Sunday 30 November 2014

Brunch failures and Anthony Bourdain

I'm in a bad mood. I know that those of you who usually read my blog will know that I am not by any means a super energized vegan yoga bunny. I have my good days and my bad like any other human being. Today was not 'bad'. I have thankfully grown past the point of letting one non fulfilling hour of my day ruin all the other possibly fun, enjoyable and entertaining things that can be experienced on a Sunday in Dublin city at the beginning of Christmas. No. I'm not talking about sex.

Over the last two weeks, I've focused on the beautiful lights strung and looped across streets, lane ways and around lampposts and not the crazed people mindlessly shopping in droves. I've purposely walked at a slower than usual pace while crowds stormed from one shop to another, weighed down and imbalanced by their Libran scales of shopping bags from chain-stores  and focused instead on the latest decorations, the smiling faces, people catching up with each other over pastries and coffee. Are you starting to get the idea?

In between these bouts of observation as a tactic to enjoy the time of year rather than be annoyed by its craziness, I've also been falling in love with Anthony Bourdain, that foul mouthed chef from New York with the no bullshit attitude and cheeky smile. He's fifty something but I don't care because I am in love with the way that he loves food. A sturdy hardback from the library, this book is entitled "A Cook's Tour: in search of the perfect meal" and is packed with punchy stories of food deliciously and proudly served as the cultural specialty of whichever  region he happens to be in in his search for that perfect plate of food. He writes about clear broth soups in Vietnam, how the Portuguese bring out half the town when they cook a pig and describes each dish served in the men's only cookery club in San Sebastian with an overflow of detail, perfectly telling us of the flavors, colors, sounds, smells and tastes of the kitchen so that we can transport ourselves right to that point in time.

He writes sentences that describe the food in such blissful simplicity: "pastries, aguardiente, loaves of mealy, heavy, brown, delicious Portuguese bread. We ate slices of grilled heart and liver, a gratin of potato and bacalao...all accompanied by wine, wine and more wine...this was followed by an incredibly tasty flan made with sugar, egg yolks, and rendered pork fat, and a spongy orange cake. I lurched away from the table after a few hours feeling like Elvis in Vegas-fat, drugged, and completely out of it."

As well as showing his appreciation for great, simple food cooked well, he also writes about how important it is to feel satisfied after a meal, as though eating is euphoric, brings you to a new level of delight. He also writes about how important it is to be the cook/chef/creator on the other side, wanting to create that food drug experience of making your eaters blissfully happy: "It gives us purpose in life, as if we've done something truly good and laudable that day, brought beauty, hope, enlightenment to our dining rooms and a quiet sort of honor to ourselves and our profession". He writes how I feel about food and everything that revolves around it.

Why am I writing about Anthony Bourdain and how he describes food then and what has this got to do with Christmas and brunch failures? Today is Sunday, the Sunday after Thursday's payday and after several changed plans with a few different friends, I decided to treat myself to brunch. Not just anywhere but in a pretty fancy, 'you might find me on a street in New York on a cold winter afternoon' kind of fancy, restaurant in Dublin city centre called Brasserie 66. Seeing as I have already given it away as a failure in the heading, I should probably explain why.

12.45, I look at the menu outside and the dark, yet glowing interior through the window. Eggs benedict, sourdough, coffee, bloody mary's. This seems like the real deal I've been looking for. I was craving a breakfast I didn't make for myself. Bitter, crispy, crusty and melting butter-laden sourdough, toasted but not unbearably crunchy. Poached eggs, cooked within seconds of molding their interior into orange chalk but instead silken, delicate and bright orange. Hollandaise that had a kick to it, well salted and heavy. Everything balanced on the plate with a seemingly carefree manner but had instead been articulated and executed with fine-balanced precision. Bacon that is crispy, salty and maple sweet, balancing the line between crackling and grease. Topped off with a creamy coffee. This is what I hoped for.

