Dining in the Petri Dish

Stop the revolution; I want to get off

Presentation at Café Sharaku tends toward the exquisite, the third theme of the evening. Soup bowls (the crab soup came in a kind of clear, off-center globe), place settings, and the decorative aspects of every dish showed care and artistry. But the baroque prettiness of the food just exaggerated its flaws — for the most part, nothing we ate that night tasted good.

Our crab soup was fishy and oversalted, and all you could say about those slippery clear crab eggs were that their texture was "interesting." My fluke and scallop soufflé was another case of failed expectations — the "soufflé" was in fact a miniature quiche, a fairly tough one at that, floating in a strange, soupy amalgam of sauces in various shades of orange and cream. These tasted (and looked) strikingly like the crab bisque and tomato soup we'd had earlier, with subtle variations in the spicing. So far, not inedible but not delicious either.

When our waitress appeared with our entrées — we'd ordered lamb cooked two ways ($30) and skirt steak with braised short ribs ($26), she couldn't identify what they were. One dish, which she set down in front of me, was something wrapped in a green leaf and decorated with a side of steamed clams. "This is lamb?" I queried.

"Hmm. The lamb is inside the leaf," she said tentatively.

"Lamb with clams? That doesn't sound like what I ordered."

She went away, and I bit into one of the gritty, shriveled steamed clams. Cutting into the cabbage leaf, I found a block of white flesh that looked and smelled identical to a fish fillet.

Our waitress came scurrying back. "We made a mistake," she said. "That's not lamb; it's fish."

The plate of lamb — a piece of "roasted California loin" and a couple of chunks of "braised leg" — had been set down in front of my partner, who thought she was eating skirt steak and short ribs. Success! We were definitely feeling "disorientation, confusion, and intellectual vertigo."

We were their only customers; how could they screw this up? My partner obligingly handed over her lamb dish; the waitress rushed off to reenter the order for skirt steak.

I went ahead with my rapidly cooling dinner. Have I mentioned it was orange? Both loin and leg had been rubbed or cooked in something like paprika. The leg meat was unpleasant and dry — think leftover pot roast — and the loin was set over a platform of what I'm guessing was supposed to be mashed potatoes. Thankfully, a few fresh vegetables had been arranged alongside — a fresh baby carrot, some sweet onions — because they were the only edible morsels.

At length, out came the skirt steak. It was hot on one side and ice cold on the other, marinated to the flavor of Good Seasons Italian dressing. The baffling "mashed potatoes" appeared here too. If they'd been cooked by a space alien who'd never seen or tasted a spud, they couldn't have been odder.

After the entrées, the chef sent us out a refreshing (orange!) interval — tangerine granita served inside the fruit's carefully hollowed-out skin. But the skin was old, shriveled, as if long frozen or, worse, re-used, and the granita was bitter, probably from long contact with pith.

Honestly, it saddens me to trounce this chef — he's just a guy trying to make a living with his little restaurant, right? And Sharaku is only one example, if possibly the worst, of an aesthetic that has reached a dead end in incompetence and misunderstanding. You can visualize the line of influence — the playful pairings and wild creative splurges, the interest in the local and organic that marked a culinary movement — petering out like an unsuccessful gene down the generations. Café Sharaku would be the last gasp of an evolutionary line. And that's the definition of decadence.

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