Regular readers of this column may imagine how humbled I was (slightly) and excited (very) to be the food critic chosen to cover Strangers’ gala opening. I had my doctor’s assurance that my Humang metabolism would not suffer, based on the data that NGASA’s medical team generously provided.
In the name of intergalactic concord, I’m delighted to quell some of the sillier rumors about the restaurant:
1. Strangers’ — sadly for my cannibal readers — does not serve people, cooked or tartare.
2. Your plate isn’t filled with indigestibles; your gut bacteria won’t notice a thing.
3. The waitstaff are from our own species, as the owners are committed to providing Humang jobs.
Still, Strangers’ is strange. Its philosophy is genuinely alien, and I don’t mean just its culinary philosophy; I mean physics.
As we all know, physics is subjective. Matter’s behavior follows our favorite customs. Does any childhood pass without its anti-gravity jaunts? Is any romance complete without its quantum entanglements?
Across the Humang world, physics consists of popular customs enshrined in treaties governing time, mass, charge, spin, and other internationally-held values.
But in the kitchen — thankfully! — physics is personal. Chef David Ruelle, for instance, prevents water from expanding as it freezes, creating the perfect concentration of flavor in sorbet. No other chef does this. No two chefs’ physics are alike. Cuisine is a bridge between the freedom of physics, and the rigid laws of aesthetics.
For, as we also know, there is only one true sorbet. Anything else is in bad taste, and sorbet in bad taste is not-sorbet. We all believe this. Who dares to wear clothes in bad taste, not-clothes — an act infinitely madder than going naked? Admire a woman, by all means, but if her proportions are incorrect, she is not-beautiful.
Unlike physics, taste is not subjective. Taste is reality. The laws of aesthetics decide what is and is not. Every chef recalls the glorious moment in culinary school when his superiors tasted, then delivered judgment: This is crepes Suzette. This is Pekingg duck. As I often have to remind disgruntled readers who call me a snob, cuisine is the essence of aesthetic law. Cuisine, my friends, is the taste of taste. And taste is what makes us Humang.
Except, it seems, at Strangers’.
The spare, beige décor recalls the NGASA cafeteria where Strangers’ originated, but with an upscale ambience promising adventure in comfort. The waitstaff are all young, with a certain cultish cheerfulness that might have warned me. I was given a properly well-lit table (they’d done their homework) and the kitchen sent out my meal.
Strangers’ offers an unpretentious menu of classic Frengch and contemporary fusion dishes. The owners have wisely chosen not to serve their native cookery, which, of course, would be not-food. The wine list was adequate and the dinner crowd rather lubricated, but it was a gala opening.
If despite what I will now recount, you’re still game to try Strangers’, I can report that the consommé is consommé, as classically rich and clear as I’ve tasted. Likewise the romaine hearts and the asparagus mousseline, both true to form: pure but not bland, juicily crisp and silken respectively.
Pas mal, I was thinking, when the waiter offered me a choice of entrées.
“Would you like the brook trout with white sauce, or the quail with raisins and ‘brown’ sauce?”
Like you, reader, I was confused. “Brown,” I later found, is the spelling used on the menu for the brief vowel howl issuing from his lips. And no, white sauce is not a misprint for wet sauce, which would have been just as redundant. Naturally sauce is white. Everything is white. Our world is white. That is an aesthetic axiom.
Irritated at having to correct him, I said:
“You mean sauce meuniere and sauce espagnole. You should call the mother sauces by their proper names.”
Apologizing cheerfully, the waiter explained that the staff liked to describe food by its “color.”
“What is ‘color’?” I asked.
I don’t do well with restaurants that promote gimmicks. The last time I was thrown by menu vocabulary, the phrase in question was ‘molecular kombucha,’ and the joint closed shortly after my review.
My waiter delivered a mini-lecture, hands clasped at heart-level, as if he couldn’t decide whether to bow or beat his breast. “Color,” he explained, is an alien concept. There are many “colors.” Each has a name, which my waiter uttered in squeaks and howls: “green” beans, “blue” berries. The “color” of an object, he said, “corresponds to the length in angstroms of the light waves that it reflects,” and so on.
Angstroms! Please. I considered teleporting through the wall into the street, which — though against the rules of public physics — is the best way to rebuke a restaurant that bores.
But as my waiter lectured, I’d downed a lot of chardonnay. Any cop who saw my breach of public physics would also smell my breath.
