Gourmet is one of those words I’ve come to detest, in large part because it’s lost any genuine meaning. Well, these days it’s usually an excuse to charge more for an assembly-line product, but that’s about it. As an adjective to suggest quality, it rarely reflects excellence. As for its other definition, as a noun, we have glutton or pig.
So here I am thinking once more of the “wow factor” on our tongue and palate. It’s the surprise that accompanies an amazing first morsel or sip, when our reaction is “Oh! Wow!” in discovering the treasure before us. Often, it’s uttered before we’re fully conscious of doing so.
I know those who take the over-the-top approach here, adding and adding to a dish until it’s simply overwhelming. Or taking a drink to near-lethal alcohol levels for its whammy.
For us, the “wow factor” is more simply direct. It honors the ingredients and makes them shine. It knows there’s no substitute for freshness, and its techniques aim at enhancing that.
If you want to read more of this philosophy, Angelo Pellegrini’s writings, as my wife attests, lay it out delightfully. A generation before Julia Child, he began instructing fellow Americans on the ways of applying homegrown herbs and spices and appreciating the pleasures that follow. His lovely essays are about gardening as much as cooking, along with a few diversions like making your own wine or the joys of being a granddad.
I come back to this each year as our own garden kicks into gear. Forget any argument that gardening is cheaper – it’s not, even before you consider your own labor. It’s the taste that accompanies freshness – sometimes while the strawberry’s still warm from the sun or the lettuce was crisped earlier in the afternoon. Real tomatoes in contrast to the impostors at the grocery are another matter altogether. I’ll go ten months without the latter, if necessary.
We managed an overnight getaway to the Cape recently and decided to try the bakery-bistro combination across the highway. There are good reasons the line’s out the door in the morning. As for the evening, when we decided to stop for drinks and appetizers, we figured we could walk home rather than drive.
As I was saying about Wow? From start to finish. Let me warn you, it wasn’t cheap, not even by today’s average. But it was worth every penny – something I won’t say for any of the chains where I’ve eaten in the past few years. And what they’ve done to the former clam shack in the past six years is amazing – you’d never guess something this charming could come out of something that had been so decrepit.
I’ll try not to go into a restaurant review, but let me say I never imagined corn (fresh, local) could be pureed with (forget the cooking-school terms) the sweat from a baked salmon to produce a cold soup this heavenly. As for the oysters on the half-shell, the presentation was breath-taking – generous in the ice, accompanied by the in-house sauces – but the oysters themselves were fat and succulent, the way they are in November or December, fattened up for winter, rather than this time of year. Responding to that observation when chef/owner Philippe Rispoli stopped by our seats at the bar counter, we heard his pride in working with Richard Blakeley and paying top dollar for the best. I know this was Wellfleet, but I’ve had Maine oysters that have surpassed what I’ve had in other establishments in town – until now. As for their variant on Oysters Rockefeller, we go back to Wow.
We ordered wine by the glass – and our sauvignon blanc was priced reasonably, and the portions were generous. Perfect.
My wife, always a critic when it comes to food, declared her pate to be everything she’d hoped for, even before she got to the accompaniments and salad. The vinaigrette, as she noted, was amazing – whatever measurements he’d worked out, there’d be no changing this recipe.
Curiosity taking priority over any appearance of sophistication, we also ordered a side of pommes frites – or French fries, to most of us. They arrived in a glorious presentation with a red-and-white checkered napkin – and one bite once again went Wow. The chef asked how we liked them, grinned in response, told us he made them himself.
I should explain that we’ve decided fries are often a reliable test of a restaurant’s ability. Are they straight from a supplier’s frozen batch – or made from scratch, like these? Are the outsides hot and crusty and well seasoned, like these? Or limp and flavorless? Are the insides creamy and yummy, like these, or merely whatever?
The test also extends to a restaurant’s attention to its frying oil and batters – fried onion rings are another big litmus test here. Light and fresh? Old and heavy? As we say, “They do cooking oil well.”
OK, if you’re planning a trip to Cape Cod (I first typed that Cape Cook, make of it what you will), I won’t keep the place secret. Just click here.