Letter of the Century – How Does Taste Evolve?
Dear Eating Las Vegas,
You recently wrote a caption on a photo you posted on Facebook, “I think I could eat ‘modern Japanese’ food every day of my life and not get bored.”
It made me wonder how you, as a food critic who’s refined his palate over the course of many years, came to appreciate a cuisine like this which, admittedly, is not a commonplace offering in most of America?
At what point does taste get refined to appreciate the subtleties of a cuisine like Modern Japanese, or even to start exploring? Any art form (film, music, art, etc.) has levels of refinement, as the curious audience member ventures off to more significant, and more difficult to interpret, levels of appreciation. How does it happen with food?
The best way we can answer the question(s) is to give you a brief tour of what ELV calls: The Evolution of a Critic.
Our good friend, author, food writer, Esquire magazine food critic and noted chronicler of the history of American food and drink, John Mariani says there are 3 kinds of food critics: “The slobs, the snobs and the oh goodie goodies.”
The slobs are professional writers who either get thrown into, or decide to write about food sometime in mid-career. Being writers by trade, they find collared shirts and shampoo to be both puzzling and avoidable as they suffer for their art. Their qualifications for the gig (when they start out) usually consists of being able to write a cogent paragraph and knowing what they like to eat.
This is not to say that they can’t grow into their jobs. Jonathon Gold (not exactly Beau Brummel in his sartorial choices) started out as a music critic in the 1980s, and then won a Pulitzer for his in-depth exploration (and knowledge) of Los Angeles’ ethnic food scene.
Since the words “slob” and “John Curtas” have never collided in the same sentence, we must look beyond the Gold-ian template when charting our personal evolution in taste. The transmutation of yours truly from enthusiast to snob to Asian dilettante is thus instructive in answering your question.
Mariani properly pegged me as a “oh goodie goodie” type of critic ten years ago. Back then, even after nine years of writing about food and critiquing restaurants for KNPR-Nevada Public Radio, I was still a galloping gourmand — happily eating everything in sight and pleased as punch that Las Vegas was taking its place on the world’s gastronomic stage. If you had asked me what my favorite type of food was in 2002, I would’ve answered: “French bistro cooking and Italian food….in Italy.”
(Keep in mind: John Curtas was practically raised in American restaurants. Twice, as a yute in the 1960s, he circumnavigated the United States with his family, eating in the best restaurants in town from Miami to Seattle – New York to New Orleans. His parents were hardly “to the menu born,” but both had a healthy appreciation for good food, wanted their children to experience the best, and loved the theatre of great restaurants.)
As a young adult I started cooking more out of poverty than choice. My older sister gave me a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine around 1976 that I (literally and figuratively) ate up. An early girlfriend and the second Mrs. John A. Curtas were both foodies before there was such a term, and both indulged and encouraged my then passion for Chinese food. By 1980 I had pretty much cooked my way through The Chinese Menu Cookbook, (Joanne Hush and Peter Wong, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1976), and was seduced by the Szechuan food craze that was all the rage by then. (Yes, there was a Szechuan food craze in those prehistoric times, and I have the cookbooks to prove it.)
The second Mrs. John A. Curtas was even so kind as to compile a list of Chinese grocery stores for me, when we first moved to Vegas in 1981, so I could continue working my way through the various regional cuisines. Until around 1990, if you had asked me what my favorite food in the world was, I would’ve answered the strong, salty, sour and hot foods of the Sichuan and Hunan provinces of China. (Then and now, the textural nuances of Cantonese cooking, and the falderol of Mandarin banquets, remain more of a curiosity than a keen pursuit.)
Mixed into all of this was five years living a mere 50 miles from mid-town Manhattan — where yours truly and the second Mrs. John A. Curtas basically ate everything in sight, and were there for the New York (read: American) restaurant renaissance of the mid-1980s — when Danny Meyer, Larry Forgione, et al developed a food-centric, wine-friendly, customer-casual template that put baby-boomers at ease with sophistication without pretense.
The Nineties brought multiple trips to France and Italy, where the ingredient-driven Italians and technique-driven French fascinated our palate for fifteen years. French food — more than any other on earth — is driven by the extraction, concentration and layering of flavors. An Italian celebrates the simplicity of the raw material, a Frenchman tries to make it taste even more like itself. The yin and yang of these philosophies held me in their thrall for over a decade. And, of course, they both make the best wine on the planet (sorry Spain and California).
All of this is by way of leading up to answering your question: How did I make the jump to Japanese when these types of restaurants are, admittedly, few and far between in America?
Not to be glib(?) but it really comes down to this: I got old, bored and fat.
By old, I don’t mean old. As Groucho Marx said: “A man is only as old as the woman he feels.” That would put me in my early 40s — which isn’t old at all — just ask the Food Gal®.
What’s old about ELV is his palate. Not his taste buds, mind you, but his palate. There is only so much pasta a man can eat before he quits being dazzled and takes every bite with a sense of “oh yeah…this is good….it reminds me of a dish Lidia Bastianich cooked for me in 1996.” And there’s only so many ways a dude can swoon over a noisette of lamb or blanquette de veau, no matter how Guy Savoy or Pierre Gagnaire has tweaked it.
And don’t get us started about the ridiculousness of overwrought desserts.
Like Italy, Japanese is an ingredient rather than technique-driven cuisine. Fish and rice are staples — as are soups and noodle dishes loaded with umami rather than calories. To our way of thinking, you experience more flavor and less fat per bite of true Japanese cooking than of any other in the world. The Japanese are also more judicious in their use of salt than their Korean, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese neighbors — all of whom seem to salt their food from the inside out.
Modern Japanese cooking (as we’ve experienced it in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York – we’ve never been to Japan) incorporates ingredients from all of these Asian neighbors while retaining the simplicity and integrity upon which this cuisine is based.
Plus, there is a certain deceptive simplicity (and elegance) to even the most basic of Japanese dishes. What may look like nothing more than rice, fish and a tiny garnish with two perfectly carved vegetables flanking it (like you might find at Nobu, Bar Masa, Raku, Sen of Japan or Yonaka) has, in fact, been constructed with immense thought as to how each flavor and texture will affect the senses.
To truly appreciate it, however, you must surrender your idea of what you think sustenance, or a meal, should be. If a meat and two sides is your idea of dinner, you will never “get” Japanese food. If you insist on bread and lots of sauce (as we sometimes still do) you won’t understand or like it.
But abandon your American meal sensibilities and you will find more flavor and intrigue (and less calories) than from any other cuisine on earth.
Thanks for indulging our very long answer to a reasonably short question.
p.s. None of the above ravings about Japanese food applies to their traditional desserts — which are inexplicably linked to an unfathomable love of red bean paste. As we have often advised: If you want a great dessert in an Asian restaurant, go to a French one.
p.p.s. None of the above postscript applies to the fabulous desserts at either Yonaka or Sweets Raku.
p.p.p.s. Apropos of nothing, ELV will probably be cooking a blanquette de veau out of Joël Robuchon’s cookbook this weekend.