12.55, order taken. Coffee arrived five minutes later. I asked for a single shot since I'm a caffeine wuss. When it was shakily placed before me, I was told, "here's your weak coffee, madam". Two things I don't want to be told on my casual Sunday brunch. I'm 28 and don't like to be wired with caffeine. That doesn't make me or my coffee weak or suddenly make me 65 years old. I read my book and wait while a keyboard player in the corner (yes, I just wrote that-no joke) belts out Elton John's 'Tiny Dancer' and Paulo Nutini's 'Candy' among others. I start to have second thoughts.

13.05, the American girls to my left, who I'm guessing are Trinity students hungover from the night before, get their brioche French toast, even though they arrived ten minutes after I did. I let it slide. This is Sunday, after all.

13.15. It arrives. With chips. Nowhere on the menu did they mention chips. They're the stringy ones too, the Mc Donalds type, not the chunks of deep fried spuds you get at a great gastro pub. I question whether or not this is the adult version of Eddie Rockets as I stare at my little metal bucket sitting to the side of my eggs benedict. I'm confused. These are the type of tins I'd expect to find at Bubba Gump Shrimp or those holders for crayons you give to kids at Italian restaurants. Hungry, I just eat them anyway. They're lukewarm. As is the whole meal. One egg is cooked the way I dreamed, the other is under cooked in the inside and rubbery on the outside, thanks to the over-heated hollandaise sauce. The sauce itself has that rancid butter flavor that wouldn't have been noticeable had they bothered to season it properly. It's the taste you get from hollandaise that's old and/or overheated. I bit in anyway, only to chew into egg shell, just like the horrified child who's been swimming in the sea all day and is so hungry she devours her sandwich only to discover that it is sand-encrusted. I'm still really hungry so I continue, thinking that nothing worse could possible happen. That's when the microgreens tucked in between the toast and the egg and hollandaise slime happened. I adore sprouts and microgreens and love that they've been incorporated into so many dishes as a shining, hefty part of the dish. These were stringy, spindly sprouts tucked under the egg and left to sweat, the type you cut with a safety scissors for your kids when they learnt you can grow alfalfa in an egg cup with some cotton wool stuffed in. Watching the waiting staff alternate between running frantically, avoiding eye contact and chatting by the till, I decided to keep eating. Sending this back was going to be a waste of time.

13.30. Moving the empty plate to the edge of the table so I could finish my coffee in uninterrupted peace, I hadn't managed to place it on the table when they waitress who had dutifully ignored me up to now, swooped in like a shot and asked me if I wanted dessert or a coffee, swiping the plate out of my hands, as though I were a toddler who had picked up something she shouldn't have. The last mouth full of egg and hollandaise goop hadn't reached my stomach yet so I asked her to give me a moment. This was Sunday, the day to relax and not a mid week lunch right? I was allowed time to rest, wasn't I?

13.40. I couldn't take the keyboardist or the American college students' accents to my left any longer so I searched around the room for a waiter or waitress to make eye contact with so I could get the bill and get out of here. No joy. I walked to the till and waited. Eventually, a waitress arrived. No "how was your meal? Did you want anything else before you go? Can I give you a receipt? Have you started your Christmas shopping?". Nothing. Zip. Nada. The social interaction of a long lost Uncle who turns up unannounced for Christmas dinner.

Did I taste the hope and pride of the chef? No. Did I feel love for real food cooked with real love in a real setting? No. Did I relish the hour I gave to myself, treating myself to brunch rather than buying a loaf of bread and a half dozen eggs and making it at home? Absolutely not. There was no love in what was served and no magic in the way it was presented. I thought I was old fashioned, expecting too much until I read more of Bourdain's book. He gets disappointed but not with the culture, food, traditions, recipes or settings but more with himself and how he needs to challenge himself to be comparable to all these amazing, uplifting, inspiring and yet simple dishes he finds before him in each place he visits.

I will never go back to Brasserie 66 and pretend to myself that they'll get it right the second time, that the ambiance is as close to New York as I'll get. Instead, I'm going to keep writing, cooking, reading, photographing and tasting and hopefully, along the way, I'll find an eggs benedict worth writing about.

I'll be in a better mood later and looking forward to new recipes this week. I just need to allow myself this one day to feel sorry for my brunch failure and the pathetic micro-green hollandaise goop that it involved. If anyone has any great brunch recommendations, hit that comment button.


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