the brother Primo in Stanley Tucci’s 1996 Big Night struggles with just this demon as he tries to keep alive the spirit and legacy of authentic Italian cooking in the landscape of the 1950s Italo-American-Spaghetti-And-Meatballs-On-Ever-Table Jersey Shore.
he is noble and a little mad and he fails. it all falls apart, and integrity (or is it pride?) is shown to be as bitter a pill as accommodation, and a weapon that wreaks violence upon the family, if not the family name. brother against brother, etc. pretend i didn’t give away the end; it’s a charming and visually rewarding film, it convinces and it features a timbale and if you want to continue feverishly loving Italian food, i encourage you to watch it.
so our hats go off to those who, niche-cuisine or otherwise, are at least noble or mad or merely clueless enough to run a restaurant which can afford the luxury of such honesty not to the detriment of its honest need to get that paper.
i am reminded of all this because i was walking by a chocolate specialty shop (choco-somethingorother) advertising their new (non chocolate) smoothies and (non chocolate) breads, and my thoughts turned to Suite 88, the still fancier and credibly more single-minded chocolatiers where, by the grace of some much-appreciated and comically oversized coupons, i recently tasted some of the best hot chocolate i’ve had in years. and, barring a bare few notable homemade exceptions, the best i’ve had ever, in all likelihood.
the place sells all manner of arm-and-a-leg-costing chocolate extravagances, displayed under glass after the (not aesthetically dissonant) fashion of a jeweller’s boutique, as well as a good dozen flavours of hot chocolate. these are available made with dark or milk chocolate, and there is even a white chocolate with green tea, which i don’t much want to try but am nonetheless moved to approve of.
for all the frill and fanfare, however, the hot chocolate surprises by being both reasonably priced and portioned. 4.95$ for some volume of such richness that i was not even up to the task of finishing it in its entirety, excellent or no. we tried dark chocolate with chili and sea salt, respectively. the former genuinely spicy, and made me grateful that we had chosen the sea salt in lieu of the presumably also quite aggressive ginger, for it offered as refreshing a counterpoint as a cup of melted dark chocolate with coarse sea salt i guess ever could. which is to say considerably.
both were, to the intentional exclusion of other adjectives, exciting, and more to the point at hand, uncompromising. very salty. very spicy. such that a cloud of curious warmth and sensual languor descended upon us, as perfect a foil to the whipping snow outside as one could ever concoct (i’m even inclined to think that a roaring fire and bearskin rug would have tipped the scales out of balance, into the chintz, but perhaps that’s just the chili talking).
hence my somewhat grudging praise of the specialty store – so long as it avoids being too annoying or precious, it has the advantage of always already knowing what it’s about, and of you already knowing what it’s about.
We only sell chocolate. We are not fucking around. Do not misunderstand us. is stated nowhere in Suite 88’s promotional material, but you get the idea. Go Big or Go Home, that sort of thing.
get it while it (the weather) is still blustery and cold and unforgiving.