Monday, July 17, 2017

Maybe Brooks' lunch date was just a horrified food critic

I have to confess that I've tended to be overly dismissive of Besha Rodell.  By replacing the irreplaceable Jonathan Gold,  she immediately became the Roger Moore of restaurant critics. To make matters worse, (depending on your feeling toward Henry Rollins) Gold had frequently been the only good thing about the Village Voice owned LA Weekly.

I need to reevaluate my opinion on Rodell. This review beautifully lays out the fundamental rottenness of conspicuous consumption dining and nicely rebuts the infamous David Brooks column that came out a day later.

There's an odd, pervasive myth about the way Americans eat that at its most basic goes like this: The privileged among us eat well, while the poor eat poorly. It's an assumption that's deployed frequently when discussing food deserts, obesity, nutrition and other issues of food insecurity and hunger. But it also smacks of classism and ignores the fact that most Americans, regardless of financial status, eat poorly. In fact, I'd say that if we are going to generalize, it would be more accurate to say that the very wealthy in this country have some of the worst taste when it comes to food.

What other explanation accounts for the mostly terrible (yet very expensive) restaurants in Malibu, a city with one of the highest median household incomes in L.A. County? The dumbed-down selections on so many Beverly Hills wine lists? Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, many very good (and also very expensive) restaurants survive thanks to customers with both the money and taste to patronize them. But my guess is that if you surveyed the dining-out proclivities of the 1 percent, you'd find mostly crappy chardonnay, too-sweet cocktails, safe but expensive steakhouse fare and terrible pan-Asian food.


Perhaps it's unfair to pick on Tao. The food isn't that much worse than what's available at any number of popular chain restaurants, from the higher end through fast food (though I would much rather eat the orange chicken at P.F. Chang's or Panda Express than the orange chicken at Tao). But I wanted to try to understand this very popular thing — surely there's something to learn from Tao's massive success. We in the food world live in our food-world bubble; we tie ourselves in knots talking about the peril of cultural appropriation in Portland food trucks while the highest-grossing restaurant in America blithely offers bottle service under a giant, reclining Buddha statue as paintings of demure geishas cast their eyes alluringly downward behind the bar.

I have stepped out of my bubble long enough to appraise Tao and to declare it bad in almost every way, and now I'll go back to my comfort zone of real Asian food (whatever that means) and Californian small plates, thanks very much. I set out to understand Tao's allure, to find the fun in Hollywood's gaudiest glam, and have found myself only more bewildered — and more aware of the cultural schisms that separate us.

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