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Fine Dining vs. Cheap Eats


Fat Guy
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Bux et al, my words were only intended as a summary of how I happen to enjoy both food and companionship, not as a model to be followed by others. In other words, a description, not a prescription.

Haute cuisine might be regarded as a rough equivalent of classical art -- a genre whose imitation teaches certain techniques. Just how far we may depart from this, for better or for worse, can be deduced by observing modern conceptual art which owes nothing to skill and everything to salesmanship.

Your words, John, make me think of another parallel. The following words aren't necessarily specifically aimed at you, except that your post made me think about this.

I am not a fan of opera. I haven't the upbringing or the cultural baggage to appreciate it.

I'm sure in time, with the proper exposure, I could learn to tell the difference in the quality of various operatic performances.

But meanwhile I subsist on less lofty forms of music and find my enjoyment therein. (Okay, I'm being a bit sarcastic, but it doesn't damage my eventual point)

There are huge differences between music and food (John himself has spoken about them before, I believe) and we don't want to rehash them here. But clearly the appreciation of one particular type of music--opera--is situational. I appreciate the things that I know, and the variants of them, more than I do the things that are, at this point in time, out of my reach.

Why is food any different? Why all of this talk about "developing a palate" if we don't acknowledge the value in each step of the process?

That's my main objection to a measuring system of relevence that isn't situational. And I am talking about relevence, not the ultimate quality of the food, which is a bit of confusion a few people may have. And the ability to, and interest in, analyzing something is inherently related to its relevence. That's my whole argument, front to back.

Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Steve P. has also said in this thread that this is not about populism, but rather complexity of technique combined with popularity (of said technique). In my example, mole while being extremely complex (ie. sauce can have 23 ingredients, any of which must be individually roasted, fried, soaked and/or ground before being added) it is not as popular in this country as french techniques. Now if one would go to Mexico or other mole making areas, one would find endless analysis and discussion on their various moles. Mole is something too complex for me to attempt from scratch, but I still find it very interesting to read about, and definitely taste, expecially while in Oaxaca, however it is not very popular in the US vs. complex french techniques, and is less discussed here, and so Steve's point is taken well. Earlier in the thead I read it as being just high end vs. cheap (everything else), but that has been resolved not to be the case. I also like jhlurie's well written and thoughtful comments about it being an individual thing, ie. interest of the particular audience, which is also right. All of this is subjective, of course, as in IMHO's.

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Steve P. has also said in this thread that this is not about populism, but rather complexity of technique combined with popularity (of said technique).

Heron, sorry, my proper statement should have been that Steve THOUGHT that the arguments arranged against him were about populism. And they weren't, at least in my terms. I'm not trying to turn his arguments around against him, except where it's fairly done.

Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Hey, Jhlurie, in what way did I take Plotnicki's statement out of context? Read my original post on this thread and get back to me.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Mole is something too complex for me to attempt from scratch, but I still find it very interesting to read about, and definitely taste, expecially while in Oaxaca, however it is not very popular in the US vs. complex french techniques, and is less discussed here, and so Steve's point is taken well.

So - and I'm really trying to understand here - is Steve's point that complex French technique is more popular on egullet, or in the United States? If so, that's maybe not so surprising.

Since all will agree, I think, that complex food wherever it is found is worthy of analysis, I'm curious why complex French cuisine is more popular than complex Mexican cuisine, as exemplified, for purposes of this discussion, by Blue Heron's Mole sauce. The dominance of European tradition and descent in the U. S.in relation to the restaurant and food service businesses? An opportunity for culinary anthropology?

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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"Why, in the context you have stipulated, namely the sort of discussion we have here (am I stating the context accurately?), French over Mexican? French over Chinese? French over Italian? High over low? Complex over simple? Expensive over cheap? Why is that? Is the other way around: Mexican over French; perfecting mole over perfecting gratins, etc., the dominant interest elsewhere? Where?"

