What do I want from a restaurant?

Last night’s dinner at Stella Sola is not easy to write about. Why? Not because the food wasn’t good. It was. A mouthful of a nutty buttery squash ravioli soothed nearly every primal fat and flavor sensor I had. The scallops were huge, moist, and brilliantly topped with greens. OK, the food wasn’t perfect. The tortellini alongside the grouper had dried out and tasted raw, and I don’t mean al dente. The espresso was served in a regular coffee cup, with irregular portions, so we both had too much, and it was cold, lacking in crema. We should have ordered some starchy sides like polenta to buffer all that fat, so I wouldn’t have felt vaguely ill after eating the too rich food. Where do people eat like this? Certainly not in Tuscany where we’ve spent many summers chasing wasps with Rita and Stefano, and eating in the simplest places. And maybe that leads to the problem I have with restaurants.

One thing I want from a restaurant is a window into other people’s lives and culture. If we’d gone with our other option for the night, Gorditas Aguascalientes, we would probably have had that. I like seeing the mix of people like us, peeking in the window, and others eating nostalgically from their homeland, or perhaps simply eating the way they feel most satisfied. And I love eating food from places I used to live, like Mexico. I love the relaxed mix of cultures that is Houston. I liked the Ethiopian restaurant we ate at years ago, partly because I love Injera and the collard greens on top, but also because as we ate we watched the empty restaurant slowly fill with men who had come to be with their friends and watch Hakeem play for the Rockets. We were not invited to this mostly private party, but in restaurants we get to go.

But of course if I just wanted to spy on people from other countries, there are lots of other places I could do that for free, like the Galleria. A meal out is about the food, and about being with friends in a space where it is OK to eat and talk, and mentally put aside those papers that need writing, classes that need preparing, and emails that need answering. So, the meal should not be hard to order. It should come in some sort of balanced way. If I order dessert, I shouldn’t have to specify that I also want the cake under the frosting of the cupcake. At a fancy restaurant, I so often feel I’m getting the frosting and not the cake. And we all know what eating only the frosting will do. This takes me back to Tuscan food. I’ve stayed with my friend Rita Cervo in Bagno a Ripoli, just outside of Florence a number of times, and watched her cook, and seen how she feeds her family. If a Tuscan restaurant served what Rita cooks every day, I would run to it.

What is so special about Rita’s cooking? Balance. Great ingredients. A simple base. A series of courses. That base is bread, unsalted, unbuttered Tuscan bread, made by law, I think, of only flour, yeast, and water. The salt got left out, they say, because of a tax on it, undoubtedly centuries ago. It’s white bread, folks, and it goes stale quickly, so they have lots of recipes to use old bread, like panzanella and pappa al pomodoro.  Rita’s cooking deserves many entries, but for now, I’ll leave it at that base. If we had a quarter the frosting of the Stella Sola meal, and more truly plain bread, maybe there would have been a better balance.

Why am I so hard to please? Well, I’m not, really, but when it comes to food, I think it is because I’m happy to cook. I love cooking, love having people over, and feeding them, or cooking together. If I want to explore, I would usually rather do it with a new recipe or a new approach to food than with a restaurant. Some of the best times with our friends Judy and David, who enjoyed Stella Sola with us, were after Hurricane Ike. We had power and their side of the street didn’t, so we cooked and ate together at our house. Fun, relaxing, simple meals, just glorying in the simple fact that we could cook what wanted cooking, and cool what was best cold. And no one had to drive afterwards.

But it is our last year in Houston, and I want to see what’s out there. I guess I should stick to the taco trucks and such when we’re not cooking at home.

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They cure their own meats.

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The scallops were huge!

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Judy’s meat was cooked in a vacuum.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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