Jeremy Eaton

A Hug: In Miami, No Less

Steve Cuozzo, restaurant critic for the New York Post, recently published his view on how to get back to the business of fine dining during these times of terror: "The mayor and the president urge us to get on with life. I'm ready to take the plunge. You come, too. And if in the middle of your pan-seared foie gras or free-range whatever, you need to cry, no one will think you odd."

I don't know. It's true that in Miami you could leak rainbow-colored tears from your ducts and no one would, well, blink an eye. But I dislike crying in public so much I won't go see a chick flick in a public theater. I was never more appalled at myself than when I broke down in the rest room at the Playwright, a pub in South Beach, so pathetically that a complete stranger putting on her mascara in the mirror started to cry too and offered me a hug. A hug. In Miami, no less.

Yet in the past couple of weeks, I've shed some brine in my Nova, eggs, and onions at Bagels & Company. I've watered down my kir royale at Norman's. I blinked back tears over lamb chops at Smith & Wollensky, and it wasn't because they were overdone.

I've stopped being ashamed that half a glass of champagne allows those not-so-far-from-the-surface emotions to rise. I understand the grief that grief is wreaking on my dining habits. But if this is patriotism, I'm finding it a bit salty for my tastes.

Apparently I'm not the only one looking at survivor guilt as anathematic as peanut butter and Fluffernutter, a combo you can only enjoy if you were raised by a mother who didn't know chopped chicken liver from foie gras, with tears or without. I can rationalize it all I want by claiming that what I am doing is boosting the economy, but the plain truth is that I am going on with my job and my life, and it's downright distasteful at times.

The restaurateurs around town are finding their roles hard to swallow as well. Many -- most -- have had to lay off employees. We've seen shortened hours, abbreviated menus, empty dining rooms. And if you've been where I've been, you might have noticed a restaurant critic sobbing in her vichyssoise.

But chefs like Norman Van Aken are still hosting parties, such as the Grande Dame luncheon that Veuve Clicquot threw there to honor women in the culinary field. (Veuve Clicquot has also donated a significant amount of money to relief efforts.) Smith & Wollensky is still celebrating its semiannual events, like the infamous Wine Week, where the vino flows as freely as coke used to back in the Eighties. As it always is in Miami, decadence is not just a high priority, it's a way of life. Damn if we're going to sit by sober and let a terrorist or twelve take it from us.

And believe it or not, the backlash from the attacks isn't all negative. At least not here it isn't. In Anaheim, California, the Islamic Halal Tandoori Pakistani and Indian Cuisine Restaurant was set on fire. An Afghan-American pizza parlor owner was attacked by three teenagers in Palo Alto, California. And in Edison, New Jersey, owners of the Afghan Grill have already had to change their name to the Asian Grill, a red herring that people just aren't buying. But for all the racial strife we've seen in Miami these past few years, I have yet to read a national news story featuring this city as the setting for an Arab hate crime of the culinary kind.

There are also some shallower, brighter sides. First and foremost among them? A nicer, kinder serving community: Waiters and bartenders can't afford to sneer at any possible tip, and hosts are too afraid of losing their jobs to be snotty up front. And you thought nothing could possibly reform Miami's notorious serving community. Shame on you.

Even more interesting is the answer to an ongoing question that the devastation has probably provided. For the past five years or so, food writers have been unable to predict the next gastronomic trend. We'd gone from regional to fusion to global cuisine. No foodstuff was left untried, no culture unplumbed. It was beginning to look as though we'd forever be stuck eating items such as flying fish roe bathed in a curry batter, deep-fried, and sprinkled onto focaccia with tapenade -- dishes so outlandish and ethnically bizarre that critics were left close-mouthed, which, I assure you, is an almost impossible feat to pull off.

Thanks to a newfound interest in hot dogs and apple pie, however, it seems we can -- and will -- go home again. To put it bluntly, we're going to have American food coming out of our corn-fed ears.

The only restaurants that didn't see business fall off, according to the Los Angeles Times, were the joints that Americans see as inherently ours: pizza parlors and fast-food burger chains. In times of strife, I guess, we turn to high calorics. Which is better by far than high colonics.

Locally some restaurants and hotels like the Delano are showcasing American cuisine on special party nights; a recent buffet there included "Old Glory Libations," carrot-raisin salad, jumbo hot dogs, burgers, ribs, and apple gobbler (sorry, make that cobbler). Smith & Wollensky just debuted an "American Dim Sum" brunch, a reinterpretation of the traditional Chinese feast with waiters rolling around carts that feature, instead of spring rolls and lotus-seed balls, items such as miniature beef Wellingtons and tartlets filled with scrambled eggs and bacon (not to mention bottomless bloody marys). Though dim sum creator and corporate executive chef David Burke tells me this idea had actually been in the works for six years, now seems an unduly good, if coincidental, time to unveil it.

In fact the Smith & Wollensky brunch-on-wheels, one of the more pleasant experiences I've had lately (until, of course, I started to cry, but hey, blame the unlimited champagne), appears to me the ideal way to combine a healthy rather than ethnocentric dose of Americana with culinary invention. In this week's editorial column, Nation's Restaurant News executive editor Ellen Koteff writes that when it comes to the dining industry, "September 11 marked a sea change the world over, particularly in the United States, where character is back in vogue and substance now surpasses style." The American dim sum brunch at Smith & Wollensky is a great example of how we actually don't have to abandon one for the other (style for substance) and how Miami -- which, according to Mayor Alex Penelas, is the city affected fifth in the nation financially by the tragedy -- could be the one to lead the way.

But until it actually happens, my advice is to stock up on the Oscar Meyer. Right now we need all the substance we can get.


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