Chow Bella

Give Me Good Food, Hold the Pretense. And the Weird Menu Items.

“Tonight we are offering a Colonic Clam Chowder. It will be served using a Ukraine-imported douche nozzle that’s been rinsed with essence of kale foam, and will be administered from behind. You will actually taste the soup several minutes after ingesting it.”

Okay, so no waiter has ever said that to me, or hopefully to anyone. But I won’t be surprised to one day hear such a suggestion from any local server. Where local dining is concerned, things are getting plenty weird around here.

Time was when you could see pretentious cuisine coming. It was served exclusively in places located in the better parts of town, places that telegraphed their snooty-boots intent with upscale décor and usually the phrase “fine dining” in their name somewhere. Today, showy cuisine is often the order of the day in even the most questionable dives.

I call it The New Pretense. It’s sneaky, and it’s kind of mean. You wander into a burger joint across from a rundown movie house expecting ground beef patties and melted cheese, only to discover that the specialty of the house is tongue burgers marinated in sycamore maple. It’s not fair.

The other night I dined at a relatively low-key newish restaurant, a place with a sporty name, patio dining, and paper placemats. I suppose I expected chicken Caesar; a skirt steak; some sweet potato fries served in a cute basket shaped like a shopping cart. Maybe the special would be a pasta tossed with something surprising, like shredded lamb.

The special that night was pigeon roulade served with a pine bouillon. The menu, attached to a dollar-store plastic clipboard, offered foie gras as an entrée. Shrimp foam over Indonesian flat rice. Truffle-infused lotus blossoms. Who, I wondered, is ordering meatloaf stuffed with salmon jowls?

I was already in a crummy mood. The night before, my husband and I had been to a just-opened restaurant where the gimmick was that the food came out in no particular order. One of our entrees arrived first, and the salads turned up last. As we were preparing to leave, one of the appetizers we’d ordered and then forgotten about (because we were so flummoxed by this silly system of service) showed up. The desserts had arrived somewhere in the middle.

Anyone who knows me knows I like a culinary adventure, that I’ll eat pretty much anything. My favorite local restaurant is Josh Hebert’s Posh, where Josh serves his clients whatever he feels like making them based on what they don’t care to eat. But Josh isn’t hiding his improvisational cuisine behind Rubbermaid deck chairs and dish-towel napkins. The name of his restaurant is Posh; the interior is sleek and sophisticated. When I go there, I’m not surprised to be served elk heart remoulade. At a place with the word “diner” in its title and peanut shells on the floor, I am startled to find liver mousse almandine on the menu.

I get it. With a new restaurant opening every fortnight, chefs are going a little mad trying to be distinctive.

And this trend in low-concept ambiance can’t be helping. I want to believe that the Cordon Bleu-trained cooks are surprised to find themselves preparing spleen-sauced kidneys in a long, narrow room made to look like the inside of a public school bus.

But local restaurateurs need to make up their minds, already. A liver cognac-drizzled free-range hen cutlet is one thing, but once you roll it in Cap’n Crunch, you’ve crossed over from high cuisine to high-as-a-kite.

There’s a place for bone marrow tartlets, and it’s not on an appetizer menu next to pork rind petits fours.

That chalkboard lining the wall of your kitschy diner, where the flatware is mismatched and the tables are decorated with mason jars filled with broken crayons suggested I would be eating mac and cheese, and not a chef’s special of sheep paw caramel croissants.

But, look! After eating $70 worth of offal and snouts, my bill has arrived tucked into a beat-up dime-store novel! Well, then. Never mind. All is forgiven.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela