In the movie Big, Tom Hanks plays a young boy who is granted his fervent wish to be a grownup, treating the audience to scene after scene of a twentysomething man scouting out toy stores, engaging in food fights, and decorating his apartment with pinball tables and soda machines.
My favorite scene is the black-tie office party where Hanks's character follows an erudite colleague's example and eats Beluga caviar. Rather than savoring it, Hanks gags, spits out the stuff, then scrapes at his tongue with a napkin. When the embarrassed co-worker asks if he'd like a drink, he requests a milk shake.
I have a similar reaction to almost every "finer thing" I ever try. Lobster, escargots, frogs' legs, duck feet, pate -- sushi especially had me searching for the nearest restroom. (And yes, caviar, too.) But while Hanks's character blamed his misadventures on his own folly -- that irresponsible wish -- my bereft palate is due to one woman: Kim, my boss when I was sixteen and working in a gourmet cheese shop.
We sold specialty foods at a time when things like caviar and pate weren't readily available in the supermarkets of the newly yuppified New Jersey suburbs. Exacerbated by the fact that I was an extremely picky child who until puberty had subsisted almost entirely on SpaghettiOs and apple juice, my range of culinary experience was still somewhat limited. And so Kim insisted that my training for this lousy minimum-wage job would include the tasting of every single item in the store. All 47 of them, one after another.
For hours I stood behind the counter, dutifully sampling whatever the taste-bud molester handed out. "Saga blue, triple creme," she'd say as I cringed at the mold veining the rind-covered ooze. "Country pate," while I hurriedly quaffed a Diet Coke to counter the Alpo texture. "Caviar," for which I held my nose and swallowed, as if it were Robitussin, to avoid the fish-bait flavor. After a while, I realize now, my palate was so muddled that I would have eaten mud and believed it was chocolate mousse.
Like an abused child, I grew up to be an abuser myself. I love caviar and pate, and I require that everyone around me adore them too, no matter what the psychological cost. My husband suffers most in this regard. Though I'm fully aware, for instance, that he despises liver in any form, I'll sneak it into some dish and chuckle gleefully as he consumes it. Or I'll insist he finish up the sea cucumber casserole in the Chinese restaurant, allowing him to believe it's a gelatinous vegetable rather than a mollusk that looks like a giant slug. And when he gets out of line, I threaten to take him to the restaurant in Mexico City that sautes a wonderful appetizer of chapulines (crickets).
I might have been cruel this way forever were it not for a recent excursion to The Bistro in Coral Gables. I wanted to mistreat two friends of mine, Julian and Leigh, to a super dinner, so I took them to this creative French restaurant, owned by executive chef Hans Klein, chef Wolfgang Hauschild, and maitre d' Andre Barnier. The nineteen-year-old Ponce de Leon fixture just won a 1996 Five Diamond Award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences, and the American Tasting Institute named Klein to its Chefs 2000 list for the seventh year in a row. (Chefs 2000's goal is to gather all honorees together in Washington, D.C., to kick off the year 2000 with the proper culinary spirit.) I was counting on an excellent meal, which we got. I didn't expect the delicious opportunity that presented itself -- corruption of an innocent palate.
I've already participated in Julian's conversion from quasi vegetarian to raging carnivore (though for textural reasons he still refuses to eat chicken, which I conveniently forget from time to time when making him dinner), so he's not as much of a challenge any more. But Leigh -- well, as she says, "I'm just a hick from West Virginia." And at the Bistro, the devil in me was delighted to recognize a molestation opportunity.
Scanning the menu, Leigh confessed she had never tried escargots before.
"Really? What about caviar?" Nope. "Pate?" Not that, either. By the way, she asked, what are truffles? In my wine glass, I caught a reflection of the gleam that had come into my eye.
We quickly settled on several culinary adventures for Leigh: a baked bliss potato with caviar; duck and truffle soup Elysee; warm Brie with honey-almond crust. I looked forward to watching as she discreetly tried to dispose of mouthful after mouthful into her white linen napkin. Unfortunately for me, Leigh's willingness of spirit, and her smarts, proved to be my downfall. When the first dish was set in front of her -- a whole skinned potato gouged out like a canoe, filled with tiny black roe, and set adrift on a river of sour cream mousseline -- she lifted her fork, then turned to me. "Before I try it," she asked, "what's it taste like?"
