New York Times food reviews are something of a joy to read, especially those of Pete Wells. His recent review of Per Se was dramatic and scathing (though not as scathing as this one), as well as snarky and, perhaps unintentionally, funny (“Once, the table was set for dessert so haphazardly that my spoon ended up next to my water glass instead of my plate.”)
I have never eaten at Per Se. I’ve eaten at handfuls of lovely establishments, but not Per Se. To be honest, I don’t have much of an interest in doing so. A $300 three hour dinner where I have no control over the courses? No thanks. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t like any form of liver besides Heston Blumenthal’s meat fruit, and that I far prefer mentaiko to caviar.
But there’s another, less pompous reason for my lack of desire to eat at Per Se. It’s because the foods that stick out in my memory tend to be the ones found in less glamorous locations.
This summer I visited Osaka and Kyoto with my aunt. We had been to Tokyo last summer and loved it so much that we decided to continue exploring Japan. On our last day in Osaka, we went to the train station to take the Shinkansen to Kyoto (which turned out to be an unexpectedly hilarious ride, but that’s a story for another time). I saw a man waiting in line who I had also seen that morning at breakfast at our hotel in Osaka. We struck up conversation, and he turned out to be a Staten Island native now living in California (probably to get away from those New York values, you know). I told him that I was going to Kyoto, and he said he had been there before and loved it. I asked if there’s good food to be had a there, and he said, “The food in Kyoto is very good. I’ve eaten at multiple Michelin-star restaurants.”
I smiled politely and internally shook my head. It was clear from that one comment that we travel very differently.
People who know me say that I’m posh and, dare I say it, a bit pretentious. My coats are all J. Crew. I’ve held only unpaid internships in college. Five-year-old me declared my favorite dessert to be tiramisu or Haagen Dazs ice cream. My parents paid out of state tuition to the University of Michigan (go blue!) so I could get a top-notch education. I’ve been called a Manhattan snob. Heck, I even make trips to Fairway to get cheese and ham so I can have charcuterie for dinner.
But when it comes to food, my standards are simple: if there no bugs and no livers, I’ll probably eat it. Some of the best food I’ve ever had have been in “unbecoming” locales. I grew up eating noodles for breakfast in the middle of vegetable markets in Kuala Lumpur and fish markets in Taipei. There’s a shaved ice stall in southern Taiwan located across a large temple and across a mechanic’s shop; the floors are generally wet and the tables are sticky, and I love that place.
Noodle shops in Flushing, NY are crowded, greasy, and smokey affairs, but delicious all the same. The best dumplings I’ve had on this side of the globe are from a little place called “White Bear,” with only two tables inside and always a long line.
On our first night in Osaka, my aunt and I wandered around to see the local life and find a place to eat. We found an unassuming shop in an empty market alley (presumably more crowded during daytime), and I had a life changing dinner of rice, mounds of different kinds of raw fish, and a broth to pour over the food to give it warm fragrance. It was not only one of the best meals of the summer, but of my life.
Obviously, I am in no way opposed to fine dining. I rather like being able to dress up to go out to eat, and to have a glass of wine with my three course dinner. But anyone limiting themselves to just that is missing out. If eating is one of the great joys of life (which it is), then choosing only a certain type of institution, or one kind of cuisine, etc. — that would be a great shame.
Being adventurous is more than eating food in different places. It’s also about stepping out of your norm in terms of what’s on your plate and what’s surrounding your plate. If you think about it, it’s rather rude to eschew the more humble bearings of local eateries for the internationally renowned Michelin star restaurants, because the message you’re conveying is that the local, traditional stuff isn’t good enough for you. Only the local stuff “elevated” and crafted for international taste buds will do. Translation: “I want to be adventurous, but only if your stuff has some elements of familiarity to me and if it’s on a white table cloth.” And surely, that isn’t the image any self-respecting adventurous eater wants to give off.
But if for no other reason, you should give it a try because it will make for cool stories and popular Instagram posts to show your friends back home.