Fuse This

This is the kind of fusion one can get one’s teeth into.

Thai food and Vietnamese food have enough similarities and sufficient differences for worthwhile interbreeding. From Vietnam we find ingredients closer to their natural state; Thailand gives us complexity arising from longer cooking times. Because both countries share a climate, a soil and a sea, food variations are more cultural and historical than natural. Experimenting with blended cooking techniques and prep style won’t produce too many bum notes, and might just give us some triumphs.

This place is a low-key triumph all its own. On what might otherwise be a slow Sunday night, patrons fill most tables and booths. The service reflects the warmth and homeliness of both cultures, and the food was as interesting and fresh as one could expect.

Importantly, the prices are pretty darn good. Luck favors the bold and good meals come to those who fear not the strip mall.

Edges of Oceans

Odd, don’t you think, that we only ever hear of the Pacific Rim? I mean, why not an Atlantic Ocean Rim, or a Mediterranean Rim? A Mediterranean Rim makes way more sense, given that it’s an enormously smaller body of water, and all the cultures on the rim have been invading, conquering, dominating, fighting and competing for millenia. Their food is all related somewhere in the mists of antiquity too, making a fusion much more palatable.

This is the nub of my only discomfort about PR: the whole fusion thing. Not that it’s their fault. Food media and chefs looking for a niche created the idea of blending cuisines, so that what began as an awkward marketing tool tumbled into the mainstream, where it now resides.

Facts, as always, are my downfall. First off, Thailand is much closer to the Indian Ocean that the Pacific Ocean. Why it is even considered a part of the Pacific Rim is a mystery. Secondly, if you wanted to find two more opposed cuisines, it would be hard to beat mixing and matching – fusing, presumably – Thai and Japanese. In history, geography, language, culture, media, politics, arts, literature, religion, technology, sensibility…practically any sphere you care to name, the Thais and the Japanese have little in common. And a country’s food is nothing if not an expression of all these elements. Fusing Moroccan and Spanish, I get. Italian and Greek, sure. But Pad Thai and Sushi?

Like I said, that’s my problem, not Pacific Rim’s.

Pacific Rim is that rare establishment in Sarasota, a place that feels big-city. The ambience is polished and grown-up. It smells like a destination, rather than somewhere to merely fuel-up. The food is acceptable for the price if not stellar, my fellow-diners giving it 3 to 3.5 stars. The tip to four stars was for a genial and friendly hostess, who actually smiled and communicated as if it weren’t a chore, and the delightful lady from Osaka who served us with grace and aplomb.

Thank you both.

More Thai

Last night I shared a meal at Isan Thai with friends. The prior time there was with the same friends, at a distance we figured to be around twelve months or so. A while.

Expecting magic from the kitchen – as before – we wondered what took us so long to return. Here we had Thai culinary delights available in the neighborhood, and we failed to regularly take advantage. What was wrong with us?

Sadly, the time has worn on matters here. The service remained charmingly sporadic, a forgivable shortcoming if the food is superior. The food was not superior. Last time we immediately noted how delicious everything was. This time we ate without comment, satisfied, but not wowed.

At meal’s end we all looked at each other as if hiding a secret. We were. The spell of Isan Thai was broken. A shame.

Chef Mike

Oooh, I have a fan. This via Yelp! messages:

it’s grueling to watch, you act like you know what you know what you are talking about, here is when it gets real, you talk like a fucking idiot, get a fucking life

What precisely does it mean, Mr Mike, when you say “…here is when it gets real…”?

You have reality nailed, friend, or so it appears, but is your reality the same as mine? Does observation of reality change its nature? Are you a quantum man or a man of Newton?

And if my life is not a reality as you imply, then how can I find it?

So many questions, so few answers.

Fish

Sunday night at Owens and the tables are aturning. We are early, seated just after opening. The feel is of the start of a race, a race to get everyone who wants to eat, eating, and then out the door for a repeat.

That’s the way with successful restaurants. Popularity breeds patrons and patrons bring money. In a town with a hunger for even the most ersatz “Floridian” experience, anyone feeding that desire cleans up. A little history goes a long way, especially when well spun.

Unfortunately, with all the adulation comes a shift of focus. Servers miss opportunities to allow customers to think. It’s hard to avoid feeling that more expensive dishes are recommended not for their quality or taste, but for the larger consequential tip. Smart local owners usually see the value in cultivating a returning clientele, and invest accordingly – today they order salads and soup, tomorrow they’re a big free-spending birthday bash.

None of which need worry OFC. Clearly folks come back, and so they must be doing something right. Undercooked rice in the jambalaya and soggy fries in the fish and chips clearly worry no-one.

Gosh, aren’t the decorations cute?

Mainstream Thai

Tropical Thai is as close to an institution as you will find in Sarasota, food- or any other kind of- wise. Twenty years they’ve been open. That speaks to a combination of loyal customers and business skill. Three years ago they moved to the current, smaller location, which might ensure many more years of operation.