Finally a tough question that gets to the heart of things. And here's the answer.

I don't know. But I will try to answer.

I just think it's a matter of numbers. How many restaurants in the U.S. that aren't run by Mexicans are there where the chef/owner is obsessing over how to make mole? Fontera Grill? Three or four others worth talking about? Now how many do you think are trying to make one of those seven hour slow cooked legs of lamb? Probably a lot more. I also think that we want to perpetuate our own culture in a way where we do not want to perpetuate a foreign culture. Take cassoulet. Tremendous connection to both Jewish and Christian tradition in a way that curry powder will never have. As for simple vs complex, I think things define themselves. One can find the perfect peach. But I'm not sure one can find the perfect hamburger, or perfect hot dog. A hot dog or hamburger can never have the nuance a perfect peach can. Now some people want to say that's subjective, but I don't think so.

French cuisine seems to have pushed the envelope in a way other cuisines haven't. A plate of Tuscan beans is delicious (especially in Tuscany) but maybe you can tell me why the French went the extra yard and made cassoulet, and the Italians stuck to beans as a side dish? That's a simplistic example but I'm going to stick with it. I think that the Italian economy had a lot to do with how Italian cuisine developed. In France, despite it being a poor country, they had good meat and poultry available to them. But the Italians couldn't afford meat so they created dishes that were flavored by small amounts of meat or by meat juices. Hence the proliferation of things like ragus etc. The flip side of a lack of meat is how the cuisine developed around pasta, about as simple a food product ever created. As we've discussed in other threads, the argument in favor of Italian cuisine is one that is based on their unique terroir. But I don't find the argument that Italian cooking technique is as complex as French technique to be very credible.

When I retire to France and I write my famous book on how French cuisine came to be dominant, I am certain I will find that during the era it came to dominance, information traveled by foot. And west of Germany, to get from anywhere in Northern Europe to Southern Europe one needed to travel though France so they were exposed to more different cultures than any other country. It sounds simplistic but there has to be something to it.

"how to find the best hamburger"

Jon - I don't think anyone is interested in learning how to find the best hamburger. What people are interested in is learning WHERE TO FIND IT. That's the difference between cassoulet and a hambuger. People are interested in discussing how to make a good cassoulet and where to find one. But when it comes to hamburgers, the possibilities of an interesting discussion about making them usually has its limitations. But I don't know what this has to do with actually having a conversation about hamburgers, or boiling water for that matter. Just because I point out that when discussing simple things, there is usually less to talk about isn't intended to say that simple things aren't worthy of discussion.

Bux - If you don't stop it you are going to make me talk about opera :biggrin:

I'm having the same difficulty you are having in understanding why people are having so much trouble with this concept. Except for Robert S, who keeps asking existential questions, to me it's very simple. It's harder to bake a cake then to boil a pot of water. I promise you that every person, even one who never did it can boil a perfect pot of water the first time they try. But to bake a perfect cake, or even a close to perfect cake, It could take someone months of practice. To me, making a hamburger or a hot dog isn't much harder than boiling water. And that doesn't discount Jon's point that there are people who might not know how to do it, and they come to eGullet to learn. But it ain't the same as making a cassoulet that tastes mijote. Now that takes miles of practice.

I think in general the people who put up simple but perfect things as examples of how less can be more are not hearing my point. But since Jon brought up opera, let me try and refine his thought. I think to get caught up in whether one likes opera or not, or whether one has the cultural background to appreciate it is a detour in the road. The fact of the matter is that whether you can appreciate opera or not, opera is the highest expression of musical composition for theater. Now whether you agree with that or not is not really the issue, although that's the most typical argument that arises in relation to that type of statement. But what I've done by making that statement is to try and seperate the technique of composing an opera from its appreciation. And I'm certain that even though Jon doesn't appreciate it, someone might be able to pique his interest if they describe why the technique is so unique and difficult. In fact, that might be his way into learning how to appreciate it.

