resto oh oh, spirit possession

Across the Great Divide: Decentering the Organism and the Ontological Hangover.

~

Hangovers are funny things. In all of the usual laughingly lamentable, mind-stripped-bare-by-its-bachelors-even, sorts of ways, but also in how they present an opportunity for uncontrolled experimentation with ways of feeling – ways of feeling badly, yes, but sometimes involving new plains of badness, ways of being a body that foreground one’s corporeality with terrific and – if we’re lucky – fascinating immediacy.

What I’m thinking of right now is the consequence of a late development in my drinking life, my intense interest in weirder, wilder, (especially sour) beers, and to a lesser degree, the same (minus the sour) in wines. It is perhaps best described as waking up with the immediate feeling of a balance having been tipped, as if your body is not poisoned but occupied – become home and host to the microflora of wherever, Vichte and the Zenne, Anchorage or Greensboro Bend. There is a taste that seems not so much to linger in your mouth as be produced at the source, in your very saliva; it reminds you of all that you have taken in, drink upon drink, and inspires the suspicion that some perverse innovation in the typical food-to-energy equation might have been achieved, like an internal ferment has begun that might finally coax the self-identity of the flesh out of its jingoistic discretion. Like you might be taken and changed (I mean, we’re so much provirus already, I should think the ol’ human microbiome is just waiting for an opportunity to jump the rails and go all Brundlefly).

The second most recent time that I experienced this (come to think of it, I suppose I wasn’t even hung over yet. Jesus.) was a few Sundays back, after an fully engaged afternoon at Tørst, the Evil-Twin-affiliated Brooklyn beer bar helmed by Noma/Momofuku/Fat Duck alumnus Daniel Burns, and frequented, I discovered, by the kind of magnificent, munificent bastards with whom one can slide into that easy camaraderie founded solely upon the mutual enthusiasm for cool beers.  We (my newly acquired cohorts and myself) had all sorts of absolutely brilliant shit – Bayerischer Bahnhof‘s Pineus Gose (lautered over pine needles), Stillbow Oxtisanal (aged in blueberry wine barrels, which against all odds was wonderful), Crooked Stave’s Surette Saison, Evil Twin & Westbrook’s Justin Blåbær blueberry Berlinerweisse (also improbably excellent, in spite of the recurrence of blueberries), Tart of Darkness (sour stout!) – but by nightfall I was starting to feel that my already debauched constitution (it was Sunday, and I was on a “working vacation”) mightn’t be able to withstand even so pleasant a bacterial onslaught.

To provide a little context for the above ravings, one of the more exciting turns the international craft beer world has taken in recent years is the renewed interest in wild and ambient environmental yeasts, coupled with experiments in barrel-aging. Both are strongly associated with the Belgian tradition; while we have Pasteur to thank for elaborating the mechanics of open fermentation and laying to rest the idea of spontaneous generation (although ironically, pace Bruno Latour, in the process spontaneously generating a world of microbes around us), pre-Belgian Low Countrymen  had been fermenting beer in open vats, aging them in empty wine barrels, and letting all sorts of weird-ass bacteria get involved since the 1500s. Now you have all sorts of craft and kvlt breweries eager to experiment with the old traditions, combining a venerative and curatorial spirit with an almost postmodern iconoclasm (local notables including Dieu du Ciel, Trou du Diable, Hopfenstark, and Toronto’s Bellwoods, among others), and coming out with some fantastic beers. It may be pure biophilia (or biofetishism?) to say that these beers taste especially lively, because it already takes a certain orientation toward the messiness of life for descriptions like lactic acid, horse blankets and farmyard to come off as “lively” (as opposed to, say, foetid) in an aromatics context, but blast, I have such an orientation, and these beers have such a taste. And after a full afternoon of them that Sunday – the classic Belgians and their bastard diasporic interpretations alike – I was beginning to feel as if the tastes were tasting me.

