Good food, bad food
According to Adam Liaw, sushi rice should be "firm and at blood temperature". Photo: Natalie Boog
This all started with a bad temper: Dinner with a buddy at a new, deeply inner-city, deeply-hipsterish restaurant last week. A restaurant that has generated, in some deeply-hipsterish food quarters, a deal of excitement. It was packed, there was a waiting list, there was a chilled vibe, there were men in brogues and serious square glasses with neatly groomed chest hair emerging from their V-necks.
There was also really ordinary ravioli. Lumpen, thick, chewy. No, it wasn’t particularly expensive. But such a fundamental thing, at a restaurant receiving accolades, on a pretty short menu, done so poorly … throw in a couple of other really ordinary dishes and time-delay service and we were a bit peeved. Two days later, in the city, in a hurry, I stopped for an in-and-out lunch at a nondescript sushi bar. I didn’t expect the world, but nor did I expect frigidly cold hard rice, a wallop of wasabi, tasteless salmon. A few bucks down the drain, a rock in my belly, and an increasing bad temper.
I was asked recently what I thought the next big food trend was going to be. Korean, I said, grasping at straws. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter. Who cares. Food trends will come and go (see my last piece on food trucks) but what should be(come) immutable in the Australian food culture is quality, and an understanding of quality. What is good food and what is bad. What is good bread and what is bad. What makes good ravioli and what makes bad. What is good sushi and what is bad. And it shouldn’t matter whether it’s at a no-name sushi bar or a hipster cafe or a high-flying, hat-wearing restaurant. A great food culture — and, in my experience, Japan’s is the pinnacle — delivers quality from top to bottom. (On my first visit to Tokyo a decade or so ago, I went unprepared, without my usual mile-long list of restaurants-I-must-get-to. But where in other non-English-speaking countries — Italy springs to mind — such lack of research would mean almost certain failure in the eating-well stakes, in Tokyo, without fail, every meal we ate was terrific — meals at sushi bars in tourist strips, ramen diners with photographic menus, tempura restaurants in downmarket malls.)
For the record, and according to @adamliaw, 2010 MasterChef winner and former long-term Tokyo resident, the features of good sushi are: “The rice grains should be shiny and distinct. Separated enough so that light can find its way through the rice if held up to a light. The rice should be firm and at blood temperature. It should be tacky enough to be able to be formed into a shape with other grains, but not sticky. The shape should fall apart as soon as you bite into it. It goes without saying that seafood should be of the highest quality. Fresh (but generally in rigor mortis). The real art of the sushi master is to correctly choose and prepare each of the different types, cuts and grades of seafood that can make great sushi. Seasonality. Fishing conditions. Weather etc. all come into it.” (If you’re really interested in sushi, this New York Times piece is interesting — can’t wait to see the film mentioned, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.)
Of course I’m not expecting that no-name Sydney sushi bar to deliver even a fraction of the sushi-divinity that Liaw describes but, at the risk of sounding petulant and whiney, it’s reasonable and realistic to expect more of that sushi bar, any sushi bar (decent rice and a piece of salmon with some taste would be a start) — and expect more of the lumpen-ravioli cafe.
The formidable Victorian food legend Alla Wolf Tasker (@wolfinkitchen), from the acclaimed Lake House in Daylesford, recently griped on Twitter about the use of heirloom tomatoes. “There is a little bit of jumping-on-bandwagons,” she tells me over the phone. “Just because something’s an heirloom tomato don’t go using it if it’s crap; use a tomato because it’s ripe and beautiful not because it’s an heirloom. I’d had a surfeit of heirloom tomatoes (in salads) that were as acidic as hell and hadn’t been used when the tomatoes were at their prime, but there were pretty colours on the plates and I thought, ‘Oh God, really’.”
Twitter correspondent @FoodieSpy99 has a problem with most omelettes served in Australia. “Dry rubbery rubbish,” she says. “French omelettes are just set in the middle, almost wobbly.”
And from @SophMcComas — “thick, dry, claggy risotto. The WORST!,” Tabouli is the issue for an Iranian-born acquaintance — tabouli that’s not immaculately fresh and has barely a whimper of lemon. It should be really lemony, he says.
Now we’re in the business of whining, I might as well keep going: spaghetti carbonara — it shouldn’t have cream in it and it certainly doesn’t have mushrooms. And beef rendang; properly, it’s a dry curry and so it shouldn’t swim in a gravy; the liquid should have almost completely evaporated so the delicious coconutty-spicy residue clings to the meat. Variations on the original and, the authentic, are all very well, but invariably, variation=ordinary.
The fact is, the more we know, the more qualified we are to demand better and the more confidence we’ll have to do so. The more we demand better, the greater our food culture will be.
Phew, glad that’s all off my chest.
Over to you. What makes you cranky when you eat out?