Sunday, August 19, 2018

Nudel Restaurant, in Lenox

I recently made my latest foray to Planet Tasting Menu, yanking fistfuls of twenties from my wallet in order to be showered with shiny, painstaking, highly-acclaimed wonderment. Because that is how food-lovers in this new millennium do. This time: Nudel Restaurant, in Lenox, MA. As usual, I found I'd up-paid for flawlessness. Everything done right, nothing done wrong, everything on point. But, not to get all Peggy Lee on you, is that all there is?
The difference between an elite figure skater and an ordinary one is that the elite one messes up less. There's no greater joy or beauty or shakti with the latter. The greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts halo that's the only thing that interests me in this life is not a parameter, and is therefore seldom pursued.
My meal at Nudel didn't budge my needle. I was neither moved nor inspired. No deep feelings or thoughts. I merely ate approvingly. And this raises a deeply fascinating question that is only infrequently asked: why would anyone be dissatisfied with perfection?

I've been working on a book about a pivotal change society has recently made without noticing. The notion that food (or other creative output) can be soulful, inspiring, and able to impart a profound shift in mood, thought, and perspective is rather new. Prior to a few decades ago, either the crêpe suzette were correct or they weren't. Only a daft person would wait on line for particularly great ones, or use terms like "life-changing". They're either proper crêpe suzette, or they're a misfire.

This, by the way, explains an oddity. A few of my favorite grandmotherly immigrant chefs along the way have made the error of supposing my admiration was for something, ahem, beyond their toothsome tacos and gyoza. It took me a while to fully understand the thought process. To, for example, a Mexican, a taco is a taco is a taco. If this gringo is so breathlessly exhilarated over mine, he means to flatter me personally. He's courting me. The other frequent reaction: dude's never had a real taco before. Yes, gringo, yes; tacos are fine things. Simmer down and enjoy.

Chefs who transcend often don't realize it. They're not trying to transcend; they're investing 100% of attention into the thing they do. When you lose yourself in your work, magic happens, and it's a blessed tragedy that magicians rarely perform the stock-taking necessary to recognize their own magic (tragic because they never realize their accomplishment, and blessed because such self-awareness would most likely fuck everything up. As I once wrote, "There's no surer way to dry one's flow, to kill the golden-egg-laying goose, than to take one's temperature; to live in one's own contrails; to sniff one's own farts." But, to close out this digression-within-a-digression, my point is that much of the world to this day assumes a dish is either correct or else it's not. My shtick - my entire career - would seem batshit inane to many people, and to virtually all prior to 1970 or so.
The notion that flawlessness could be insufficient is both absurdly illogical yet also increasingly accepted. Even non-aesthetes are starting to agree that it's not enough to play a concerto without errors - with correct intonation and tempo and sound. To be great, the player needs to make us feel something, and that special transmission - above/beyond mere correctness - can't be measured or explained. Also: who'd deny that perfect beauty can be boring? It doesn't mean one's eyebrows ought to be poorly trimmed or one's features anxiously pursed. It's not as easy as "flaws are good". You can't just add back in some muck (when trumpeter Wynton Marsalis wants to sound "soulful", he misses notes on purpose. I want to strangle him when he does this).

There's a separate mysterious parameter, beyond reckoning, that makes something better than flawless. It's the sum-being-more-than-the-parts thing. It's the thing-missing-from-figure-skating-competitions thing. It's the reason I'm not flirting when I swoon over your chalupas, señorita. This extra value derives not from super-extra-correct correctness nor from calculated imperfection. It's an entirely other thing. And if we could pin it down and wield it at will, we'd be living in a very different world.

Julie Andrews has a very fine singing voice. There are no faults at all that one can point to. But I'd rather hear late-stage Billie Holiday croak her way through four bars than listen to Andrews chirp all night. Call it subjective preference if you'd like, but it's hard to imagine even a dedicated Andrews fans, if there is such a thing, reporting being struck in the depths of their soul by her tuneful stylings, as many people describe Holiday's effect. (I hate to rank on JA. I met her once, she's incredibly nice, her work is wonderful, and she's a bona fide world treasure. But she's nowhere near the poetic, artistic level of a Billie Holiday, and I'd bet she herself would acknowledge it.)

So, yeah, the cooking at Nudel was Julie Andrews. No subtext, just an impressive display of highly controlled, meticulous skill. The skater never once fell. And while that's fine and worthy, it can rate no better than an "8" on my surprisingly non-ditzy system of rating cooking and other things.

But when I call it impressively skillful, I mean it. The radishes and carrots in the first dish tasted, naturally, like radishes and carrots, yet also faithfully carried the essence of the whole; a unity achieved from microcosmic disparates, neither overbearing nor underwhelming. A neat accomplishment. But I don't have much to say about this meal because everything was as described. This is the culinary equivalent of representational art, and you don't need to be told that a chair is a chair and a bird's a bird.

Poached Skate Wing with carrots, Swiss chard, whey, and black olives

Orcchiette with leek cream, corn, chilies, basil, and Grana Padana

Confit of Lamb Neck with curry, couscous, chickpeas, hot pepper, and yogurt

I did appreciate that even though I'd told them they could bring the dishes in any order - and the tiny kitchen imposes logistical hurdles making it much easier to produce the same dish for multiple customers at once - they actually brought my three plates in the optimal order (i.e. as shown).

Here's the menu, FYI. Click to expand (do so for the above photos, too, for full effect):

I was quite full, yet I experienced an overpowering urge for cookies. That frequently occurs after such meals. It's not a craving for sugar, or even for grounding or comfort. It's that I have a certain minimum daily requirement for some edible manifestation of love. (You happily oblige the gluten crazies, right? Well, what about my needs!).

See this follow-up

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