Fortunately, my next stop happened to be a quiet little bar attached to a young distillery, where they have pink gin on tap, a gin named after Dorothy Parker, and a cocktail called the fucking CANNIBAL CORPSE REVIVER Nº 2 (which I didn’t try, however, because it is tall and I do not drink tall drinks out of a fear, perhaps, of going soft). They also produce an excellent take on a jenever tasting so smartly and directly of rye that one wonders if whisky might not actually be the best (liquid) expression of the grain. As I might have guessed, the administration of a succession of gins and bitters was precisely what was required to scour my insides and restore some semblance of order to the micro-flora and -fauna of my body, so that in short order I was feeling so much less yeasty and invaded, so merely human that I could have sang a song. The incumbent ontological hangover pre-empted by the more familiar and conceptually un-challenging regular hangover. Good old gin.

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resto oh oh, spirit possession

Do Note That I Have Corrected “Urethra” to the Plural “Urethrae.”

Heck the fuck yeah.

~

I wrote a review of the new Bier Markt for CULT MTL, who insist on giving my articles irritating titles but are otherwise apparently willing to let me do whatever I want, because no one attempted to impose a single sentence break on this piece of self-indulgent claptrap:

The space is cavernous, two-tiered (apparently three. I looked it up. The third one is perhaps hidden), and conspicuously gaudy — slick with the rapidly congealing afterbirth of a newly installed chain restaurant attempting to conjure the mythic grace of the (or perhaps any) old country, its brass and pounded tin crying out for the patina that they shall never accrete, or at any rate, likely shall never be allowed to accrete, and so is destined to reside in perpetuity as a Belgian beer hall chez Disney, its looming Mannekin Pis (the famous naked pissing toddler of Belgium, aka le Petit Julien) mutely proclaiming their aridity by dint of the absence of anything to piss or anywhere in which to piss save the arriving clientele, those mounting the stairs, or anyone else who happens to turn around and find themselves faced with the yawning urethrae of the many eight-foot stone children that populate the building.

At which I guffawed uproariously while drunkenly writing, naturally. It does now occur to me that almost every time I sit down to write a restaurant review I devote the first 3/4 of the piece to talking about how terrible the place is, then inevitably conclude with “Ah, just go anyway, what do I care?” I choose to view this as the triumph of the populist in me.

But seriously, it’s worth going (to Bier Markt) if only for the Rodenbach Grand Cru and dollar oyster 5à7.

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resto oh oh

A Bag of Assholes.

~

So. I went to Paris this summer, as previously noted, and have astonishingly less to report than literally all odds¹ would suggest. Part of this owes to the fact that it was July, and who knew (the answer: everyone. everyone else knew) that in Paris in July it is too hot to fucking eat and no one has air conditioning and one’s grand plans of plumbing the depths of the weird and wonderful of French food and wine must be mitigated by the more immediate necessity of using an infinity of miniature Kronenbourgs to keep one from expiring in a boneless pile on the floor?

In preparation for the visit I had made a point of sussing out those (luckily) various caves à manger in the vicinity of our apartment well-regarded for their food and wine both, particularly those that give a certain amount of attention to vin nature (more on this later), and I organized my dining out accordingly (I also ate a lot of kebab, obvs). The most successful of these, or at least most instructive, was a little place in the 9e called Le Vin au Vert (a proper review here, which charmingly distinguishes them from another cave‘s “comically pretentious team of radish-fetish nitwits”). I rolled by on a weekday afternoon, grabbed a glass of a red about which I remember absolutely nothing, and faced with a limited selection of hot meals, I opted for the andouillette.

I was considering opening this piece with the line “This summer in France I was defeated by a sausage.” And let me just say, I had some idea, when ordering, what I was in for. I know what andouillette is. I know what andouillette is made of, and didn’t -think- I would like it. The Larousse Gastronomique entry reads “a type of sausage made from pork intestines (chaudins), often with the addition of pork stomach and calf’s mesentery, precooked in stock or milk and packed into a skin.” What this description leaves out is extent to which andouillette is defined by the use of lower intestine, and consequently the extent to which it smells like shit; on account of it being, yes, basically just a cooked bag of assholes.

