A 10-point plan for avoiding Art Food

This Thrillist rundown of ‘craziest’ Bloody Marys reminds me of a growing trend I’m seeing around here: Art Food at casual restaurants. This isn’t food that is designed to be delicious; it’s designed to look really, really good on Yelp. But when you put it in your mouth, the artistry ends.

For example: There is an Art Food deli close to where I work. Everything about it is designed to appeal to the eye, and it works on that front.

The food is — well, no other word for it — beautiful. Dish after dish comes tumbling out of the kitchen looking like it’s heading straight for a photo shoot. But at some point, you have to launch it at your mouth, and this is where things go wrong.

The first time I went there, I ordered a pastrami sandwich — one of the go-to foods in any decent real deli. When the sandwich showed up after an achingly long wait, it was a stunner. The beautifully thick-cut pastrami hung out of the edge of the bread just so, and it was accompanied by the single most lovely pickle I’d ever seen. It made me want to reach for my smartphone.

But I should have picked up on a few things even before I tasted this artwork. First of all, decent pastrami cannot be thick-cut. The only way to make a thick slice of a tough cow into something edible is to cook it far, far past the typical finishing temperature for pastrami. That’s why most delis slice pastrami so thin — it’s the only way to stop the sandwich from being tough. But it’s also the most flavorful way to cook the meat, and the ‘pull’ of the sandwich as you bite into it is part of the experience.

Not with this one. The meat was fall-apart tender but it had no hint of smoke or pepper flavor (or even the salty marinade that is at pastrami’s heart). It tasted exactly — exactly — like brisket. And the pickle was gorgeous in part because it was barely pickled at all — it tasted like, and had nearly the consistency of, a baby cucumber. But everything sure looked nice.

I had been Art Fooded and taught a lesson. Now, it’s my turn to share my knowledge. You can recognize a casual Art Food joint from a few signs:

1. Trash-based interior design that features a lot of metal (count the many uses of old paint cans and oil barrels!). Add in the requisite concrete floor, and sound reverberates off every surface. EXPECT YOUR WAITER TO HAVE TO YELL AT YOU WHEN/IF HE ARRIVES AT ALL.

2. Many genuinely beautiful staff and customer tattoos. Bonus: Count the unusual beards!

3. ‘House-made’ shows up on the menu a lot. A LOT. And some of these restaurants are really cramped, so you can’t help but wonder where in the ‘house’ all of this making is taking place. (House-made balsamic vinaigrette: One squeeze bottle balsamic vinegar, one squeeze bottle olive oil, one bowl, one whisk. Work it out.)

4. Yelp reviews are ‘meh’
despite all of the beautiful photos.

5. Everything costs 30% more than the same dishes (of better quality) at non-art restaurants.

6. Service sucks. Art takes time (and apparently an indifferent attitude).

7. Older customers (and by ‘older,’ I mean ‘over 30’) get the stink eye when they walk in the door. They then get hustled off into distant corners/floors, out of the front door slightline.

8. Flour dust=authenticity! Look for the dusting of flour on each bread loaf/slice/sandwich. (Excuse me: House-made loaf/slice/sandwich.)

9. These are the taps at the bar: A dozen micro-micro-microbrews and one cheap irony offering (Natty Bo, PBR, Natural Light).

10. You say you’ll never go back there again, but you will.
Beautiful people go to beautiful restaurants, right?

Randy

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