Doubt about any restaurant’s longevity is a product of the streaky and fickle Sarasotan customer. From the halcyon days of Season to the awful days of August the average restaurant proprietor sees heaven and hell. Demanding part-timers provide the yearly nut to survive, but the local base which sticks through the summer must be served as well, even if there are only three of them a night. Truly a feast or famine.

However, TT appears to have navigated these man-eating carp-filled waters. Curries, soups, noodles and salads are reliably good to excellent. The pad thai gets some Yelp!ers unglued, so I’ll try that at some future point. But with so much other choice, I plan not to get stuck on the one allegedly weak dish in the lineup.

Eggplant

On the southern side of Hong Kong island is the fishing town of Aberdeen. Here, moored just offshore, you will find the Jumbo Kingdom, an immense agglomeration of floating restaurants, accessed only by boat.

Eating at one of these places is a rite of passage for the new visitor. The restaurants themselves are breathtaking by virtue of their size: table after table on multiple levels. Then there are the menus, almost bafflingly large.

This is how a large population dines out in limited space. Everything is clean and orderly, all the food hot and freshly prepared, and the seafood is eye-opening. If you want to know how a food-obsessed culture really focuses on its victuals, this is a start. These places consist of tables and chairs, big, efficient kitchens, fast waiters and chefs and fresh ingredients. Everything else is secondary. It’s all no-nonsense.

In the best possible way, Yummy House lives in that tradition. All the elements are recognizably related to (at least) Cantonese sensibility. Like the Jumbo Kingdom, the volume is turned slightly towards non-native tourists, meaning that some westernization is evident. But as a dining and eating experience, this is as good a deal as you’ll taste this side of the South China Sea.

Try the sublime braised eggplant and the steamed chinese broccoli.

Dirt

The baseline for places like Mimi’s should include the following:

+ a welcoming greeting at the hostess/host station

+ regular cleaning of everything from the roof down

+ spotless cutlery

+ a minimum standard of cleanliness and grooming for waitstaff

+ standardized methods and timing for serving plates

+ standardized methods and timing of plate removal

+ training for staff on how to judge if a table is in a hurry or not, or

+ the ability to ask a simple question about that.

Sadly for we paying diners, the managers of this location pay little or no attention to any of these skills. This is odd, because they are all utterly within the scope – and control – of anyone who cares about consistency. Even on the worst days, with the lowest quality employees all present, the low-tide line should still meet some kind of standard.

The shame is that the food here is consistent and well prepared, which tells us that the kitchen does work to a benchmark. Pity that the visible team members vary so much.

Mall Pall

Here we go again with another corporate catch-all food emporium that over-promises and under-delivers in almost all areas.

One word describing the Carmel experience is awkward. It is awkward…

…in a half-empty restaurant to be told to hang around the hostess’s station while they find a table. Real restaurants invite you to the bar to order a drink, from which someone escorts you to your seats.

It is awkward when a guest asks the waiter for a very specific (and readily available) wine recommendation, only for it to become painfully obvious that the waiter knows no difference between sauternes and syrah. You canNOT call yourself any kind of wine establishment unless your staff is all trained or you spring for full-time sommeliers.

It is furthermore awkward when one’s European-born dining companion receives her “Moroccan Chicken” which has, at plate center right, an entire broccoli stalk. Yes, please enjoy your complete, cut off at the main artery, six-inch piece of fibrous trunk, four-fifths of which most people consider scrap.

Remove the clunky iPad bizarreness – which the waiter snatched from us to more swiftly place our order anyway – and you’re left with…a very nice dining room. Which we were savoring after our meal when suddenly all the lights went up in exactly the same way as at the end of the movie.

A bad one.

Crappy Mexican

The great iceberg lettuce glut of 2014 will not be without its beneficiaries. The Grasshopper, for example, will be out there bidding pennies for boxes of these things. Huzzah! the owners will cry, chomping on their cigars, our profit margin just tripled!

Friends tell me that El Chapulin caught a ride down I-75 from Adrian, Michigan before creating his Sarasotan home. Call me green with six legs, but since when was anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line any kind of wellspring of “Tex-Mex”?

The key here is the number of MI plates on the roads around these parts. It seems the plague of Michiganders that descends upon us each winter will eat anything that reminds them of home, all the while shouting “Go Blue” or other chants rather rude about something called “Ohio.” I presume that cacophony is the equivalent of rubbing wings.

There is a word for being more than underwhelmed, but I don’t know what it is. Actually, thinking about my meal, there are several descriptive phrases that spring to mind. One is their use of tasteless shredded cheese instead of Walmart’s Fiesta blend. Another is the surfeit of peppers and onions; el cheapo ingredients Senor Hopper. Yet another might be the bulking out of dishes with those bargain lettuce heads.

Yep. It’s Fiesta Time. Somewhere.