This is for what andouillette is known, maligned, and loved by diverse parties. It is pungent and aggressive and all up in one’s face, and I, for all that I am drawn to things that taste bad and gross and great (bretty beers, peaty medicinal scotchesdry sherries, amari, weird natural wine – all booze, it dawns on me), I am nonetheless not a great fan of strong cheeses and charcuterie, or the more organy and elect of the offal family. Truly there was no reason for me to like the andouillette. However, I had heard good things about the andouillette at this particular establishment; that it was rustic and expressive and fidèle (whether to Lyon or Troyes or wherever, to some Platonic ideal, I don’t know), and my train of thought was this: in spite of my trepidation and reasonable prediction that it would not be to my tastes, I was curious, and when better to try the thing than faced with a specimen of agreed-upon quality? I was in France for god’s sake. I hadn’t come for the too-familiar State racism alone, that’s for sure.

And I couldn’t hack it. Oh Boy, could I not hack it. I mean, I tried, in what fashion passes for “valiantly” in the wasteland of moral fibre that is my interior mental landscape. Which is to say that having ordered it I had to -try- to eat it, even though upon splitting the casing of the quite substantial sausage I was treated to the euuhhhhh… robust aroma for which andouillette is so prized. Which is butts, btw. Fully, totally, butts. But like, living butts, if that means anything. Not shit per se, but like a butt that you are nonetheless fully occupied with. And so, taking grateful advantage of the almost equally pungent (oh, if only it had been more pungent still) mustard with which the sausage was served, I consumed something like 1/3rd (i would flatter myself to say 1/2) of the generously provided length. Then, as befitting any self-respecting gastronome, I feigned getting an important phone call and asked for the remains to be wrapped up to go. For this is what “pride” means, in the life that I apparently have constructed for myself: sitting at a table in a casual wine-shop-cum-resto in Paris, France, fully (if discretely; I am not a primadonna) miming a nonexistent phone conversation, for the sake of the NO ONE who is in the room with me, on the off chance that the peripheral vision of the chef or proprietor is sufficiently acute to register my bland North American shame at not being unable to appreciate this sausage that so notoriously tastes of butts. Not, for the record, that it tasted -bad-, for it actually tasted very good (and I have touched on this seeming paradox elsewhere), but it tasted like something good that had also been in a butt. Like, a pig’s butt, I guess. And in that respect I am sure it was an exemplary and well-crafted andouillette.

This is what it’s like to be defeated by a sausage.

*   *   *

 

Of course, it’s not defeat, truly, because as vulnerable is my account to this interpretation, it is not about -proving- something. It is about above all the attempt to make the space for new pleasure in one’s life; not only for one’s own satisfaction, but as a gesture of faith in the possibility of intersubjective understanding: Based on what I know, I won’t like this, I don’t like this. But someone likes this, they know how to like this. It is not a competition, although it is a challenge; it is a call to understanding and to enjoyment both – others love me (the sausage cries) why don’t you? One need not love everything of course (duh), but there is something gross in the too easy repair to the refuge of ‘personal taste’. I don’t want to get into the sociological / historical shit-show of the adage “there’s no accounting for taste”, but what makes me uneasy with the idea of the unassailable subjectivity of taste is the presumption that the subject is stable and desire / enjoyment transparent. “I know what I like” is easy to affirm and impossible to argue against, but what happens when it turns out we’re wrong? When it turns out we don’t know what we like? What is the implication when the ultimate in subjective authority is (regularly, perhaps perpetually) eroded? It happens all the time. However, it would be too strong, I think, to claim that one necessarily comes to understand others (or The Other) better by appreciating their culinary pleasures (a well-worn cliché of even the better food writing), but there is certainly some merit in trying to understand their appreciation, if only to destabilize the solipsism of pleasure. Think I could leave you . . . or I could love you, if I tried. And I could. And left to my own devices I probably would. One never knows, but how often otherwise has one the opportunity to declare if fate had it that I was to be defeated by a bag of assholes, I am happy it was thus?

