Summer time and the eating is easy

Ghareeb nawaz As usual, I am spending the summer in Evanston. My children and grand-children live in Chicago and no amount of whinging about winter weather (which comes in three kinds—cold, freezing, and how the fuck does anybody live here) could convince them to leave for California. And now that California seems to be going down the drain perhaps that is a reasonable decision.

As usual, when I spend the summer in Chicago, I try to catch up on the restaurant scene. This is no easy task as new places spring up like poppies and many of them are very good. Some of the necessary work is done by a number of blogs. The best of these are Chowhound and LTH Forum. The cognoscenti recognize the letters as standing for Little Three Happiness—an ancient dim sum establishment on Cermak in Chinatown.

The bloggers on these sites are generally quite reliable unlike the Yelpers who are too often like the commenters on many blogs—full of ignorance and glad to display it.

So we generally arrive with some short-list of places we want to try and there is always the joy of returning to old favorites which gives rise, in turn, to conflicts about whether to go someplace old which we know will be good or hazard a new one with the possibility of disappointment.

While Chicago is known for its high-end gastronomical temples—Alinea being the best known example—many of the most pleasurable experiences are places that we refer to as “the dump” with context making clear whether it is the Chinese Dump (Sun Wah on Argyle) or the Pakistani Dump (Ghareeb Nawaz on Devon).

My rule of thumb for Chicago restaurants is Q=1/P (where Q = quality and P = price).

The second rule is that the exceptions to the above mostly end in vowels. These include Alinea, Tru, Charlie Trotter (well the first name ends in a vowel), and, most recently a fantastic new place L2O which I cannot decide is a French restaurant with Japanese overtones or a Japanese restaurant with French ones and is, in any case, a tribute to seafood.

The rule being as Aristotle said “for the most part” true raises the issue of why it should be true. Is it merely a brute fact or is there some explanation for it? I think there are at least two different kinds of explanation and they are of different types. One has to do with Chicagoand one has to do with economic and psychological matters.

The reason that the quality of relatively inexpensive restaurants is so high in Chicagois that this is a city of ethnic neighborhoods. Milwaukee Avenue is polish, Pilsen is Mexican, Devon is Indian, Taylor St is Italian, Argyle is Vietnamese, Chinatown is, yes, Chinese. And even if there is no Thai neighborhood there are hundreds of Thai restaurants some of which – Elephant, TAC, Sticky rice and Spoon—are among the best in the country. Almost all of the good ethnic places are mom and pop and children run.

These are restaurants that do not cater to tourists, that do not alter their food to match American tastes (as too many Thai places do by upping the sweetness to spice ratio.)

Many of them depend of their local community for support. A good example of this is the existence of a number of places that are frequented by almost exclusively by Pakistani taxi cab drivers.

As a result one is rewarded with food of very high quality. It is prepared with care. There is a sense of presentation—carved vegetables as a decoration perhaps. There is advice that should be taken—those two dishes have very similar spicing. There is authenticity. Why should “fine” dining be thought to begin at double-digit main courses?

But, it may be replied, cannot more money spent on rare ingredients, fresh fish from theTjeiki market in Tokyo, expensive equipment which allows for new textures and tastes, result in finer dining, better meals? Of course, but here I come to the second reason for my rule of thumb. This is a psychological claim.

The idea is that while price has no upper limit our ability to evaluate the goodness of our culinary experiences does. If we assume that a very good ethnic meal costs $14 (including tax and tip) than I can easily imagine a meal that is twice or three or four times as enjoyable. We do not have to assume that such a meal should cost only $56. Someone might be willing to pay, say, $100 for such a meal. (considered only from the perspective of the enjoyment of the food).

I am assuming here that willingness to pay is only from the perspective of gustatory pleasure. I might spend more on a meal for all kinds of reasons. Because it is a special occasion for my children. Because the setting is such a romantic one. Because I have always wanted to risk eating fugo. As a recent review of Citronelle (Washington DC) by Fearless Critic put it:

“What sort of meal can you expect for $200, $300, or even $400 a head?

To ask whether the food is worth that amount of money is to pose the wrong question. Because you’re also paying for the theater of it all. You’re paying for the temporary exit from the treadmill of reality. You’re paying for the luxury of interpreting Michel Richard’s clever, artistic platings; to debate the merits of the bizarre, color-changing neon wall, as if Citronelle were a Michelin three-star dressed up in a raver’s clothes for Halloween; to be in on the collective practical joke of the Good Life. You’re paying to allow the alpha norms that swirl through society to penetrate your own body, your own brain—if only for a night.”

Perhaps we are mistaken in thinking that we can make cardinal comparisons (x is twice as good as y). Perhaps we can only make ordinal ones ( x is better than y ). But unless money is as they say “no object” one has to decide whether it is “worth it.”

If x promises to be better than y, and y costs $15, is x worth $100? $150? $200?

So my rule of thumb is explained by the fact that in Chicago one can eat very well for very little plus the rather steep decline of marginal utility of an extra dollar for an increase of extra culinary pleasure.