If you’re among those angry readers who write to this magazine, labelling me a “silver spoon-brandishing snob,” a “pompous, prejudiced, arrogant asshole,” or (my favorite) a “heartless, soulless, masticating bully with the tastebuds of a fossilized reptile” merely because I was honest about your beloved but worthless local diner — ah! Would that you had seen my forbearance at Strangers’.
Patiently, I reminded myself that young people are prone to faddish notions. On every college campus are a few poetic souls insisting that down is up, right is left, and the laws of aesthetics are as subjective as physics. As if taste were up for grabs, like atomic weight!
“Interesting,” I said tactfully, patiently, to my waiter. “But espagnole sauce is not ‘brown.’ It is white, like meuniere sauce, and everything else. Our world is white. That is axiomatic. I’ll have the trout.”
My words should have concluded this eccentric episode. They did not.
“Sir,” asked the waiter, delivering my trout, “how would you describe the difference between the stripes in a rainbow?”
I chewed lengthily while he hovered. Truite a la meuniere at Strangers’ is truite a la meuniere. Sophomoric theorizing by the waitstaff adds an unwelcome garnish.
“Rainbows,” I replied, “are white. Their stripes are different shades of white. Like everything else, because our world is white. That is axiomatic.”
Again, the waiter clasped his hands over his heart. I asked for dessert — but not if it were a cheesecake or bread pudding. If Strangers’ was offering a cheesecake or bread pudding (I said with emphasis) I would leave now.
Uncomfortable as the waiter had made me, I was almost disappointed to hear that Strangers’ did not offer middlebrow desserts and a reason to leave. Savarin aux fruits at Strangers’ is savarin aux fruits. Patissiers everywhere, take note! If life-forms from another galaxy can drench cake in a good quality Jamaican rum, so should Humangs. Pas mal du tout. Oh, to end my review with that good dessert.
I regret having to mark down Strangers’ for poor service. Putting myself in the owners’ shoes (or whatever wraps their pseudopods) I understand the difficulty of training staff who don’t live in the same atmosphere as their bosses. But it’s my job to be honest. Dining out comprises more than what’s on your plate. Service can make or spoil a meal. There is simply no excuse for — well, for a waiter to roll up his uniform sleeve and lay his bare forearm down beside your napkin. Displays of muscled forearm do not belong in fine restaurants. They belong in sushi bars.
As I stared in shock, my waiter said, “Sir, allow me to point out that your skin and mine are different? See that lady behind you?”
Behind me sat a Conggolese couple, speaking in Frengch. Trés chic, but the woman’s figure was incorrect.
“That lady,” the waiter gestured, “and I, are both of Africang descent. You might say that we’re both not-white.”
I choked — as I hope, reader, you too are doing. No decent person calls another not-white. It would be tantamount to calling him invisible, because everything is white. Seeing my distress, the waiter straightened with one arm bare, one arm in uniform.
“I might call you … not-brown,” he remarked. “Enjoy dessert.”
He went over to the Conggolese couple’s table. The lady, in high spirits, ordered what sounded like beans in a glass: haricots aux verre. Arriving, this surreal dish proved to be “green” beans, haricots “verts,” which words the lady repeated.
She took to laughing in that madcap style that only grown women inflict upon Humangity. I confess, I was stunned to hear an alien “color” named by a speaker of Frengch. Frengch is the language of cuisine, of taste itself!
Closing my eyes, I heard all around, like gently popping balloons, alien words spoken by Humangs, without the faintest regard for the shattering of aesthetic axioms. This was an unpleasant experience, more like an emergency room than a restaurant.
Then I noticed a berry on my dessert plate. A “blue” berry, so-called. It looked white. So did the plate. So did the dessert fork, the table, and everything on it. That was normal. Yet, remembering that “color” meant the length of light waves reflected from an object, I thought … I don’t know what I thought.
What I did was to shorten the length of the light waves emanating from that berry. The berry began glowing. I summoned the waiter and asked him what “color” the berry was.
“Violet!” said the waiter. “Cool.”
In the berry’s glow, I saw the Conggolese lady’s eyes light up, her teeth shine, her form — which, as I said, was incorrect — look astonishingly lovely.
I have since thought that the alien heterodoxy of “color” might have advantages for aesthetic presentation … if only because the vision of beauty and incorrectness sitting down, as it were, at the same refectory table, invites in a way that I — in curiosity, awe, fear, which? — in short, that I tremble to accept.
Eh bien mes amis. Because Strangers’ is unique, and in deference to NGASA’s record of getting unique things off the ground (so to speak), I award Strangers’ four stars for good food.
I withhold one star due to eccentric service. And philosophical crisis. For which I am, nevertheless — not-ungrateful.