¹ Literally all odds? Well, maybe not, if one insists on considering how good I am at being Bad At Travelling, my indefatigable capacity for malcontentment, and my carefully maligned and disavowed yearning for culinary/cultural epiphany, à la the Jonathan Richman song “Those Conga Drums”. Against all of which what chance, I suppose, has 200 years of restaurant culture?

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resto oh oh

Meh.

 

it is not often that i concern myself with the business of writing reviews; my devotion to a trivial and superfluous existence tends to militate against the practice. however, i feel compelled to say a little something about the Ice House: it’s not very good, guys. now, normally i know better than to go to such a place on a saturday night, but a friend was in town, our plan A had been foiled, he had previously a positive experience there, and i owed him a bit of birthday indulgence.

the service was cold*, the fried chicken was overcooked and under-seasoned, and the ribs were kind of alien and sickly. tender, for sure, but strangely lacking any compelling evidence of being -bbq’d-. the half a biscuit that they let us eat was excellent, the slaw was a solid slaw, but i’ll be deep in the cold-ass ground before i pay 18$ for 4 pieces of chicken again.

 

 

also the place was teeming with douchebags, but i can’t say that is the fault of the restaurant.

 

 

 

* it is rare that i feel compelled to actually express my malcontent with a server in my tip. i really considered not tipping, but my cowardice and fundamentally sympathetic nature won out.

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rant, resto oh oh

The Measure of My Powers.

~

standing as i am on the precipice of unemployment, i’ve been making a point to take advantage of my flagging solvency while it lasts (and of course accelerating it in the process*), which has meant buying funny-tasting wine from private importers, eating ribs for breakfast, going to fancy cocktail and charcuterie joints, and flying to Europe on short notice (more on this last, later).

the other night i went to Bar Chef in Toronto, which was pretty bananas – when i first arrived, i found myself assailed by what appeared to be the heavy scent of incense, which struck me as ill-considered for a place that prides itself on well-crafted and complex cocktails. and for my first drink, i had a really hard time sorting out its particular aroma from those already in the air, which made things pretty confusing because it was already a confusing and intentionally provocative cocktail: the “Symphony no. 5,” which consisted of gin, vanilla cognac, dill bitters, and rosemary syrup with a green chartreuse rinse and aerosolized orange blossom spritz. i can’t imagine that the bartenders there are insensitive to how strongly this suggests cacophony as opposed to symphony; in fact i only ordered it in one of those “I am calling your bluff” moments (like that time at a pub in Ottawa when i ordered a curried lamb & mushroom w/ old cheddar and sour cream wrap, that i must say fully justified my skepticism), but it turned out to be a pretty alright little drink. i eventually surmised that it wasn’t actually incense, but the residual effects of some of the more extended procedural “molecular” (barf) drinks they make, such as the Vanilla Hickory Smoked Manhattan (pictured, sort of, above), which involves much smoke and fury – a big chunk of elaborately bespoke ice, whisky and bitters, in a glass nestled into a bed of smouldering hickory embers, served in a domed display case. so it stands to reason that with so many aromatics flying around, the air is bound to get a little heavy, but you’ve already got the heat of a million candles, you may as well properly ventilate the place, right?

the following evening i went to Black Hoof, which i had been meaning to check out for some time. we had the terrine plate, horse tartare, bone marrow, carnitas tacos, and a fennel + blood orange salad. everything was good. the tartare was excellent, and totally invigorated my only very recently realized love for the raw art. overall, i would say we were satisfied, if not impressed.

taken together, Black Hoof and Bar Chef highlight some of the inadequacies and inaccuracies of “satisfaction” for describing my experience. satisfaction is a funny word. while i thoroughly enjoyed both, and had no complaints, what was probably most salient about the experience was how it reminded me that i need to spend more time doing this shit myself. experimenting with cocktails. eating raw meat. going big. there wasn’t the dull and sort of embarrassing feeling of “this is good, but nothing i can’t do at home,” that one sometimes has at fancy establishments, but it did serve to remind me of what i am (potentially) capable of, of my own powers; in short, it was inspiring without being impressive, if that makes any sense.

