I had heard a lot about Bistro Voltaire. A friend of mine had eaten there and claimed that it was a gastronomical Mecca. I decided to check it out before taking the wife. I made a reservation.
I walk in to Bistro Voltaire and am greeted by an overly polite maitre’d. “Maitre’d” is a word I would only use at a place like Bistro Voltaire. I have never used that word in real speech. So this maitre’d sweeps across the floor in her shiny, black dress as she glides over to my table. I follow her clumsily and sit down at the table. I inspect the other patrons of the restaurant and instantly regret doing that. I feel like a homeless guy outside a subway station. Why is everyone dressed like they are attending a ball in a castle in Vienna in 1848?
A waitress finds me and tells me the history of the menu. There will be nineteen courses, she says. Nineteen, I think to myself. My average meal doesn’t even cost nineteen dollars. I nod along to whatever she is prattling about, hoping to sneak in my request for water. She masked her disappointment at learning that I was not going to have wine. Fourteen courses of appetizers followed one after the other, each of them on a tiny white plate. Almost all of them had unpronounceable French names like Tartare de Filet de Boeuf, Escargots a la Bourguignonne and so on. Were they thought provoking? Yes. Were they satisfying? Meh. Finally the main course arrived. It was a big piece of chicken on a huge white plate. On one side was a drop of red sauce. On the other side was a leaf of parsley. The chicken tasted like chicken. To add wine to the wound (the French wouldn’t add salt) the red sauce tasted like water that had been colored red. I sobbed internally. $200 for this? Thankfully the dessert was satisfying.
The Michelin guide to restaurants started out as an ingenious way to make car owners drive greater distances to restaurants with the hope that they would burn more tires and eventually buy new tires from the Michelin tire company. That is right, the Michelin that hands out stars to fancy restaurants also happens to be a tire company. How many tire shop workers eat at Michelin star restaurants?
Have you ever seen anyone use their hands at a fancy restaurant? Why should the knife and fork be considered essential to elegant dining? What is wrong with using your hands to eat rice - the same hand that you use to hold your pizza, the hands that you are born with? Nothing wrong, of course, I do it all the time at home. But I can barely do that at a restaurant without being judged by people. (One exception being India). Sadly my novel idea of having a fancy restaurant where people are encouraged to eat with their hands has already been attempted.
Spice it up
When you eat with your hands, you taste the flavors better. A spoon or a fork is an alien metallic intruder between you and your food. Especially when the food has spices! I seek food that is spicy, yes. But surely hundreds of years of the spice trade (between Europe & Asia) should have had an effect. Salt and pepper are not optional spices - they are an integral part of a dish, and usually added by the chef. In European derived cuisines, often the spices are more commonly used in desserts rather than in the main course. What this means is after you have tasted and paid for a $200 gastronomic disaster at some fancy restaurant you end up on a walk/drive of shame to a place where you can grab some real food like that $7 burrito. Or a couple of $3 tacos.
Now if I were to take photos of the food that I was served at Bistro Voltaire and share them, you would be in awe. They were so artfully decorated they deceived my mind into thinking they would taste good. That brings us to the biggest danger the world of foodies is currently facing: Instagram. Instagram allows people to take photos of food that look good or make them look 100x better. The danger lies in a simple question - how do you know that the food tastes good? Good food is not just meant to be photographed. It is meant to be eaten. Good chefs are supposed to make food that tastes good - not food that looks good! In fact, a written review of a dish is far more trustworthy than a photo of the food. I can splash turmeric on yogurt to give it a sexy orange hue. It would look great on Instagram. I wouldn’t feed it to my worst enemy.
I implore people of the world to explore and learn more about spices. Remember that spice does not always equal heat - pepper and vanilla are both spices. Remember to share and experience food with the people around you and not just your virtual followers. And remember that eating a plate full of food is nothing to be ashamed of.