The Big Meal
Excuse me but that robbery was locally sourced and free range!
Have you ever had a dining experience that irritated your bowels long past the time it’s left your body?
I recently had one.
I should let it go, but damn it, I can’t. Perhaps this little early Festivus “airing of grievances” will help…
My wife and I were invited by one of her old co-workers to join her and some other friends for dinner at restaurant in Portland, Oregon. The establishment was owned by another old co-worker who had since gone on to be a well known and award winning Chef.
I should have shut down my wife’s invite once I heard the culinary trigger phrases “well known” and “award winning.” But alas, after 2 years of mostly preparing and eating my own food during the pandemic, I thought it would be a nice change of pace away from the usual Sunday night Turkey hot dogs or “Spaghetti ala Ed.”
I suspected that was a mistake. But for my loving wife, I crumbled on my life long decision to not be a people pleaser and agreed to accompany her to the meal.
I knew we were in trouble after we arrived at the restaurant, sat at the table, and learned that the place only served a “Tasting Menu.” However after 2 years of eating my own food, my brain had grown soft and muddled over past experiences with such menus.
When the waiter finally brought over the tiny square card that listed the 15 items on the menu, it at first confused me. The card’s design was horrible. It had 8 point type set in two columns which gave the appearance of a choice between items for one’s entrée.
After taking my drink order, it took me a good 5 minutes of conversation with the waiter to suss out the menu details as if it where a routine from Abbot and Costello.
“Waiter…in this one dish, what’s in ‘Membrillo’?”
“it’s Quince, finely shaved on a sauce of apple.”
“Ah, so it’s not an entrée. But I have a choice of entrées?”
“They are all entrées. It’s a tasting menu.”
“Ah…I see…So I can get something from Column A or Column B?”
“No, you get everything. All the entrées from both columns.”
“Fifteen items! Oh this must be a heck of deal! …What was Membrillo again?”
He mumbled “Quince, quince, quince” as he walked away with my drink order.
As he hustled off I looked more closely at the tiny 6 point type at the bottom of the small placard which read “Tasting Menu $108 per person with 21% gratuity included.”
At that point I should have flipped the table over in outraged hysteria and stormed out, but again after 2 years of eating my own food, far from the ways of more cultured society, I focused instead on the fact that 15 succulent items where soon to delight my tastebuds.
After a while the first plate finally arrived to the table served by a group of waiters.
Our party and I each looked down at our plates stupefied to see two squirrel eye sized dollops of pastry staring back up at us as the head waiter rattled off some nonsense about “palate cleansers” and cultural heritage.
I probably should mention at this point that the Restaurant featured Mexican cuisine, which I love. I gained this admiration from another Mexican restaurant in Portland which had gone out of business years ago and was greatly missed. The eatery offered up fabulous Oaxacan dishes that were a delight in appearance and taste as well as being served in enough abundance to satiate any size hunger.
But if this…measly…puny…piffling…dish placed before me was any tip off of what was to come I was in for a major let down.
Unfortunately my suspicions proved correct. The whole of the meal, all 15 dishes could have fit in the palm of a hand, or more correctly, a small child’s hand.
Each dish was a tiny pimple of food served on a ceramic plate as large and as heavy as a 50lb weight lifting plate. My guess is this joint followed some kind of faulty restauranteurs’ equation table that calculates: Plate size x 2 + 1/4 food size = illusion of portion adequacy.
Every plate served also came with the warning “Careful. The dish is Hot.” It didn’t matter if the dish was warm venison shavings or frozen “Artisanal Gooseberry Sherbet,” one touch of any plate guaranteed third degree burns.
This was to probably to prevent customers from throwing plates back at the chef, who I’m sure considered the smell of seared customer flesh to be part of the meal’s experience.
I could tell that my wife was equally outraged by this restaurant even though she hid this displeasure behind a facade of smiles. She and some of her friends were being mutually held hostage by their fear of offending one another. On a cautionary note, this is also the motivational fear behind some cult suicide pacts as well as most Disney Plus subscriptions.
It was on the wait for the second dish that most of us at the table started to take note of one attendee in our party. She was a friend of a friend who took any lull in conversation as her opportunity to start blabbing away about herself and her banking job for the next 20 minutes.
Coincidentally, this was also the exact time it took between the serving of each dish. Why they needed that much time to prep these tiny specks boggles the mind.
Oh wait… I forgot there’s a “stagger servings” coefficient in the aforementioned restauranteurs’ equation of value.
One of the dishes consisted of Yam foam (i.e. air) sprayed on the smallest of smears of apple butter. Another dish consisted of six dabs of what looked like mustard and ketchup paired with a tamale so small it couldn’t hold more that one strand of pork.
Why it took 5 waiters to deliver each serving was flabbergasting. Perhaps If they used lighter dishware they wouldn’t require a squadron of waiters per table? On each visit they also removed and then replaced cutlery so many times I was starting to think they didn’t trust customers around their silverware.
At about the 10th entrée, my brain began to clear (from the lack of food) and my old New York sardonic attitude kicked back in. It allowed me to remember that Portland was a restauranteur con-artist’s dream.
It’s one of the few places where you can you find enough self-inflated high brow rubes who’ll pay far too much money for so little food, as long as it comes wrapped in the bullshit of foreign descriptions and is labelled as “locally sourced.”
It was when I was about to launch across the table to throttle Ms. Blabbermouth Banker after her lame excuses about the 2008 housing crash, that the final dish was served. It was a dessert that consisted of broken pieces of those sesame and peanut brittle candies you can buy in any corner deli.
Luckily for the rest of us, the brittle gummed up Ms. Blabbermouth Banker just long enough for us to have a small respite before the check came. When it did arrive, once I picked myself off the floor after getting a glimpse of the total, I asked the waiter if I could have the location of the house whose mortgage we just paid.
To add to the irony, the check was delivered as a bookmark within a paperback copy of Octavio Paz's “19 ways of looking at Wang.” (The cheeky bastards.)
I asked if the book was free with the meal so that I could sell it on Ebay and perhaps recoup some of the costs for the meal.
The waiter was not amused.
After paying we all quietly rose from the table…except for Ms. You Know Who. She was still yakking away while most of us slunk towards the door with a serious case of buyer’s remorse. The friend who initially invited us was completely oblivious to reading the dread written on the rest of our faces since she was too busy escaping from Ms. Blabbermouth Banker, who continued chatting there on the sidewalk to nobody in particular as one by one we all fled away into the darkness.
On a side note about this experience, next time I meet a waiter who tells me that the $50 pinky nail sized appetizer he’s serving is "art", I'll remember to tell him, "If I want to taste art I'll go lick a Warhol. Now go fetch me a cheeseburger and fries, toot suite!"
Thanks for reading. I feel much better now. Happy Festivus.
May your holiday dinners be affordable and sizable.
Ever have a meal experience that stuck in your mind like a rusty nail? I’d love to hear about it.