Thursday, March 30, 2006

Bonsai yes, Bonzai no

We used to rely on the Red Robin chain for Bonzai Burgers, their take on the pineapple/hamburger idea I consider the foundation of any gourmet burger menu, as well as superb fries (with the skin still on). We used to eat there often with Bit and her friends- a very kid-friendly place, emphasis on "fun" as much as reliably good burgers. Fumiyo, rarely interested in the existence of food, suddenly had a hankering for Red Robin the other day, so after the absence of several years, we went to lunch. It was surprisingly empty. We usually have to wait and wait to get in, this time we were seated instantly. The menu had changed, at least in appearance. There was a fruit drink that looked interesting, heavy on the pineapple juice which I thought would go splendidly with the pineapple-laden Bonzai burger I always ordered at Red Robin. We were both very hungry, as you have to be to eat lunch (usually a small meal for me) there. Like a Japanese Commodore Perry, the Bonzai burger arrived. Cheers rocked the room (for someone else's birthday, but still!). It looked the same. And it tasted, well, almost what I was expecting. The wonderful pineapple/meat combination, smothered in lettuce and tomato, was just what I craved, but the bun tasted like a refugee from MacDonalds. OK, I've never eaten a Macdonalds hamburger, but I have nightmares. It used to be a gourmet bun for a gourmet burger. Fumiyo reported the same with her chicken burger. It tasted so FAST FOOD. And the downward trend continued, even accelerating when we tried the fries. What once were a very good reason to eat at Red Robin now tasted like the salty fries you get at any taste-insulting chain with its billions of tongues tortured.
The Mai Tai, which began with enough of a pineapple kick to seriously accompany of the Bonzai, deteriorated into bitterness the more of it I consumed.
I started eating meat in general and hamburgers in particular when I was 11. LA had a wide variety of available tastes in burgers in those days. A restaurant called Jolly Rogers at the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square (long ago morphed into something else) used to have a Teriyaki burger that was my first experience of hamburgers with pineapple. Until I went to Japan a decade later, I just assumed Teriyaki meant "with pineapple."
I'd had ham with pineapple before I had the Jolly Roger Teriyaki burger so I already appreciated how well pineapple went with meat. Other great burgers of my childhood were the Bob's Big Boy double decker (when Bob's was a tiny local chain, not the empire it later became), the cheeseburger with exquisite cheddar- which I'd enjoyed meatless in my previous incarnation as a vegetarian, at The Hot Dog Show, and both the Russian Burger (Russian dressing) and the Filet Mignon burger at Hamburger Hamlet all glow in my culinary memories. On a recent trip to LA, I noticed that there were no more gourmet burgers at the Hamlet- it's as if the concept of a gourmet burger, once cherished by hamburger lovers in lA, had vanished like the city's old trolley system. Sadly, the Red Robin chain has joined the rush to the bottom. Is it because the fast food joints have so corrupted the taste buds of the masses that there was no longer a market for a really good burger?
Fumiyo and I left Red Robin increasingly drawn to vegetarianism. Memories are fine, but you can't eat them.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

And The Belgians Keep On Marching

My 2nd trip to Chambar. Frank and I hadn't sampled all its fine Belgian beers so a return trip was required. The delightfully named Duchess de Bourgogne had even a more delightful taste. I'd thought to try the filet mignon tapa with it, but it was off the menu. Frank ordered a Duvel and La Salade d'hiver, while I ordered the Coquilles St. Jacques. I've been lucky with scallops in Vancouver and these did not disappoint.
As Frank's Duvel appeared, I remembered the first time I'd seen that beer. A new department store had just opened accross from the english school I was teaching at in Hamamatsu, Japan. I bought a couple of bottles for my beer-loving boss and myself. This was 35 years ago, but I remember it tasted very good, and this contrasted against the always excellent Japanese beer. Frank was not displeased, but when he had a sip of my Duchess, he regretted his choice and ordered one for himself for the next round.
Both of us ordered from the starred "recommended by the Vancouver Aquarium as an ocean friendly choice" menu for our 2nd round of appetisers. This is after all, the birthplace of Greenpeace. Frank went with the Ecuadorian Octopus (polluted with avocado so I avoided it like a nightmare of plagues) and always prawn-trophic, I ordered Les Scampis a l'harissa. It was so fiery it could have its own planets. I had to pop the fierce shrimp quickly into my mouth and wash em down with the recommended white wine. I complained to the server, and was told that l'harissa is a kind of fiery spice. It would have useful to know this before it was ordered.
Having run out of appetisers that looked appetising, I went with a sablefish, prawn, scallop and mussel thing (see above) whose name I don't recall and it's not on the website menu. It was in an oddly vegetable-tasting broth. Now I love most vegetables. Combining vegies and anything is always a good idea to me. But somehow this didn't work. Once again I complained to my server and was told no one else had ever complained before. Maybe no one who knows the difference between "good" and "bad" food had ever eaten at Chambar before. To add further insult to my tongue, I'd ordered a Rodenbach Grand Cru to go with the clashing vegies and seafood. The server had suggested it to go well after the Duchess. The opposite might have been true. If I'd started with the "Grand" cru, I might have enjoyed it, but coming after the Duchess, it was a looooooooooong step down. Frank had ordered my fiery shrimp for his 3rd order, and despite his love for hot food, was amazed that I'd been able to eat it and not spontaneously combust. So only one of my 3 mini-meals, and one of the two beers were anywhere near worth the 80 bucks that was my portion of the bill.
Next time I want Belgian food, I'll go to Brussels.