"I'm curious why complex French cuisine is more popular than complex Mexican cuisine"

Robert S. again - Because Mexican culture peaked with the Aztecs. It's for the same reason that museums all over the world are filled with Italian paintings and not Greek paintings. They had a Renaissance and the Greeks didn't. That's like a 1800 year advantage :biggrin:. Or maybe you can tell me why the great painters and authors all went to France between 1890 and 1950? Or you can explain to me why all those photographers are Jewish? I knew that mind you but I didn't want to bring it up for obvious reasons.

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Hey, Jhlurie, in what way did I take Plotnicki's statement out of context? Read my original post on this thread and get back to me.

Geez. All of the controversial things I've said here and THAT'S the one you get upset about? :smile:

Very simple, you took Steve's quote out of a larger discussion where it was obviously a side issue. You fully revealed that fact that you did it, so no wrong was done by you (in fact you later reminded us of the fact that you were the one who did it), but that's the very definition of "out of context". I felt in necessary to bring the fact up, because my emphasis has been that the statement was too absolute. But in fairness to Steve, I had to admit that I didn't know if he had always meant it that way, or whether it was a bit of casual wording which would have been more clear in the larger context.

In other words, Steven, I never said you did wrong, I was questioning if I did wrong. Relax.

Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Re food and opera: Opera is a particularly equivocal art to consider within the present context of Fine Dining vs Cheap Eats. Don't forget that Italian opera, which is the dominant school (not necessarily the same as the best) was quintessentially a popular (and populist) art form -- at its height and in its own country no more intellectual or elitist than the World Cup. As for the comparative virtues of the performers, *everybody* was an expert! It was the transplanting to Anglo-Saxon countries, with the libretti left untranslated, together with the enormous expense of mounting productions for relatively small audiences, that made it toffee-nosed. (Germany, for instance, has freely translated Italian opera into German.)

All this isn't totally off-topic. A lot of what has been roughly and inaccurately called "haute cuisine" in England and America has been ordinary solid bourgeois cooking, dressed up and prettified for the rising middle classes.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Toby writes:

I'm actually more interested in what I can cook at home or eat in small, chef-owned restaurants where the chef is doing the cooking (or closely supervising) than in restaurants where the chef no longer touches the food. I believe food reflects the personality and soul of the person who touches and cooks it as well as their talent. ... (Of course, now I'm just arguing for the sake of arguing....)
Don't belittle your observation! You echo what I've endorsed in other contexts; i.e. a fondness for small auberges/bistrots in out-of-the-way corners of France where someone simply cooks because he/she doesn't want to do anything else, and where the locals come early and often. Such places still exist in sufficient quantity to make the search worthwhile.

This isn't meant to refute SteveP or Cabrales or Bux in their search for the monumental. It's just that I've come to prefer chamber music to the symphony or grand opera. :smile:

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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John W. - Your response raises a number of issues. First, the point about opera isn't to say it was accessable or inaccessable to the masses. It was to say that the technique needed to both compose it and perform it was/is demanding. And that one needs to be highly proficient to do it correctly and it takes years and years of practice. Chamber music, while arguably more simple than opera, is still techniquely demanding and isn't really a corrolary to the hamburger involved in this discussion. Second which is a question, how did something so involved as opera become so popular with the masses in Italy? Third, which goes to your point about chamber music vs symphonies/opera, my original point doesn't say that the most technique is necessarily the most profound. As I said to Robert S., the argument in favor of Italian cuisine is one based on terroir where a less interventionist approach to cooking is preferrable.

If I could flip this question around on all the doubters, and I started down this road with Robert S., maybe someone has a good answer as to why other countries in Europe besides the French didn't go that extra yard in refining their cuisine. As I asked Robert S., why did the Tuscans stop with beans? How come no cassoulet like dish? Let's take the potato gratin. It is such a sophisticated potato dish. How come they don't make it in the alpine regions of Italy, Switzerland(non-French) and Austria? They serve potato dishes in those places, they have cheese and garlic. Nu?

