Fond Affections

Love her or hate her, the RFT's most talked-about food reviewer is back

May 15, 2002 at 4:00 am
Unquestionably the avocado is the most voluptuous of fruits. That it is no longer fashionable points to grave faults in the underpinnings of modern society. It is perhaps too subtle, too independent, too eccentric, too green a food for our reactionary new millennium, where you either eat gummy rice in the shape of something called a wrap or you're a terrorist.

The avocado shot its wad in the final decades of the last century, when no suburban kitchen was without an avocado-green fondue pot, when lunch menus sagged under the weight of the meretricious crab-salad-stuffed avocado or when Angie Dickinson, the avocado's erstwhile spokesbabe, held up her forkful and purred "Only 19 calories a slice" in TV commercials aired during The A-Team. These days, avocado-green appliances are tolerated only by ironic youth who didn't have to live through them the first time. The monotonous chicken Caesar has replaced crab-and-avocado salad, and Dickinson, who was 30 when JFK took office, is no longer considered succulent enough to shill for the fruit industry.

I mourn the decline of the Avocado Age, but it is still possible to score if you are diligent or if you find guacamole agreeable. Some of you may already be acquainted with my views on guacamole (that it is Mexico's single greatest contribution to Western civilization) or, more precisely, with my contention that the best in town may be had at Nachomama's. Deconstructionists argue that facts are never true, but no such petulant philosophizing will prevent me from stating as fact that Nachomama's -- that sliver of suburban Austin Tex-Mex in downtown Rock Hill -- continues to turn out a heck of a specimen.

Musing idly on the virtues of guacamole in Rock Hill leads me to fond reminiscences of other dishes I've loved since you and I last crossed paths. Not all of them involve avocados. I have, for instance, developed an exceeding weakness for two of the offerings at Zoë Pan Asian (three, if you count their Suzy Wong cocktail, which, though not a foodstuff in the strictest sense, does at least come with a watermelon garnish). Zoë, where the interplay between its chic interior and its gorgeous serving staff of supermodels makes you feel as if you've wandered into photo shoot for In Style, has always been an entertaining dinner destination, the sort of place food writers are always describing as "tony." The glad tidings are that in the past year or two they've really gotten their duck sauce on; the food is consistently agreeable and, in many cases, outstanding.

My current favorites are dishes belonging to what I call the Lacquer School, meaning they are treated with sweet glazes that glisten in the glow of the paper lanterns. The first is an à la carte plate of fried green beans, tossed in hoisin sauce and garnished with peanuts. I have never seen anyone eat one of these beans without effusing some sort of love poetry. They are sweet and sticky, and they go with everything on the menu, and they are easy to eat with chopsticks. The second is an appetizer of barbecued spare ribs, served on a bed of young spinach and topped with a tangle of shredded raw beet (which is impossible to eat without looking stupid). These are also sweet and sticky and go with everything on the menu, but they are not so easy to eat with chopsticks. You will use your fingers, but the consequences of this are not dire, even if you are wearing white linen; your supermodel server will have brought you damp towels scented with lemon to dispose of unseemly schmutz.

But I digress; we're not quite done with avocados, for I would be remiss if I failed to advocate the avocado salad at Frazer's Traveling Brown Bag. This is the cockamamie Waldorf salad of the Bizarro World: toasted pecans and avocado replace the walnuts and apples of the dowdy original, and the traditional mayonnaise becomes a light vinaigrette scented with cumin. This combination of celestial indulgences would probably kill you if it weren't for the homeliness of the celery. The portion is large enough for your buddy to split it with you, although your buddy may protest.

Brown Bag owner Frazer Cameron was also responsible for the salad course of the most fantastic dinner I've had in recent memory: Local music producer/artiste Chris Deckard teamed with caterer Tara Lansangan to produce an event called In Spite of Sustenance. This extraordinary performance piece created an experimental restaurant at the Forum for Contemporary Art a couple of weeks ago. If they ever do this again, my advice is go, go, go. The setup was this: Five eminent St. Louis chefs each created a gorgeous dish; these dishes were then set to music by Deckard's guerrilla art-rock pals. A quintet of designated diners (myself among them, by some fantastic twist of fortune), seated Last Supper-style at the end of the gallery, were fêted with a lavish five-course/five-song dinner while the onlookers munched samples. All excellent. Cameron's fanciful poached pear in phyllo with Belgian endive and blue cheese was a knockout. So, too, was an otherworldly lobster bisque with lemongrass and coconut milk by the Wild Flower's Jamie Tochtrop.

The unbridled success of said bisque suggests a contemplative moment devoted to the subject of soup. Life without soup? Not bloody likely. A primeval dish that began its bright career as a humble-visaged liquid into which were tossed a few bread sops, it has evolved, in the best cases, to represent the pinnacle of a chef's expertise. To make a soup, one strips its ingredients of all pretense and connotation, literally boiling them down to their essence, with flavor in its purest, most cogent form the happy result. A palate that has been caressed by a decent soup is infinitely more forgiving of whatever indelicacies might plague the next course, a circumstance with which more restaurateurs would do well to acquaint themselves. The effects of even the simplest soup are both palliative and restorative.

So it was with my first bowl of vegetarian osh at Kabob International (a lunch-only outpost on South Grand Boulevard operated by the same family that runs the University City Loop's wonderful Café Natasha). I encountered this earthily seasoned lentil-and-grain soup by fortunate accident, having sauntered in one brilliant afternoon, my falafel jones acute, at one of those rare moments when falafel was expected to take a little longer than usual. In an act of uncommon decency (although the falafel delay would turn out to be only a few minutes), proprietor Hamishe Bahrami, obviously no stranger to the mitigating qualities of a good soup, presented me with a bowl to tide me over. I have been a tireless booster of the stuff ever since and endeavor to eat it at least once a week. Its rustic charms are a gratifying preamble to Kabob International's Salad Delight Platter, a sort of Persian-American chef's salad (the falafel-and-feta version is particularly recommended) with homemade yogurt dressing. "We won't offer anything unless it is wonderful," states the menu, and I am inclined to believe it.

Let us now consider Tony's, and a cream-of-wild-mushroom soup that I had the unmitigated pleasure to eat there a few weeks ago. Twice a year I schlep over to the House of Bommarito, whether I need it or not, and I advise you to do the same. If you haven't been in a while, sell off a few pieces of the family silver and book a table immediately. If you've never been before, forget what your hoosier coworkers have told you about its being stuffy, fussy or overbearing; these adjectives may or may not have described our city's only Mobil five-star restaurant once upon a time, but nowadays the place is merely impeccably, immaculately elegant. The mushroom soup to which I allude is quite possibly the most extraordinary food I've ever pushed into the Posey-Smith face (causing me to all but forget last year's flukish Sandy Mussel Incident). There may exist a language that encompasses words suitable for a proper paean to this epicurean triumph, but I am not familiar with it; I can only lamely recount that with my first sip of this soup, I could but chant thanksgivings for my deliverance. Ladled tableside from a tureen with unerring precision by a perfect assistant waiter, it had the aspect of beauty bordering on the immoral. That a foodstuff that started out life as a lowly fungus could be elevated to so sublime a state is proof of that of all the crafts, cooking most closely approaches the divine.

This is not to say that a similar pleasure cannot be had by slicing a ripe avocado in half and eating it with a spoon in your own kitchen.