Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Caught In A Trap, Can't Walk Out

I’ve been a bit overly sensitive to restaurant music lately. It’s not always obvious what’s playing either. I go to a little Irish pub around the corner from my house in Augusta, and unless the place is dead, you have no idea what’s playing. The Washington Post “Going Out Guide” lists the “Sound Check” in decibels of a restaurant that it’s editors have reviewed. For instance, the three star restaurant Cashion’s Eat Place received 77 decibels (Must speak with raised voice). I imagine it’s a little less noisy than the Irish Pub, but I doubt you can hear the music playing there either.

This ridiculous fixation I have started on a Tuesday nite in late April in New Orleans. I was there to give a three-day training session as part of my job. JW had just left after a long weekend of Jazz Fest. Since JW didn’t have any parting recommendations for dinner (breakfast is a different story – but I’ll leave it to JW to tell you about the Boudin sausage at Stanley), me and 4 co-workers were searching for some decent food in the French Quarter. We decided upon a brew pub – Crescent City Brewhouse. Well, the guys decided. The girls definitely would not have picked this place on their own.

On the pedestrian route to the CCB, we passed by a number of alluring restaurants, most of which I can’t recall the name. One of them had nice white table cloths, a pricey menu, and ambiance to go with it. I heard no music. Once we reached the CCB and sat down, we noticed the reasonable prices on the menu, which was (in my opinion) kinda like the menu at TGI Friday’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll eat at a chain restaurant on occasion, but it’s usually due to lack of local choices or being too hungry to care. I’m a firm believer in eating local. The food is usually much better, and you meet some interesting locals.

Anyway, while I read through the Friday’s-esque menu, I noticed a familiar tune playing near the open-air entrance. It was “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars (Corcovado)” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. One of my all-time favorite artists. After the song finished, another Jobim song was playing - Desifinado. It piqued my interest, so I looked toward the front (we were seated near the back – about 75 feet from the door), and I realized that it was a live trio playing in a small corner by the bar. I was amazed and surprised. I’m not sure if it was simply a part of being in NOLA, or being in NOLA during Jazz Fest. Regardless, it was a treat. It did not, however, pair up with the menu very well. I recall commenting as we left that the jazz trio should have been down the street at the white tablecloth restaurant, not at the ribs and beer Friday’s wanna-be I was leaving.

Fast forward to May 18th. I arrived in the DC area for yet another meeting. I sauntered down the street about a half mile from my hotel and found a few local ethnic restaurants tucked in behind some corporate buildings. I picked “A Taste of the World”, which was adjacent to a Vietnamese restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, and an Ethiopian restaurant. All looked equally inviting, but I felt I could get a month’s worth of affirmative action eating knocked out in one visit, so I picked the most ethnically diverse restaurant in a sea of diversely ethnic restaurants.

After I sat down (which was 15 minutes before closing time – 9pm), I heard the first familiar tune. It was Astrud Gilberto singing “How Insensitive”. That was followed in order by Doris Day singing “A Guy is a Guy”, Elvis singing “Suspicious Minds”, a voice like that of Barbra Streisand or Jane Monheit singing “Peel Me A Grape”, and a Nat King Cole song that I couldn’t place.

All this while ordering from, and quickly receiving food from, a menu that varied from Pad Thai noodles, Mole, Maharani Dal, and Jerk Chicken, to the fish dish I ordered – Agra Dulce Pineapple Fish. It was described as a Spanish and Chinese mix of vegetables with pineapple and fried fish served with rice. It was a permanently printed $14 special. In reality, it was “number 6 on the Thai side with fish, medium spicy”. At least that’s the way I would have ordered it at Thai Jong in Augusta.

The dish was very good. It just wasn’t Spanish at all. I may pretend to know a lot of things, but I actually do know something about Spanish food. I’ve been experimenting with Paella for 10 years. The Agra Dulce dish had nothing Spanish in it. It had red peppers, which tend to be roasted Pimientos in Spanish dishes, but were un-roasted red bells in this dish. If I remember correctly, Agra Dulce is Spanish for Bitter Sweet. There was a lot of sweet, and no bitter in this dish. Again, it was an excellent Thai dish, but that’s not how it was described. I don’t think the music counted either. Gilberto is from Brazil, where the food and the dialect is a mix of Portuguese and Spanish. Elvis may have looked a little Chinese in the later years, but that was just because the weight he gained made his eyes squinty.

It also made me question whether I would go back there and order the Mole. I’ve had Mole at the Red Iguana in Salt Lake City, UT, and it’s supposed to be one of the best places in the US. A Taste of the World might be a Mole let-down in comparison. I do not, however, recall what music was playing at the Red Iguana.

I say all this to make the following point: How much thought goes into the music choices at a restaurant? It really can make or break a meal. I’m sure the Hard Rock Café doesn’t have a hard time picking the playlist everyday. They can probably just set the Sirius radio to channel 15 and be done. Other restaurants should put a little more thought into it. When I eat lunch at Bombay Central in Augusta, I get a pure selection of Indian music. I suffered through the bad atmosphere and Friday’s-esque fare at the CCB because of the live jazz trio. I was less disappointed with my pseudo-Spanish dish at “A Taste of the World” because I liked the imaginary 45s being spun in the kitchen. And some of the fondest memories I have of the best Chinese restaurant in the South (by far) are of hearing Dean Martin singing “Standing on the Corner” at China Garden in Augusta.


1 comment:

OG said...

I totally agree, and I think you're really on to something. There's something about the music selection that along with a good beverage pairing takes you out of your own reality and let's live that life for a while.
1. Japanese techno/electronica with sake or Sapporo and sushi
2. Classic country with chocolate malts and cheeseburgers
3. Dean Martin or thrash metal with beer and Pizza (think Pepino's)
4. Opera with Chianti and pasta
5. Accordion music with ham and Brie (or ripe cheese) on baguette
6. Mariachis, Tecate, and the burrito enchilada combination

If you notice on Cooking French Laundry at home, she frequently has a playlist. I love to cook and clean up the kitchen to music, much to my wife's chagrin. Great post.