it got me excited to go home and get down to business: mess around with some grapefruit rinds, roast some bones, rustle up a Brita to see if i can’t start making me some harder ice (so it melts more slowly), maybe put Hickory Sticks in something, perfect my pepper bitters. and it also reminded me that for all the pleasures of being cooked for and waited upon, the thrills of doing shit oneself lend a savour to one’s affairs, to say nothing of not having to fret over the cost of wine in a restaurant. i mean, it’s not like i’d forgotten, it just revived the desire, perhaps.

which is to say that, all in all, it felt like a challenge. a challenge for which i am hella game.

now seeking seconds, sous, co-conspirators. knife skills an asset, bad ideas a must.

 

 

* stated thus, i suppose it is less like standing on a precipice than a graduated decline that terminates in a sheer drop onto some pointy rocks. i can see them below, not too far in the distance, but what can i do? young bones groan.

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product review, resto oh oh

Cooking in Process

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word on the street is Gereon Wetzel’s El Bulli: Cooking In Progress is a little on the boring side. these are the reviews, mostly secondhand, that i have been encountering since i viewed the film, and i am thinking that this may be precisely why i enjoyed it as much as i did. in fact, it may also be why i might consider it a “good documentary” as opposed to “such a documentary,” which is how i feel about Kings of Pastry.

if you recall, my main complaint about the latter is that it is foremost a tale of human drama, of triumph and tragedy, and singleminded devotion to an ideal; not an exploration of pastry as a craft, an esoteric set of manoeuvres and the traditions, institutions, appetites and desires that give them meaning.

i also thought that it was clumsy and ugly.

but it is exactly this foregrounding of human drama, and its articulation within a narrative arc, that is absent from El Bulli: Cooking In Progress. the film is not an exposé, nor an exhaustive “how do they do that” procedural breakdown, but it is nonetheless very much about the work of El Bulli. El Bulli in process, not solely in progress, as the title declares.

of course the double  meaning of “Cooking In Progress” is apropos – Ferran Adria conceived of El Bulli as an avant-garde restaurant (or did, until it closed),  and was explicitly concerned with advancing the field. “Have we done this before?” echoes  throughout a creative process that is simultaneously concerned not to succumb to the allure of the merely novel. whether Adria/El Bulli succeeds in avoiding the trap of cooking that is clever yet devoid of substance is not for me  judge, as i never have and never will eat at El Bulli, but the director, Gereon Wetzel, manages to capture and communicate this tension in subtle but effective ways. the film may almost be said to be a technical drama, lingering over the careful deliberations of Adrià’s creative team, their experiments, discussions, and negotiations, both with each other and with the ingredients that they are transforming. there are no talking heads in Cooking in Progress, no confessions, no expository dialogue to break up the (slow, deliberate) “action,” which takes place over the course of the three acts.

the film opens as El Bulli closes for the season, with the team packing up their equipment and moving into Barcelona, to the “lab” (this is neither analogy nor affectation. the research space of Adrià’s inner circle – Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, and Eugeni de Diego – is equally identifiably lab and kitchen, with burners and skillets, thermal immersion circulators and nitrogen baths in equal measure.), where they will spend the next few months working with various ingredients to see what can be done with them – no menus are assembled here, only a highly methodical free play with the properties of various foodstuffs. “free” in the sense that the conventional limits (both in terms of use/application and actual physical properties) of the food are disregarded, or at least re-evaluated, although the strict assessment, detail and inscription of the results of the experiments places a different set of constraints upon the activity. it is a sort of operationalized, material brainstorming.

following this, we return to Cala Montjoi, the site of El Bulli, where preparations begin for reopening – the training and organization of the staff, the assemblage and fine-tuning of the menu. finally, we see the restaurant in progress, although only in a very restricted fashion. rarely do we see the patrons in the act of enjoying their food; they arrive, take pictures, revel in the aura of the establishment, and while they eat, we retreat to the kitchen, where dishes are constructed, expedited, and perpetually re-evaluated. it is in this passage of the movie that we have perhaps the least sense of time – are these the services of a single night, a week, a month? suddenly the season winds up, the staff begins to close the restaurant down, and the film ends on exactly the note upon which it opened. it is a but a cycle. and we realize that what we have been watching is an exploration of the routine – it is not a tale of genius or mad science, the spectacular fancies of high gastronomy, but of the routine work that goes on behind the glittering and often quite challenging facade.