John's point about Auberges and Bistros, and their ongoing popularity to this day makes the point that bourgeois cuisine is the ultimate expression of how the middle class likes to cook and to eat. It has just the right level of complexity to make it a trick to master, yet doable. And if you think about it, other than the chefs of todays "bistro modernes", the chefs were most often untrained and self taught. All those old fashined "mamas de cuisine" in Lyon weren't graduates of the Cordon Bleu.

Robert S. asked me earlier about my "aptitude of sensing the marketplcae" and in that context I will say that the desire to make a gratin is similar to why Eric Clapton is the most popular guitar player. It's easy to buy a guitar and to try and play like him. In fact, many people can learn how to play that style of guitar at an acceptable level. But it's significantly harder to learn how to play like Segovia, not to mention that the music in itself is less accessable to most people than what Clapton plays. So less people are trying to do it. That's why French "wins" in all of the conversations around here, and everywhere else for that matter. Making Tuscan beans seems simple, and gets you a simple result, so it's a less rewarding experience than making a cassoulet. And making Roast Potatoes is less rewarding than making a good gratin. And making a hamburger is too easy. We like to eat them but what's to talk about?

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That's why French "wins" in all of the conversations around here, and everywhere else for that matter. . . . And making a hamburger is too easy. We like to eat them but what's to talk about?

Steve P -- As to why French cuisine tends to come out well in certain (to be clear, not all) board discussions, it could be in part attributable to the following factors:

(1) With French cuisine (among certain others, such as Chinese cuisine), one can analyze not only individual dishes, but also the relationship of dishes within a meal to each other, whether in the form of progression effects or otherwise. With hamburger, one could consider the relationship between accompanying fries, but in some instances, hamburger is not part of an extended, multiple-course meal. Thus, the ebbs and flows of the meal, its culmination or retirement are potentially less distinct. I appreciate that in certain circumstances hamburger can be part of a multi-course meal, such as in a barbecue.

(2) Many forms of French cuisine are wine-friendly. The range of French techniques to which Steve P refers can result in a diversity of saucing, composition, etc. for dishes that provides a better platform than certain other cuisines, for wine. For example, while certain cuisines that utilize a great deal of spices (e.g., certain forms of Thai cuisine) may have appealing dishes to certain diners, the style of the cuisine may be less wine-friendly. Similarly, for hamburger, for example, it is better paired, if with any bottled wine, with a red in most cases. Yet, for chicken in French cuisine for example, depending on the composition of the dish, one could imagine all sorts of possibilities wine-wise. :wink:

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That's why French "wins" in all of the conversations around here, and everywhere else for that matter. Making Tuscan beans seems simple, and gets you a simple result, so it's a less rewarding experience than making a cassoulet. And making Roast Potatoes is less rewarding than making a good gratin. And making a hamburger is too easy. We like to eat them but what's to talk about?

I think French cuisine "wins" because there is a market-driven predisposition towards it, just as there is for French painting and French furniture. Hardly anyone can explain why he or she prefers a Monet hanging above a Louis XV bombe commode, perhaps with a T'ang horse on it, to any other such combination; they just do. This is what I was getting at when I asked Steve about his familiarity with the marketplace.

But I don't think it is helpful to look at these issues in terms of "winning". None of us Hatfields will ever concede to you McCoys that Tuscan beans are in any way "losers" to, or less interesting than, or less rewarding to make than cassoulet. I think this idea is a disservice to both dishes. Maybe the best conversation, or the best article, would be a comparative one, taking into account historical, social, economic, political factors.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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I would also add that I don't want to make anyone talk about opera, if only for the reason that I don't find opera very interesting, but certainly not for the reason that there's not much to say about it. Perhaps the greatest difficulty lies in the fact that participants may have their minds made up about intellectual creativity as a topic of interest and can pick the point in history when progress stopped.

modern conceptual art which owes nothing to skill and everything to salesmanship.

