Sky Full of Bacon

UPDATE 6/8: Well, some technical issues with WordPress have appeared along the way, delaying the new SFOB. If the site’s missing at some point, I promise it will be back soon, cooler than ever.

ORIGINAL POST 6/4: If you click here today and things look all different… it’s because my friend Wyatt Mitchell is putting up the new custom-built look for Sky Full of Bacon. Which will better showcase the videos with the blog, and include various other features to bring this site into 2010 and beyond. Feedback appreciated, future patronage encouraged!

Me, I’m running around interviewing barbecue pitmasters and such today for an upcoming piece in a local magazine. So I’ll have nothing to do with how the site looks till it’s done, but I am happy to say that after the spring without new videos, there should be two within a month. Thanks for your patience…

There’s a new smackdown on the underground dining thing, by Steve Dolinsky. He attended a Rabbit Hole dinner and was unimpressed:

Our third course, a homemade pappardelle with fresh ricotta was just plain boring. It needed lemon juice to brighten it up, as well as salt and pepper; there was allegedly some marrow in the sauce, but we couldn’t detect any; the pasta – while clearly hand-formed – was gummy and not exceptionally pleasing.

Read it all, but that pretty much sets the tone.

What floored me about this was the price: he spent about $200 for himself and his wife. As Dolinsky rightly observes, “after you drop $170 plus $30 tip… you then realize that for $200 you could have had a killer meal at one of any number of great places – Naha, Topolo, Avec, Blackbird, North Pond, etc.”

Price, of course, isn’t the only consideration here. But to me it’s a pretty good indicator that the underground restaurant movement isn’t underground in any way that really matters. In theater, say, something like this might be young people starting out, putting on work that’s too daring or experimental to make it with a downtown audience, performing in a dilapidated space in an edgy neighborhood, and charging low prices because it’s not about money and charging low prices gives you a certain freedom that higher prices would constrict.

But these underground dinners are like somebody finding the dilapidated space in the edgy neighborhood– and then charging $85 per seat for an illegal performance of The Lion King. They use an underground atmosphere to cover the fact that they’re trying to serve a Blackbird-level meal at a Blackbird-level price without the costly support system of Blackbird. If you could pull it off, it would probably be pretty lucrative. But they often seem not to pull it off, and so you wind up with a sub-Blackbird experience at the full Blackbird price, The Lion King in cheap Halloween costumes.

To me, the underground dining experience can only be justified one of two ways. One, is at a price that absorbs some of the diner’s risk. At $50, I’m game for adventure, at $100, it almost seems an insult to a city full of fine, hardworking restaurants to spend my money instead on some amateur who gets to evade many of their fixed costs, yet presumes herself in their company. Some of the caterers who’ve gone on to open restaurants have done this, such as Bonsoiree, at such modest prices, and it’s a reasonable path for getting feedback, practice, etc. in anticipation of opening a place or simply being a better caterer. That’s cool.

Two, is by being underground in some manner more meaningful than simply not paying the city a license fee. People put on Beckett or Dario Fo or, in their early days, Mamet or Letts in some ratty storefront, because it represented an alternative to big commercial theater. But what’s underground dining being alternative to— rigid bourgeois notions of how rickety your table should be? The dinner I attended was all full of talk about stuff coming straight from the farmer (who was present) to the table. Great, I’m all for it and more of it, but every week I eat at some place that’s touting its Gunthorp chickens and its Dietzler beef and so on. Not exactly new ground or a challenge to The Man that’s going to flip our dining paradigms. Likewise the kid who was going to introduce people to molecular gastronomy— in the city of Alinea. Our restaurants are already Steppenwolf, you’re not going to wow us by putting on yet another production of American Buffalo.

I could imagine underground dining experiences that would really wow me, but they wouldn’t just be second-tier versions of dinners I can already have. They might be something you can’t get here commercially, like a deeply authentic Southern meal or a Portuguese one or an exotically authentic Asian one, that challenged you to eat things you’d never touch normally. Or they might be more like performance pieces that make us experience food in a manner as much theatrical as culinary, eating and interacting with food in entirely new, provocative ways. I’d love to believe that there’s a space outside the commercial realm for different ways of dining and experiencing food, but I’m largely unsold on the idea that there’s a need outside the commercial realm for a second commercial realm that gets to do the exact same thing but avoid a lot of the entirely reasonable hassles involved, like health inspection and insurance. At the very least, I expect it to try harder than that to justify its positioning as something truly alternative— and that an alternative is needed at this historical moment.

The game was 13-3. My son Myles was upbeat about it, though. His team is used to getting pounded by bigger, more experienced teams. They take their victories where they can find them, and at one point they had it tied up. Which considering that the other team’s pitcher looks like he’s 25, isn’t bad for 11-year-olds. (Then they pretty much blew it in one series of bungles, but hey, at one point they had it tied up.)

“How many more innings?” I asked.

“We can go after my next time at bat,” Myles said. Baseball is one thing, but we don’t let it get in the way of a new restaurant.

My younger son and my wife were out of town together on his 2nd grade camping trip. That left Myles and me to fend for ourselves, and one of the things I decided we were going to do was try a nice restaurant and try to teach Myles better table manners, without his brother’s influence at table dragging him back to kid antics and behavior. Surprisingly, he was game for this, and didn’t find it an annoying adult imposition on his lifestyle.

I chose LM, which I’ve wanted to try for a while. Partly because of their $22 prix fixe menu, but as soon as we got there, I could see that it had things that wouldn’t fly with Myles. So he ordered what he wanted: which turned out to be roasted duck breast, and a salad with blue cheese and pears. I ordered a fresh pea soup with mint and creme fraiche and monkfish with littleneck clams in a greenish broth.

“So what do fancy people do when they’re waiting for their food?” he asked.

“They talk,” I said. So we talked about stuff. Like his baseball team. I don’t think we got onto the other popular subjects of the moment, his current hero, the Zulu warrior Shaka, or World War II, which I seem to be explaining different aspects of all the time. (We had a good discussion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and whether or not using the atomic bomb was unavoidable given Japan’s militarism, the other day. But I’m glad we didn’t get into that over French food.)

The salad came. He tried the blue cheese (St. Agur), didn’t like it. Still, he tried it, and he ate the rest of the salad fine. I loved the pea soup, I don’t know where spring peas are coming from yet but this was pure spring in a bowl. The entrees came and he was very happy with his duck, less interested in the roasted turnips alongside it. The monkfish was very simple, very light, nicely done. It didn’t wow me (like my sturgeon at Blackbird a few nights later) but this isn’t so much a wow place as a very French, do it exactly right like it should be done place. For one of those, it’s very good.

Myles tasted my monkfish, and one of the littleneck clams. “So that’s three new things I tried tonight,” he said, proudly. At his age you keep a lot of lists like that in your head.

I was proud of him, he behaved well, he was adventurous. So we ordered dessert, but I don’t think they’re made in-house. I could be wrong on that, but they seemed sturdy and very precise, like the stuff from a place like Rolf’s Patisserie, which always looks to me like it’s built first to survive the trucking around town. Not delicate like its only travel is from an oven to a rack. Still, they tasted good enough. He’s not picky, like me, when sweet stuff arrives at the end of a meal. Yet. [UPDATE: Michael Nagrant says they come from Vanille Patisserie.]

We were walking back to the car. He was proud of having gotten to do something his brother hasn’t. He was proud of being 11 and old enough to do stuff like this. “I like that you take me to interesting places like French restaurants,” he said.

“I like that you want to go,” I said.