Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The discomfort of comfort foods

I'm not sure at which age it happened, but I came to a point in my life where food became more than simple sustenance, and evolved into an experience. Don't get me wrong, I'm not above the occasional fast food pit stop at the end of a long day, but a drive thru is no longer routine for me. There is a "let's just get this over with" feeling that comes over me as I shout my order into the speaker. To much of my family I am a source of amusement when it comes to food. I attempt to plan every meal each time one of us visits our respective cities, seeking out the best local fare.

I certainly did not inherit my culinary passion from my father, a man who abides by strict routine. The man could eat the same meal every day for a week and not think twice, and is the most predictable dining companion I've ever known. I can look at any menu and predict one of two entrees he might select. He has ordered the same drink, regardless of the type of meal, for as long as I can remember: a gin martini (Tanqueray was his brand of choice until switching to Bombay Sapphire last decade), extra dry, up with an olive. Upon receiving his drink, some version of this remark is sure to follow: "Too much vermouth. You know, the best bartenders will just spritz the vermouth with an atomizer." It's quite likely he saw this at a bar in 1974 and has sworn by it since. Having tasted the martinis he makes himself, I'm convinced he just likes cold gin but calling it a martini seems more refined. Unfortunately, the man's restaurant recommendations are based on nostalgia as well. Most places I've tried based on his advice have ranged from dated to terrible. This past Christmas dinner was spent at the same hotel restaurant at which my family had eaten holiday meals back in the 1980's. Sadly, the entire restaurant was stuck in that era or earlier. Don't believe me? My sister ordered steak Diane that night.

Make no mistake, my father is a wonderful man and I am proud to be his son, but his dining mindset is the polar opposite of mine. I have tried broadening his horizons with minimal success. He quite enjoyed Hugo's brunch (who wouldn't?), but I would never dream of taking him to a place like The Pass. My dad is all about the comfort foods he has been eating for 50 years: tuna sanwiches, pot roast, burgers with ketchup. Seriously, I've taken the man to places like Bernie's Burger Bus and the late, great The Burger Guys and watched him order specialty burgers and drown them in ketchup. And if you serve osso buco, don't even bother bringing the man a menu - though until I told him a few years ago, he didn't know what part of which animal he was eating.

Thinking about my father's food fallbacks has made me realize that I have so few. Sure, there are a number of restaurants I love and dine at frequently, but even then I rarely have a standard order. In truth, I try to avoid repeat orders at places I like so that I can experience more of the menu and fall in love with other dishes. That is one of the reasons I enjoy Underbelly's contsant menu tinkering and why Oxheart has become a thrice yearly outing for me. I know I can have a different meal there each time. Barbecue aside, I'm not much of a "bring on the red meat" type of diner. Fine dining to my father and so many from his generation means a thick steak with some form of potatoes on the side. I will gladly accept a meal with minimal meat and expertly prepared vegetables. I don't need a standard order and would feel personally stale if I walked into a restaurant and was greeted by a server who assumed my order before I even opened the menu. Chicken soup? No thanks, give me phở gà. Chicken and dumplings? Nah, Chris Shepherd's got something better. There's too much to explore on too many menus to be tied down to the familiar.

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