By Carolyn Manning
Cold hearted orb that rules the night,
Removes the colours from our sight.
Red is gray and yellow white,
But we decide which is right.
And which is an illusion.
I don’t get it. Even someone who’d never noticed on their own that dim light obscures color has surely heard the mellifluous tones of Richard Burton reciting these lines in the overly dramatic ending of the Moody Blues’ Knights in White Satin, and would then have observed for themselves that twilight robs the landscape of all color variation, making everything appear black, white or a shade of gray.
You knew that, didn’t you? Of course you did.
You also know we eat with our eyes first. And I have to believe every good chef knows it, too, and it guides his/her choice of plating elements every bit as much as the actual flavors do.
Why, then, would a culinary artist display his/her work in an unlit gallery?
A short while ago, Marshall and I went to dinner at a well-established NE Portland restaurant that we had heard excellent things about, but had never tried. Let me say, first of all, the food was unbelievably good.
For our first dish, picture in your mind a large plate, mounded in the center with a playful mix of pale green frisee and dark green arugula, lightly dressed in a vinaigrette, giving the leaves the slightest shimmer. Add vibrant green slices of avocado, golden chunks of perfectly smoked trout, and shockingly red supremes of blood orange scattered throughout. Can you imagine the beauty of it? We did. We had to imagine it, because the lighting was so low, everything looked gray except the blood orange segments, which looked black.
Do you find gray avocado slices visually appealing? Neither did we.
The flavors were divine, however. The creaminess of the avocado played nicely off the citrus, and the smoked trout was the best I’ve had in Portland. It was moist and fresh, with just the right amount of smoke. I imagine it was the lovely light tan color most smoked fish achieves, but who knows? If it had been a yellow trout or one of those salmon-pink trout native to our icy mountain lakes, the color might have been some other variation.
But who would know? Not anyone in the dining room, that’s for sure.
You KNOW that plate was gorgeous in the bright lights of the kitchen. It was designed to be a feast for the senses … the eyes as well as the mouth.
So can someone tell me why a chef like that would allow his dining room to rob his diners of one of their keenest senses?
We asked our server if perhaps the lights were on a dimmer, and could they possibly be brought up a little so we could see our food. She acknowledged that the lights were indeed on a dimmer, but were purposely set so low in order to create “ambiance”.
Really … what ambiance is created by a mostly darkened room? Romance? Maybe … if the room you’re in also has a Posture Pedic. No, unless the food is in need of being hidden, a room so dimly lit adds nothing to the dining experience. Such a lighting choice should be reserved for seedy bars where lonely people in need of a place to hide can drink themselves into oblivion in dark anonymity.
After describing the visually gray experience of the first course with our waitperson, the house lights were brought up ever so slightly just after our entrees arrived.
My meatless entrée was one of the finest combinations of flavors and textures I’ve ever eaten. Truly a delight! I imagine it was stunningly beautiful in full light. It was a creamy polenta with asparagus spears, grilled spring onions, crowned with a perfectly soft poached egg.
In the very dim light as the dishes arrived, it was only a variation in the textures of the polenta and the egg that identified the presence of the egg at all. Was the polenta white or yellow … I still don’t know, because the lights were not brought up enough to make such a visually subtle difference discernible. But it was enough to identify the dark little chunks of goodness on my plate as red tomatoes … who knew? … yet not enough to tell for sure if the asparagus was gray from being overcooked or merely due to the poor lighting stealing the vibrant green from fresh spears cooked a perfect crisp-tender. By taste, I was delighted to find it was the latter.
I would want this dish again and again … it was just that good. And yet, I feel a little robbed by that night’s experience. While I thoroughly enjoyed the flavors and textures of the dish … the crisp asparagus against the creamy polenta and velvety egg yolk … I was deprived of the visual spectacle of the burst of bright yellow as the poached egg yolk flowed like lava over the pale polenta and the dark green asparagus. It was only a slightly darker shade of pale.
What a shame.
It would be a wonderful thing for this fad to fade. Maybe it will one day, when the wonderful chefs of this city step out of their brightly lit kitchens and take a look at their food as their diners see it. It’s not such a pretty picture.
Carolyn Manning is an occasional contributor to PortlandFoodandDrink.