Dining out on a regular basis hones the senses to the joys and travails of restaurant visitations. With the good, there is the not so good, a list of Seven I could do without. Let’s go:
1. Saucy skid-marks on plates: Obviously a result of chefs wishing to capitalise on the instagram-era or deployed by those harbouring a Matisse complex, brush-strokes of bordelaise, truffle, beet-root and other sauces swirled around a plate are as irritating as they are useless. Being attached to the plate, these showy skid-marks have zero use in complementing the dish’s flavour as like wigs, nipple-caps and saddles, sauces are meant to go on-top. Once the dish has been eaten, the sauce-stroked plate looks like Van Gogh’s palette after an evening of painful ear-slicing, something no gentleman wants to present to a hard-working waiter or waitress.
2. Garnishes: I know, it is easier to erase herpes than the kitchen’s penchant for topping an innocent lamb shank with a dry branch of rosemary large enough to concuss a rabbit or a wilted sprig of parsley with an uncannily close resemblance to a sex-toy for rutting chameleons. These things never, ever get eaten, do not enhance the aesthetics of the dish and lead to the diner wasting valuable eating time by shiftily trying to find a place to dump the irritating twiglet. Let it grow where it lives.
3. Margarine: Ask a service person what that pale-yellow stuff is in the bread-basket, and the answer will always be “butter”. Which it ain’t, as even joints displaying white table-cloth and silver cutlery try to pass-off the dreaded margarine invention as butter. This is a death-knell to any restaurant. How are we to assume the chef has respect for the kitchen’s ingredients, cooking techniques and final dishes if he or she agrees to having patrons’ taste-buds and potential cancer-harbouring cells aggravated by allowing raw margarine to be set loose on the table? Not only does even the best margarine taste like robot snot, but it is filled with enough preservatives and other artificial substances to set Donald Trump’s hair with.
4. Pre-made Chips: Chips, also known as French fries or frites, are an important part of many a restaurant offering. And last time I looked – and cooked – they did not require a culinary qualification, inherited geniality or artistic deft to prepare. Cut potatoes. Par-boil. Deep fry once. Cool down. Deep fry again. And you have hot golden-brown chips tasting as they should, a deep-rooted satisfying taste with which everyone in the civilised world is, or should be, familiar. (Apart from Tim Noakes, that is.) Alas, few restaurants go to the trouble of frying their own, choosing to buy pre-cut, pre-boiled mechanically cut slices of potato which are then dipped once in the oil before serving. Or worse still, heated in the oven. This laziness is easily detectable by the card-board flavour and texture of wilted female sanitary product, and it reflects poorly on the establishment. For if this sloven approach is taken with the humble chip, imagine the short-cuts engaged in preparing the main-course? Too ghastly to contemplate.
5. “Balsamic” vinegar: Unless you are willing to fork out R1 400 for 250ml for real aged Modena Balsamic, that black stuff on the table next to the olive oil is nothing but acidic grape syrup churned out by an industrial complex resembling a petrol refinery. It is also sickly sweet and palate-clogging with no other use than destroying any of the pure homely flavours found in a freshly baked piece of bread as well as making a fresh lettuce leaf wilt at six inches. But no, restaurateurs reckon that by parking the industrial Balsamic on the table they are presenting an image of exotic foreignness and Italian sophistication. Time to go, replace with an ordinary red wine vinegar which is far more complementary to the table than the horrid black stuff.
6. Pork Belly: Because it is boring. Being such a simple cut to prepare, it is a ubiquitous item on many a menu. Diners are seduced by the organ-slicing sound of the dish, and love the look of that little square topped by a layer of – usually – crisp pork skin. But coming in at a fat-to-meat ratio of 70% to 30% pork belly has practically no flavour of its own, depending on the sauces and spices used in its preparation. Once the tasty skin has been eaten, the underlying flesh is bland and unappealing to the real flesh-eater who is not seduced by side-show flavouring.
7. Hand-shakes: I happen to know many a restaurant manager, owner or chef. Thus, being greeted with a hand-shake, hearty hug or double-cheek kiss at the door is often by mutual consent, and thus entirely agreeable. But the over-familiar clamming of a sweaty palm from a front-of-house person I have never met before is over-familiar and a tad precocious. Especially if you have just rolled sushi.