Friday, January 16, 2004

The Hip-O-Meter
Upscale Ethnic

You know what's even more contentious on foodie forums than the secret menu dilemma, the upscale ethnic eatery answer. At one extreme, you have people who only want to experience ethic eating as a "concept," in a well-traveled neighborhood, with decor and adequate service and a decent drink card. At the other end, are people who are only happy with, well the opposite. The closer they get to zero on the hip-o-meter, the better for them. I suppose people exist in both of these camps, but all the eaters I know roam somewhere in the middle (to varying extremes). Still, this remains the most vexing of issues.

It starts with semantics or a working definition of what a nice restaurant means. I look at it as three ends of a triangle, with the triangle defined as fine dining. One point stands at what I would call the ethnic-ethnic upscale. These are places conceived for an ethnic community as their source for better dining. Some of these places serve an executive eaters market, others a source for celebrations or date night. Oddly, these places while quite authentic, often serve food considered "dumbed down." For instance, the stellar example of Korean fancy-schmancy, where Korean businessmen congreagate, Woo Lae Oak, has only teflon coated gas grills for the meat. Let us not stink up our suits with burning coals. Another aspect of this form of ethnic upscale is a group's slight disdain for their own food. Restaurants catering to European immigrants often replace their native foods with classic "continental specialties" like beef stroganoff. Like hot dog buns with dim sum, and Japanese spaghetti sauce, we get the authentic-inauthentic. Thus, one point, upscale as the ethic group perceives upscale.

The second point would be its opposite. Upscale as the American diner perceives upscale, or maybe said better, upscale as perceived that the American diner perceives. Several ideas drive this school (and these ideas are exactly what drives away serious eaters). First, is the idea that Americans do not want to stretch too deep into the repertoire. That they will eat grilled thin beef, but not slightly thicker grilled short ribs. That too much fish sauce, shrimp paste and chile peppers will make them run for cover. Second, there is the idea that Americans want their food in courses, that Americans only expect to eat this way. This modification does not harm the food the same way, but it does upset the pattern and effect of many cuisine's. Many Asian meals are about a balance of flavors across several plates of food. When you divorce the, eat at one time/share all plates, you distort the whole experience. The food will not taste as good because it will not be balanced. Third and fourth are the areas where these places really get into trouble. Third, is the idea that Americans expect certain familiar dishes, best exemplified by the Chinese war horse, beef with broccoli. Here is a dish that is always better than chop suey, but in its common productions never matches a "real" version. Related to this are magical versions of unknown food, lamb vindaloo, Hunnan anything. Places like PF Changs and Ben Pao contain menu's filled with these classic dishes that should never had been made classic in the first place. Finally, there is the idea that the trained and skilled chef can improve on, add to, modernize and otherwise enhance the ethnic eating experience. Yes, certain traditional methods of cooking are hidebound, too unhealthy and otherwise susceptible to change, but generally who has a better idea of how to cook a cuisine, the chef or the culture. Don't answer because the preponderance of modern restaurants might not agree with you. Still, even as we disdain this point, we appreciate parts of it. Parts called comfort. Comfort can add to a meal. This point is not totally worthless.

There is one last way to conceive upscale ethnic cuisine, royal or imperial cuisine. This point on the triangle looks not just to fancier surroundings and finer cooking but to a range of ingredients and preparations associated with the Emperor or the Muraja or such. On one hand, not many people are clamoring to eat roast peacock these days, on the other hand, smart people are seeing imperial food as an antidote to the conundrum. The problem, at least in Chicago, is finding honest examples of this cooking. Arun's the so-expensive Thai place on the NW side claims royalty, but discussions of their menu never seem to back this up. A place just opened up in Chinatown, Dragon King, that purports to offer the food of God on earth. Several chowhounds have signed up for a try. It will be interesting to see what happens. So, it is hard to say much about this point because it remains untried.

We cannot forget that with upscale ethnic dining, there exists, I believe a shadow triangle. At least a shadow world that influences and affects these places, and that truly limits or enhances fine dining a la ethnic. I think the biggest issue out there is that our money is being misspent. We do want better quality ethnic food, or we would also enjoy ethnic food in a better setting. Instead of paying for chef's recreations and over-the-top decor, why not apply the funds toward organic produce and fresher fish. I declared how I would pay more money for Thai food here. I think the same idea holds for Mexican, Chinese, etc. Let's see if we can raise the bar on the hip-o-meter.

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