I am sure the very same thing can be, and has been, said about haute cuisine.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Robert S. - Well one can start chasing their tail in these arguments. There is a market predisposition to them because it is the "winning" culture. If most people didn't percieve French culture the way they do, there wouldn't be a market for it. It's really a very simple profer. Cassoulet is considered a "better" or more "complex" dish than Tuscan beans because more people who are qualified to make an assertion about bean dishes say its so. Does that mean it's absolutely true? Of course not. But is it reasonable to accept the position based on their sayso? Absolutely.

The thing about markets is that they are self adjusting. A market such as what is interesting to cooks is much too large a market for anyone to try and control. That the consensus among home cooks who are interested in cooking at the level we are discussing trends towards cassoulet is a pretty big statement in and of itself. But if we laid out the ingredients of cassoulet and Tuscan beans next to each other, it wouldn't be hard to see why that is the case. It stands to reason that a harmonius blend of beans AND meats has the potential to captures people's imagination in a way that beans that are flavored with a bit of pancetta doesn't have. Not that it has to be true and not that there aren't arguments against that but, it certainly is obvious as to why people feel that way.

"Maybe the best conversation, or the best article, would be a comparative one, taking into account historical, social, economic, political factors"

Well I kind of opened that door when I asked why the Tuscans stopped with just beans. How come they didn't produce an elaborate dish that incoporated the beans? Can you imagine if the Spaniards served rice but no paella? They have that in Spain. You can just get a plate of rice cooked in squid ink or fish broth. Maybe they will throw a pea or two in there. But they went the extra ten yards and made a paella with all sorts of goodies in it like rabbit, chicken and sea food. How come Italian food stopped short?

And the same phenomenon happened all over Italy. Look at a Risotto Milanese. It's just a plate of rice that the Italians are willing to eat as an entire course. Not that it's bad, it can be quite good. Especially when fried in butter the next day. But, I can't think of many other cultures who have a grain as their staple who have fashioned an important course around the grain and don't serve anything with it. Mamaliga?

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Nina - Actually not kasha varnishkes but kasha. Poor Eastern Europeans ate a big plate of kasha maybe with some butter and salt. And maybe the kasha had a little tsibele (onion) in there to give it some tam (flavor.)

It's actually a good thread for someone to start on staple foods that ere merely grains with a little flavoring. Congee is like that. What else would be like that? Pozole, hominy corn with a little pork flavor and cilantro?

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Porridge is very good. Is there a French equivelent of Porridge, risotto, mamaliga etc.? In the Savoie, you get dishes that are very much the same as dishes in the Northern Piedmont. Taillerin, polenta etc. And in Basque France, you get paella. But elsewhere in France, is there a staple dish that is merely just a grain with a little flavoring?

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Nina - Actually not kasha varnishkes but kasha. Poor Eastern Europeans ate a big plate of kasha maybe with some butter and salt. And maybe the kasha had a little tsibele (onion) in there to give it some tam (flavor.)

It's actually a good thread for someone to start on staple foods that ere merely grains with a little flavoring. Congee is like that. What else would be like that? Pozole, hominy corn with a little pork flavor and cilantro?

The poorest folks' cholent was mostly grain with a tiny bit of meat, or maybe sometimes even just bones, thrown in for flavor...

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When I retire to France and I write my famous book on how French cuisine came to be dominant, I am certain I will find that during the era it came to dominance, information traveled by foot. And west of Germany, to get from anywhere in Northern Europe to Southern Europe one needed to travel though France so they were exposed to more different cultures than any other country. It sounds simplistic but there has to be something to it.

Be sure to include an atlas among your research tools. To the extent that the Belgians and Dutch needed to get to Spain and Portugal, I expect they mostly went by boat. If your theory had legs, as it were, one might expect Germany itself, or Switzerland, to have benefitted most from cross-traffic.

