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Published: Tuesday, 4/24/2012

Don't hate the haute

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

Don't go into a restaurant with many beautiful women in it, says economist Tyler Cowen. Those places attract a lot of men, and although they may be popular for a few months the quality inevitably will soon diminish.

Don't go into restaurants in city centers, Mr. Cowen says. Their rents are high, so they have to make money on a high volume of business, which leads to problems with food and service.

Don't go into restaurants where people are smiling, he says. That indicates they are there to socialize, and are not truly serious about food.

What these and other statements from the esteemed economist should teach us is that, in general, we shouldn't listen to what economists have to say about restaurants. They don't look at life the same way as you and I. And they certainly don't consider situations that do not fit into their preconceived theories.

For instance, what if you are yourself a beautiful woman? What if you are a beautiful woman who wants to dine out with a number of your beautiful friends? According to Mr. Cowen, you shouldn't go to whatever restaurant you happen to go to.

Ordinarily, the soulless rantings of an economist would not interest me, except when they appeared in the business pages. But Mr. Cowen has just written a book called An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, and it has the food world talking.

Here is the part that has me talking: His thesis that greasy little joints, dives, and colorful ethnic restaurants are, by necessity, better than the fanciest restaurants that drizzle cognac over foie gras.

Mr. Cowen is not the first person to formulate this theory, of course. Calvin Trillin memorably wrote that when he goes to a new town, he doesn't want to go to the restaurant where you'd take your parents, he wants to go to the one where you'd take your old army buddy. Mr. Cowen even cites Mr. Trillin's famous dislike of generic continental cuisine establishments that he referred to as La Maison de la Casa House.

And to some extent I agree. Whenever visitors come to town, we invariably take them to one of our fine Middle Eastern restaurants, or perhaps a great-food/lousy-ambience Chinese joint, rather than one of the higher priced, tonier spots. But that's just the first night. The second night, we often go to a spiffier continental restaurant.

What I'm trying to say is, don't hate the haute.

Fine dining isn't just fine, it's refined. It is the ever-evolving result of the best chefs working on their craft over a period of centuries. Their knowledge is collected in books, it is handed down from chef to chef, it is taught at institutes of learning devoted entirely to the study of the preparation of food.

The chefs often train for years, learning techniques that have been developed by the finest minds in food from around the world. They experiment, they share ideas, they try new things. They may make mistakes, they may have failures, but they learn from them and become better chefs for it. They spend their lives perfecting their art.

It is entirely possible that the best cook in the world is an old Italian grandmother working in a restaurant in a basement in Naples or somewhere, making a tomato sauce with an instinct that cannot be taught, using recipes that have been passed down from her grandmother or perhaps her grandmother's grandmother. Given the chance, I would go directly to her restaurant. I might never leave.

But it strikes me as the worst kind of reverse snobbery to suggest that your average curry house is always preferable to your average restaurant with white linen tablecloths. They are two different things. Both might do what they do exceptionally well, but one is the pinnacle of the art.

Sure, you may proudly display your kid's fingerpainting on the fridge. It may fill your soul with happiness every time you see it. But every once in a while, it's nice to look at a Picasso.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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