1,001 Arabian bites: When it comes to food, you need to care
Restaurants are a little like walnuts. After you’ve bitten into a brownie and encountered a rancid walnut enough times, the bad taste it leaves behind will spread, backfiring into a Pavlovian recoil that taints the anticipation of chocolatey goodness with lingering off-notes of turpentine. With brownies, my strategy was to give up the way one might bury an old diary. And if I could take a bite out of a new restaurant, spit it out into a napkin, and then walk away, I’d eat out more often.
B to B Restaurant (Breakfast to Breakfast, as in open 24/7) is a Lebanese chain that used to have a branch on Salam Street in Abu Dhabi. When I worked across the street at the Food Authority, I ate lunch there almost every day. The Zorba saj, with hummus added, was a perfect sandwich. The bread was baked in-house, the vegetables were crisp and the hummus was beyond reproach. I can’t speak for the quality of the food at any other location, but when that one closed, I went into mourning.
Most restaurants, though, are exactly as good as they need to be, plus or minus a step in either direction. It’s why places with selling points such as 360-degree views, acrobatic waiting staff or tables with built-in karaoke machines have a reputation for serving forgettable, if not foul, food. We’ve all eaten at tourist traps that rely on one-time visits and don’t aim to attract regulars. But even small kids are taught to apply themselves and the incentive to care less and still profit can be motivation enough to stay in business.
Over the past year, a number of new eateries have popped up around me here in Santa Fe. Because I prefer quality to novelty, I’ve practically stopped going out. The final straw was a long-anticipated meat and cheese shop that finally opened after half a dozen false starts and multiple stabs at raising more opening funds via social media, resulting in a pathetic community-supported co-op that is consistently under-stocked and overstaffed, with a sad display of lukewarm imported cheeses, uniformly overpriced and coated in an opportunistic and unfortunate rash of blue fuzz.
Years ago, I picked up a good piece of advice in an obscure book about spirituality: be wary of schools that don’t produce any graduates. I thought of it a couple of months ago, when TIME interviewed Ferran Adria of El Bulli, which was considered the world’s best restaurant at the time of its closing. Adria was quick to make the distinction that El Bulli did not close, per se, but had merely “transformed” into a different project. A master of vigilance, Adria represents the trajectory of true commitment to a degree that would not interest too many other chefs I admire. But not every great Japanese noodle house needs a chef with a 50-year apprenticeship in ramen crafting under his belt, and not even a great meal requires a full-blown obsessive in the kitchen.
Some friends recently shared a story about a dinner party they attended, where the hosts spent the entire evening trying to enrol their guests in a pyramid scheme, then passed around six spoons and a single pint of freezer-burnt ice cream for dessert. Why bother? When you just don’t care, it shows. And care isn’t about expense, trouble, or a stamp that reads “made with love”. It’s really as simple as a giving a dang. So give one.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and lives in New Mexico
Updated: August 13, 2014 04:00 AM