:raz:

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Nina - Well if you could show that cholent started out as just grains, and that meats and vegetables were added slowly as people became a little more prosperous, than you would have something. But my gut tells me that cholent had more flavoring to start with than porridge or congee had.

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Cassoulet is considered a "better" or more "complex" dish than Tuscan beans because more people who are qualified to make an assertion about bean dishes say its so.

More complex, sure. Better in an absolute sense, no.

How come they didn't produce an elaborate dish that incoporated the beans?

I don't hold myself out as an expert, just someone who's eaten a lot. Two fundamental reasons that I know of:

-Italian food is based, as you have understood, on simplicity and emphasis on the quality of ingredients, rather than on complexity. This is intent, not accident or failure.

-Italian meals are served as separate components, again, in order to emphasize the essential qualities of each component.

And the same phenomenon happened all over Italy. Look at a Risotto Milanese. It's just a plate of rice that the Italians are willing to eat as an entire course. Not that it's bad, it can be quite good. Especially when fried in butter the next day.

For saying this, your picture will be posted in kitchens all over Italy, and not in a good way. For all its simplicity in conception, risotto (which can contain many ingredients) is extremely difficult to prepare expertly. I would offer to do it for you, but you seem irredeemably recalcitrant (also in a good way).

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Wilfrid - Pedantry will get you nowhere. Just because people COULD travel to Spain from Belgium by boat, doesn't mean everybody did. Maybe the richest people would go by boat but I think most people went on foot (horse and carriage.) How about the people walking from Northern Europe to Santiago di Campostello? They must have carried much food lore with them don't you think? Or people going to Florence and Rome? Or the French Riviera at the turn of the century?

The other issue here is that you needed to be more than a crossroads of civilzations, you needed to be in a position to take advantage of it. France with it's great agricultural resources could better take advantage of the influence of other cultures than a place like Switzerland can. All of this begs the question that if Spain or Italy was in in the geopgraphic location that France is in, whether they would have emerged as the dominant cuisine of the 20 th century?

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Can you imagine if the Spaniards served rice but no paella? They have that in Spain. You can just get a plate of rice cooked in squid ink or fish broth. Maybe they will throw a pea or two in there. But they went the extra ten yards and made a paella with all sorts of goodies in it like rabbit, chicken and sea food. How come Italian food stopped short?

A curious post and not at all one that supports the main contention as I see it. I wish we had a great Spanish food critic to note that only rabbit and rice are the critical ingredients--or something like that. Paella can be a great dish and even the mediocre paellas most travelers are likely find if lucky, are pretty tasty. These days they may be lucky just to get a freshly made paella as Paellador seems to be cornering the market and restaurants in beach towns along the Mediterranean proudly proclaim the fact that they serve a brand name standardized commissary perpared sous vide paella.

For all it's glory and complexity in ingredients, I'm not sure it's necessarily the match for a great arròs caldós dels pescadors (arroz caldosso) or wet seafood rice. Oddly enough the most formidable example of that in my recent trip was the one that appeared to be the simplest. In a two star Relais Gourmand we were served a rice in an incredibly intense seafood broth with a garnish of two gambas. In a restaurant with far less claim to haute cuisine, I had a far more complex array of seafoods mixed in with the arroz caldoso. I'm not sure which is more deserving of analysis or that they couldn't compare or suprass paella on that ground, yet in some ways, risotto is more highly technical and a better subject for analysis than either. Ultimately this discussion will always fall apart because of our subjective approach to the question at hand. The mroe precisely the question is defined the more likely we are to find a subjective point of view, or so it seems. Still the imput to the thread is fascinating at times.

By the way, paella is not a Basque dish and it is widely available in French Catalunya as in the French Basque provinces. It's not a dish of Catalan origin either as far as I know. In France you get potato gratin.

:biggrin:

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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