I’m posting this in the SNE section because I haven’t observed the phenomenon anywhere other than the CT shoreline; however I’m sure that if it exists here, it probably exists elsewhere.
About 10 years ago, my wife and I found a wonderful Cajun and Creole place out in Westbrook. The food had passion, was perfectly cooked, and was true to its heritage. Cajun, like American BBQ, some south American cuisines, some Asian cuisines, is a tightrope act where heat is necessary, but can’t be allowed to overpower the food – any idiot can make a 10-alarm chili, where your mouth catches fire during the first bite and gets more intense from there… the trick in all these styles is to balance the heat so that you don’t realize how spicy the food is until you find yourself sweating. The chef/owner, if memory serves, had worked at Buckingham Palace; had been executive chef to a cruise line (an English Robert Irvine!) and had “retired” to build a business of his own, cooking the food he was passionate about. We resolved to make it one of our first stops the next summer when we were back up at the cottage. One thing led to another and it wasn’t until August of the following year that we got back. The food had changed dramatically. Preparation was still impeccable; the ingredients were still top shelf; what was missing was the heat. It was “toned-down” to the point where it was virtually non-existent.
I was trained in classic French – all the mother sauces, the old “if you’re afraid of butter, use cream,” etc. It wasn’t until about five years ago that my brother-in-law took me aside and said “for a guy who does great BBQ, your fancy cooking really lacks some zip – it sometimes puts me to sleep…” He was absolutely right, and I’ve changed my basic style completely in those five years, using more acid, using fresh wine at the end to kick up the wine that reduced for hours before adding it to the sauce, using just a touch of heat in dishes that wouldn’t normally see anything hotter than black pepper…. Heat then, isn’t just a matter of taste, but in some styles of cooking it’s the wake-up for the myriad flavors involved in the dish itself.
We spoke to the chef that disappointing night, and he freely admitted that he had pulled the spice from his food to accommodate what he called “an older clientele.” He offered more than 20 different “hot sauces” to add to the food if you wished, but of course that’s no substitute for cooking with three different types of hot pepper – the subtlety is gone. We never went back, but I see from the web that ten years later the restaurant is still there and still going strong, so the chef certainly knew his customers.
It wasn’t until the last two nights, however, that I began to wonder if this is a trend, particularly in up-scale restaurants in areas with a high percentage of relatively wealthy older people, like the CT shoreline. Friday night we went to Café Routier in Westbrook. We had always passed the place and resolved to try it; reviews were great and the only negative I read anywhere was a diatribe against places that catered to “the silver-haired brigade.” At the time, I thought that was funny.
We had heard that to really get the feel of the place, one should try the “small plates” and tapas, so we made a meal of a couple of appetizers plus six small shared plates. We tried beef and seafood and a couple of the current regional specialties. Not a single dish had any “wow” factor to it. There was no heat, no acid, not enough salt; in short, there was nothing to kick the flavors up, to wake up one’s palate, to shout “hey, how about THAT!” I’ve written here before about places that are successes despite lacking wow-factor, but those are places like Bar Bouchee and Elizabeth’s where the goal is French comfort food and the degree of success is measured by harmony of flavors and that inner smile that says “if I had a French grandmother, this is how I’d eat all the time…” In the case of Café Routier, there was just no seasoning, period. Beautiful room, lovely location, food to snooze by, and at $150 for two people, I was hoping for more than a nap.
We are 60 years old and were probably the second youngest table in either dining room; everyone else was early seventies, and seemed to be regulars. They all seemed to enjoy their food, but at no other table we could see did anyone seem to be really TASTING the food, or discussing it, or treating it like anything more than something to occupy their hands while they caught up on the week’s events.
Almost as disappointing was our trip to Assaggio in Branford last night. Again, the venue was beautiful, and in this case, the service was virtually perfect (Routier’s wait-staff was good, but the buss-people thought they were mini-waiters and intruded constantly, taking things that weren’t finished and leaving things that were.) At Assagio, the service was good despite having a waitress who was on her first night. Training there is good – the one thing that Christina didn’t do was recite the specials (she called someone else over for that) but the actual dinner service was almost perfect. Not so, however, for the mechanics of the restaurant, nor for the food itself.
Ordering should not remind one of a Marx Brothers movie. Where half-bottles are available, we usually order a red and a white to start. At Assaggio, there were perhaps 10 whites and 8 reds available in half bottles. Five minutes after placing our order, we were told that they were out of the red we wanted. I made a second choice. Five minutes later, the sommelier was at our table explaining that, unbelievable as it was, our second choice was the OTHER red they were out of… this would have been less noteworthy, if it were not for the fact that I let the staff decide what my entrée would be – I asked for whatever they were most proud of. In this case it was a blue crab dish with tomato and herbs. Ten minutes later, the maitre d’ was at our table, explaining that the entrée couldn’t be made; they had run out of crab sauce….
Back to the subject of food with no discernable taste: the crab cakes were the soft, creamy variety but had no crust – all the crunch came from the raw celery. The salad was an over-dressed, soggy mess. Neither of us had more than a bite of it (it takes a certain kind of disregard to serve walnuts that have gotten mushy, sitting in the dressing for too long.) Veal Saltimbocca was served over a bowl of pasta and liquid, with whole sage leaves as the only discernable seasoning. The clam special was served in an overly thickened sauce with little taste. The duck confit spring roll was soggy, but the duck itself had the most assertive flavor of the evening. We let them decide on our dessert, and what appeared was a seven-layer chocolate cake – the highlight of the evening. It wasn’t too sweet and aside from the fact that I would have liked a stronger chocolate flavor (do the sour-cream trick or do the espresso trick) it was fine. The coffee must have been coffee because it wasn’t tea, but it was so weak it was hard to tell.
Again, there was no heat, no acid, no garlic, no assertive flavors in anything we ate except the duck. I’m afraid that this is on purpose – it’s “let’s not offend anyone” food with the flavors dialed down because 30-year-old chefs think that’s what 60+ year old customers want. I hope I’m wrong. With baby boomers in their sixties and seventies now, I would hate to think that formerly good restaurants would start serving $150 pabulum because they think that’s what old people like. It’s almost offensive to have a restaurant decide for me that my poor old heart and palate can’t take strong flavors; that’s not cooking; it’s pandering.