It’s a truism of contemporary cuisine—one I have pointed & will point out again & again, until it’s not—that appetizers trump entrees. The smaller the plate, the bigger & brighter the flavors; the bolder their combinations; the artsier their presentation. Why is that? Why are so few American chefs, even real innovators, willing to deviate from the meat-and-3 standard of the main course? How is it that they still defer to Chef Stouffer, the king of culinary compartmentalization?
The most obvious, depressing answer is that—for all the stats about salsa outselling ketchup & the news that some gastropundit or other voted “locavore” the most overused word of the year & the fact that your cubicle mate finally knows what panini are (even if he/she thinks he/she knows what a panini is)—the average American diner is still boring & conservative enough to insist on steak & potatoes & peas night after night after night.
Of course, said answer could be worded more diplomatically, with more dignity. Far truer, more judicious connoisseurs than I might argue that the palate, in all its symmetry, simply prefers order to chaos. It’s like our tongues are the floor plans for the grand theaters of our mouths, with some tastebuds in the loges & some in the peanut gallery & so on, all awaiting the Aristotelian drama that is dinner. Their interest needs immediately to be piqued, but it can’t just go on being piqued or they’ll pass out from all the excitement & confusion; it needs then to peak, to attain catharsis & reach harmonious conclusion. Intriguing appetizer, meaty entree, sweet dessert.
But see, I think of my mouth as a punk club and my tongue’s the mosh pit. My tastebuds want to crowd-surf & lose their shoes & have Rolling Rock bottles broken over their heads, then stumble home near-deaf & blind, not really sure what happened but exhaustedly ecstatic it did.
Which brings me back to Ocean, where I was immediately struck by the fact that, for once, the main courses appealed to me more than the starters. While the latter were mostly sushi-bar knockoffs & half-baked attempts to glorify bar snacks, the former seemed somehow harder to categorize (derogatorily or otherwise): at least on paper, they appeared more free-form, more about genuine chefly curiosity & less about hipclepticism, more playful yet less wink-wink.
Not to pat myself on the belly, but sure enough, our second course went to great lengths to compensate for our first. In fact, the blackened trout with “spicy cream corn” & invisible seared spinach (okay, it’s under the filet) almost succeeded.
I mean, obviously, a few more whole kernels would have been nice to maintain the distinction between this & this; my mouth’s not that punk. But looks aside, this dish was gorgeously more than the sum of its parts—the firm yet flaky forkfuls, the creamy spoonfuls, the buttery bittery shreds all presenting themselves in unison, more like an accidental casserole or trompe l’oeil stew than anything.
Where mine united, the elements of the Director’s dish, sesame-crusted ahi with wasabi butter, snap peas & straw mushrooms, overlapped beautifully—the rich with the bright, the crunchy with the smooth. All elements, that is, except one: the tuna itself, which, just like the yellowfin we’d started with, was utterly flavorless. To use my favorite contradiction in terms, it appeared to be missing. It was like a nutri-optical illusion; we could see it, we could even swallow it, but somehow our palates passed right through it. Or it was like it had post-aquatic shellshock or piscine Alzheimer’s. There just wasn’t any tuna left in that tuna. I could go on & on.
But I won’t. Suffice it to say 1 1/2 out of 5 (counting the bread basket) ain’t good. Happily, or at least less unhappily, Ocean upped its score with a bracing espresso martini…
& a slice of peanut butter cheesecake so light it was strangely refreshing, as though it were really sorbet only the member of a species with hypertrophied sensory mechanisms could detect. Like how bees see ultraviolet.