I had no choice but to tell her. "It can be salty," I mumbled. Hardly were the words out of my mouth when she happily took a taste. And with only that little bit of prep, I was dismayed to see, she was enjoying it. I could see why -- the lightly whipped sour cream, sprinkled with chopped hard-boiled egg and capers, was a fine match for the pungent caviar and sweet, mild potato.
She reacted the same way to the duck and black truffle ("Like mushrooms," I conceded) soup. This crockful could have been intimidating, topped as it was by a baked, rounded pastry shell Leigh likened to a woman's breast. Underneath the croissantlike covering, a rich, steaming broth was stocked with tender wedges of duck, soft chunks of carrot, and sliced scallions. Meaty truffles and strips of pate floating on top were a bonus. Buoyed by the caviar success, Leigh dug right in. "I like it!" she announced.
The cheese starter was another culinary success for the kitchen/personal defeat for the evil me. The wedge of Brie coated in crushed almonds could have been a little warmer; most likely it was cooled a bit by the fruity pear chutney, thinned with honey, that topped it. Fresh cilantro gave the dish an herby bite, an outstanding match with the warm French rolls that had been served at the beginning of the meal.
Leigh's cautionary nature betrayed her when it came to selecting the main course: Faced with a choice between Long Island duckling with orange sauce and wild rice or roast duck with tamarind-chipotle glaze and mashed plantains, she went for the classic. This half-duckling had a crackling skin and great flavor, but it had been overbaked and was more stringy than I would have liked. The sauce, though, was expertly prepared, with sections of fresh oranges garnishing the bird. Buttered wild rice had a sprung quality to it, as if it had been cooked with too much water, while sauteed summer squash and zucchini were merely bland, boring.
The same sides, plus a good quantity of sliced roasted potatoes, accompanied a whole New Zealand rack of lamb. Touched with pungent Dijon mustard and a surprisingly delicate garlic-herb crust, the eight riblets were musky and juicy, cooked to pink-in-the-middle order. We accepted our waiter's offer of mint jelly, which he spooned onto the plate at the table; service in general was exquisitely polite, knowledgeable, and well paced.
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The Bistro's French-Continental menu features a number of world cuisine-influenced dishes, including chicken curry and vegetable risotto, veal scaloppine "Theresa" topped with shrimp, yellowtail snapper encrusted in yucca with roasted pepper-orange salsa, and Wiener schnitzel garnished with lemon and anchovy. Spicy pan-seared Buffalo shrimp was a takeoff on the tangy chicken wings of the same name: five jumbos dipped in flour and coated with a snappy hot-pepper sauce. A black bean cake centerpiece was a perfect foil, glistening with a creamy citrus-champagne butter and jeweled with a tomato-cilantro salsa.
Desserts aren't quite as exotic-sounding, and I think Leigh was secretly relieved when we decided on chocolate mousse cake, a wedge of flourless fudge layered with fluffy mousse and real whipped cream, whose only drawback (if you could call it that) was its extreme richness. And the fact that it brought on an epiphany of my own: Taste may be cultivated rather than born, but it has nothing to do with age. I've seen kids down foods that make grownups quake with revulsion, simply because someone influential in their little lives had taken the time to teach them not just what and how to eat, but why.
In my own case, all Kim would have had to do was prepare me with a brief description or two: "This cheese smells like vomit but it's actually pleasant and mild; that stuffed intestine tastes like breakfast sausage links." (A sip of wine between bites would have helped, too, but I was too young to know that at the time.) Imagine how Big might have turned out with dialogue like "Caviar is strong and salty, a little fishy. Cut it with hard-boiled egg and onion and wash it down with freezer-cold vodka. You'll like it better on the second bite." The overgrown twerp probably would have lost his virginity that much faster.
Baked bliss potato with caviar
Duck and truffle soup
Rack of lamb