Once upon a time, in a very rich country, the people elected a president who helped them become even richer. Soon, there was so much money to spend, the people didn't know what to do with it all. They bought big boats and big TVs and fancy watches and called them "toys." They gave their money to drug dealers, imported car dealers and wheeler-dealers. They ate lobster and steak and duck every night until a funny thing happened. The people grew bored.
Fortunately, a clever chef in a city near the ocean had an idea. "I know," he announced. "I will invent a new cuisine for these rich, bored people who have too much money to spend. I will use the silliest and rarest of ingredients: oils extracted from seed pits, exotic mushrooms harvested at midnight, cheese made from the milk of goats found only on remote European mountaintops."
As the chef visualized the money to be made, he rubbed his hands together. "Portions will be small," he said. "But desserts will be gigantic. And no one will dare question anything, because no one will wish to look that stupid, that foolish, that declasse.
"And then," he said. "I will be rich, too."
And it came to pass that everything the chef said came true. People flocked to his restaurant, sometimes fighting each other for tables. Other chefs saw this and were impressed. The new cuisine spread like wildfire across the land. Price was no object, and in this manner, much income was redistributed.
Thousands of heads of radicchio later, what I like to call "fou fou" cuisine lives on. Barrels of balsamic vinegar, seasons of sun-dried tomatoes, acres of arugula have been sacrificed in its name. And now, like the child who spots the emperor wearing only his underwear, I am willing to say "Enough is enough."
I'm through with "fou fou."
You can thank the Orangerie at the Arizona Biltmore for this epiphany.
Executive chef Peter Hoefler's new spring menu is pretentious and ridiculous. Every noun is preceded by exotic modifiers: "Kuari smoked pineapple," "Malibu greens," "Bliss potato." Ingredients you'll never taste or see are enumerated. "Glazed root vegetables" pose for turnips. If you go, be sure to study your LaRousse Gastronomique beforehand or bring someone well-versed in "fou fou."
Naturally, such verbosity doesn't come cheap. I've calculated the word-to-cost ratio. Appetizers go for anywhere from 60 cents to a dollar a word, entrees $1.50 to $2.70 a word. Many of the descriptions are only slightly smaller than the actual dish.
For instance, the nine-word "grilled chirashi sashimi, marinated asparagus tip, grapefruit mustard sauce" menu item yields a twelve-piece appetizer. My faithful dining accomplice Goat and I receive exactly four tiny strips of slightly grilled tuna, four asparagus tips and four sections of grapefruit. Hmmm, I thought it said "grapefruit mustard sauce." Silly me, for being so literal.
After we've consumed the meager contents of the ten-dollar sashimi plate, Goat asks me how much I think it is really worth. "Six-fifty?" I suggest. "No way," he chastises. "A dollar-fifty, tops."
And so it goes.
Another example of description-reality dissonance is the "crispy Appalachi Kola oysters and Penn Cove mussels, five spice coating, cucumber and bell pepper coulis." It sells for $9.50. "I've watched Chef fuss over that plate for ten minutes," says our waiter as he sets the bivalves before us. Indeed, the expensive greens beneath the shells look perfect as a floral arrangement, but the mussels and oysters are now only lukewarm. Furthermore, the five-spice coating is not entirely successful: The Chinese flavors overwhelm the taste of the seafood and the delicate cucumber sauce; the coating's texture is gritty.
Why we spend so much time waiting between courses is a mystery. There are times when one wishes not to be rushed through a meal, but this is not one of them. "Maybe we're just renting space for the cost of the food," Goat suggests. He may be right. From start to finish, our meal takes almost three hours. Yet the table behind us is in and out in half that time, and not for lack of courses. The bread boy visits three times with his dismal array of offerings before our appetizers arrive. Which reminds me, I don't care if I am in the Orangerie, does everything have to be orange flavored? Orange minimuffins, orange rolls, orange-tarragon sorbet. Enough already with the orange. This hokey, out-of-date device doesn't work with fou fou cuisine.
We skip the soup course because all three selections sound unappealing. "Chilled creamed champagne grapes, peppermint chiffonade, roasted almonds and shaved coconut"? "Essence of abalone, angel hair egg drop, oyster sauce and scallions"? "Muscovy duck and spring vegetable marmite, pesto sourdough croutons"? Muscovy ducks, I'm informed by an avid bird watcher, are considered pests in Florida; I'm glad they found a use for them.