if there is a climax to the film, it is one that can only be identified retrospectively, like, “oh, i guess that was the clincher.” in one late scene, at the end of a seating, Adrià mutters (to whom? no one? does it matter?) something to the effect of “We’re still doing okay” (i apologize for the lack of a direct quote, but you may take solace that it was certainly something equally mundane, and translated already, so don’t get too hung up) which as the movie ends shortly after, one realizes is the resolution of whatever dramatic arc the film has accommodated, as well as a summation of Adrià’s own personal mission as a chef with El Bulli. indeed, the majority of the emotional tenor of the film is provided through the handful of subtle exchanges between and amongst Adrià and his team. scenes where one tastes some preparation, a dish or component thereof, and in the moments of silence that follow, one begins to feel the egos at work, the economy of creative energy, authority, ambition, all in a protracted stare. but there is something in how these are played (or how they are presented), that the result is less often melodrama (there is no chilling canned string section or Law & Order knell to signal the import of the situation) than it is an awkward sort of comedy that i think ultimately lends the movie a lot of its charm.

for all the behind-the-scenes action, however, the actual functioning of El Bulli remains somewhat opaque. we see some of what goes into the mystifying dishes of almonds and olive oil, tangerine and ice shards, mint dust, whatever, but a certain mysterious quality is retained intact. it gives the interested party just enough to see how the spirit is enmeshed with the instrumentation, without becoming bogged down in technical detail. thusly is the mystique of the restaurant allowed to persist.

i expect that this measured, unsensational approach to the documentary may not be for everyone, but i myself found it quite refreshing, in the way that one doesn’t leave the theatre feeling like one has been told a tired story by way of a cinematic machinery at pains to proclaim its unvarnished verité. in a strange way, Wetzel manages to give life (a human life) to a subject matter that, like Adrià’s denatured creations, could seem quite cold and unapproachable, both alienated and alienating, but does so without resorting to the broad, garish, strokes of documentary bathos.

at 108mins, the film runs a little long, and near the end i found myself growing a little antsy, but that is no great flaw. i suppose i can’t say much more than that the El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is interesting if you are interested, although i didn’t think i was, really, until it turned out that i am, rather. ha.

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product review, resto oh oh, Uncategorized

“A Collage of Unaccounted-For Brush Strokes”

~

Stockard Channing’s next-to-last lines from Six Degrees of Separation were yesterday feeling distressingly and urgently sympathetic to me, as i hauled my charcoal-dusted and BBQ-soaked carcass out of a tent after 4 hours of sleep in order to catch a plane to Reno so i could interview some scientists, from there to hop on a bus to San Francisco so i could eat a million burritos and drink a million microbrews. less directly concerned with (although no doubt overshadowed by) such existential cramps, my other thoughts for the day as i saw fit to record them were as follow:

1. this Gavino and Weinfeld airport croissant tastes like it was made with movie theatre butter, but unfortunately i can’t say that makes it the worst i’ve ever had. not by a long shot.

2. CLEVELAND:
these are the things i know about Cleveland:
Bone Thugs N Harmony.
Drew Carey?
and
in the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after Sunnydale has sunk into an abyss and they’re like, “we’ve closed the Hellmouth now, at least it’s over, right?” Giles is like “well, there’s another on in Cleveland, actually.”

remember when they were talking about doing a spinoff of Buffy where Giles is back in England solving paranormal mysteries aided by the ghost of Miss Calendar, his murdered cyber-pagan-gypsy computer teacher/lover? no? i would have watched that.

3. Cleveland airport seems pretty nice, but 19$ crab cake nice? i think not, but that may just be the hangover thinking. Continue reading

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