How to Eat Outside of New York City (and Fail)
By Rasha Refaie
I’ve become a food snob. It’s New York City’s fault. Eighteen years ago you could have seen me eat a bowl of monochromatic cereal for dinner, or spoon lemon-flavored yogurt straight out of its plastic tub and call it a meal. Going out to dinner meant crossing the street to my friend’s apartment, where we’d move forkfuls of fried potatoes around on our plates with disinterest. My eating life sucked, and I had no idea. These memories make me shudder now.
Cut to 2016. Happiness means eating at restaurants a lot. It’s one of the things that make all of the annoyances of living in Manhattan bearable. I’m a regular at certain places. They know my likes and dislikes, that I will usually dine alone (thank you MFK Fisher) and that if they offer olives, I will want them. I always have a restaurant that my friends refer to as my “office.” For a while it was Jadis on the Lower East Side. Now it’s Incognito Bistro. I love their Brussels sprouts.
On a recent trip out of town (to a lovely little hamlet that will remain unnamed) I had to figure out how to eat without New York. I had to leave my office! And sadly, not all restaurant scenes are created equal.
It did not go well. I only ate half of the burger I ordered in a place that styled itself Mediterranean fusion, because the chipotle sauce dominated the visual presentation (fluorescent orange goo everywhere) and the flavor as well. The only thing on my palate was a coating of fattiness. Give me a piece of raw onion or a leaf of lettuce to cut through that, please. But no. And the fries were julienne and therefore too frail to stand up to all the oiliness in the flavor.
At another restaurant I couldn’t finish a bowl of black bean soup because the chunks of sausage looked so processed and industrialized; it was like they were little painted cubes of Styrofoam floating around in what was probably a canned bean soup anyway. Meanwhile a colleague and friend confessed she could taste canned tomato paste in the pasta sauce at the “good” Italian restaurant there. She’s from New York too.
That’s when I realized: I’m not just a food snob, I have crossed the line and am now a full-fledged food bitch. Good luck pleasing me, people. You thought Gordon Ramsay was tough.
But my last meal there was a beautiful lunch of tasting plates. Mesmerizing salted cod fishcake, a restrained, dignified hummus, some “it” vegetable – cauliflower – with a delicate wreath of shaved pecorino on its head. The curry chickpeas with lamb and tzatziki were so stacked with flavors next to that cinnamon-y Pinot Noir it was like a geological excavation -- you could taste the layers, like when the Cretaceous Period ends and the Paleogenic begins.
It was fulfilling to have great food expectations met at least once. Still, I never get over how inferior eating can be outside New York. I couldn’t wait to get back to the office.
Published January 21st, 2016
Rasha Refaie has written for The Normal School Magazine, Newsday, New York Press, and others. She lives in the East Village.