The food here is very, very good," was the authoritative pronouncement of a middle-aged white guy to an acquaintance passing by his table. Sausaged into a pair of gym shorts, he was lustily laying waste to a huge plate of "Asian" food; the acquaintance was soliciting him for advice on menu selections. His silent female appendage gazed uneasily at her shoes.
This scene unfolded last week at the Central West End's newly upscaled Asian Grille (formerly the Magic Wok, it retains the same management) and is emblematic of at least seventeen things wrong with Midwestern culture. But don't panic; for this discussion I will confine myself to just one: the erosion of taste.
As it relates to gastronomy, my hypothesis is that consumers in a landlocked fast-food universe tend to identify as a notable culinary achievement anything that doesn't resemble a Whopper. The fast-food industry itself knows this; Subway is running an exceptionally vile commercial wherein a spiteful pitchman -- portrayed as a sort of junk-food arbiter elegantiarum -- wants to "make the burger guy cry" for his inability to produce anything so groundbreakingly delectable as a "Dijon horseradish melt."
Whether or not you blame it on fast food, our culture is afflicted with a troubling capacity to confuse adequacy (and Dijon) with excellence. There can be no other explanation for the ubiquity of caesar salad without anchovies. But just because you keep your entrée down doesn't mean it's haute cuisine. That anybody, even a guy who wears gym shorts to dinner, should taste Asian Grille's truly unremarkable cooking and formulate the astonishing opinion that "the food here is very, very good" can only mean one thing: We are in the clutches of a conspiracy of mediocrity.
It may well have begun in Chaucerian England, but for our generation the critical point came when our mothers started adding Lipton onion-soup mix to the meatloaf. Prepackaged mediocrity has been infiltrating our precious bodily fluids ever since. Gradually the collective memory of the taste of decent cooking has slipped into the mist. Erosion of taste is the reason you can't get a decent peach anymore. It's why Asian Grille can append its name with a silly, superfluous "e"; can caricature the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and France and repackage them, according to an American culinary cliché, as a mythical ethnicity known as "Asian."
But first, a word about gym shorts. What's up with the straight white guys? Everyone else must still cram the booty into fabulous raiment before leaving the house for so much as a pack of fags, but the dress code for the straight white guy is on a steady decline. Neckties have become emblems of pathos, to be tolerated only on bridegrooms, female waiters and the recently deceased. And there's no stemming the tide of med-school flotsam that washes up daily in the pubs and bistros of the CWE, where the spectacle of so many gnarly scrubs inspires unappetizing thoughts of postoperative infections. And don't even get me started on Birkenstocks. Refinement is out. Schlubbery is in.
So be it; we Posey-Smiths are no champions of blind orthodoxy. Still, there are limits, and I'm drawing the line at old guys' dining in gym shorts. So should any decent restaurant. We're talking about a garment that might as well be underwear. But perhaps Asian Grille, which doesn't seem to mind that their own serving staff wears stained shirts and crusty aprons, has other, less sartorial priorities. If so, those priorities don't appear to involve food. The gym short guy's tawdry display of flaccid, hairy pinkness was nearly as tasteless as Asian Grille's tilapia with lemongrass.
Ah, tilapia. An inconsiderable species of fish to begin with, our fillet was steamed in parchment until mushy. A tangle of soy-drenched udon noodles did not succeed in wresting it from the grip of the commonplace. I suppose it was edible enough by today's limp standards, but, like most everything we tried at Asian Grille, it failed to inspire much in the way of elegiac verse. The real story here is the plating. This was among the most garish plates of food I have ever beheld. An impressive riot of garnishes crowded every millimeter of surface area and included a pair of labor-intensive vegetable rolls and a snail carved from a lime. It looked like the Jungle Room at Graceland.
Though the tilapia took first prize, it was by no means the only dish entailing epic levels of hilarious garnishing (more than once I heard myself say, "Are you gonna eat that maraschino cherry?"). Not surprisingly, the least gaudy offerings were the most appetizing. From the sushi bar came a California roll and a salmon-skin roll; served with the traditional shtikls of wasabi and pickled ginger, they benefited from restraint and clocked in a notch or two above the grocery-store variety. Ditto an order of Vietnamese spring rolls, which were indistinguishable from those you'd find anywhere on South Grand.
Likewise the soups: We tried the hot-and-sour and the wonton and found both to be palatable, though generic, examples of their species. The first earned extra credit for the plucky addition of chopped chile, which replaced the black pepper often found in the dish. It all went sideways from there. Three first courses registered lethargic results on the yum-o-meter. A salad of fried green beans and mushrooms, topped with a puck of breaded chevre, had potential, but the beans were too oily and the mushrooms too vinegary (and, in one case, so woody I nearly broke a tooth). The posse and I shrugged sadly at an order of vegetable potstickers; the dumplings' cabbagey filling was edible, but the dense, gummy wrappers were not. And the firecracker shrimp roll, a sort of deep-fried crustacean-in-a-blanket served with a syrupy fluorescent-red dipping sauce, suffered from a bitter, greasy aftertaste.
Undaunted, we selected from the "tableside cooking" menu a peppered beef tenderloin. Having expected to witness some sort of combustive display, our hopes fizzled when "tableside cooking" turned out to be a perfunctory presentation on a sizzling platter, whereupon the steak was duly shifted to a plate and doused with a sauce tasting suspiciously like Heinz 57. A depressing anticlimax, particularly because the meat was otherwise memorable only insofar as it was dry, gray and stringy. In stark contrast was a teriyaki tenderloin, which was served bloody-rare. In neither instance were we consulted about our doneness preferences, an oversight that can have only untoward consequences.
The least offensive entrée was that pseudo-Szechuan/Hunan staple of "chef's specialties" menus from coast-to-coast, General Tso's chicken. It's hard not to appreciate an order of the General; sweet, spicy, battered and deep-fried, it represents a pinnacle in the evolution of junk food. But identical versions are available for carryout from a hundred Chinese restaurants, nearly all for less than the $11 this one set us back.
Of course, most of those places don't have the same overhead. Asian Grille occupies primo people-watching real estate at Euclid and Maryland, and the garnish man alone must cost a fortune. One Friday night we were given a complimentary wine-tasting and were deafened (why has dining out become so loud?) by Ptah Williams' combo throwing down a few yards from our table.
Yet the spirit aches.
The tragedy of Asian Grille's tourist-trap approach is that substance has been sacrificed to style. Beneath the surface layer of kitschy presentation, the experience has all the character of a glazed doughnut. Upon closer inspection, even the lime-snail was dried out and brown around the edges. But perhaps this is to be expected in a culture where Provel is mistaken for cheese, gym shorts are mistaken for clothing and ponderous stuff such as truth and beauty are routinely subsumed by glitz.