Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How To Spell Sunday in Chinese -- A & J Restaurant, Annandale, Virginia

Sundays are tricky.  The food business, such as it is, allows most of us, its devoted minions, but a single day's respite from its agony, its very specific grind and toil.  A single day to empty one's head, to vent one's spleen, to kick back and elevate one's feet in the wild hope the pain, both bodily and existential, will somehow abate, if not altogether, and magically, go away.  A single day of rest is all we so-called food professionals are allotted, and for me, that day is Sunday.  So where to cleanse this body and soul?  Church is clearly not an option for the deeply doubtful agnostic soul like mine.  So finding my own salvation in restaurants it must be.  Restaurants, where, for a golden hour or two, I can be cooked for, waited on, attended to, doted upon, and where, in that same magical hour, I can feed that karmic wheel in the sky and treat my cooks, my hostesses, my servers exactly how I long to be treated, with a generosity of heart, spirit, and, perhaps most importantly for them, a generosity of wallet .

So it is that my quest for food-borne salvation brings me to A & J Restaurant in Annandale, Virginia, on this balmy early-November midday.  Lucky for me, I know salvation almost always lurks in the strangest of places.  This place, this A & J Restaurant, is no exception.  For while Annandale, Virginia, might be one of the great culinary Asian hotspots in the Eastern United States, containing a mind-boggling number of first class Korean, Thai, and Chinese food joints, it is, as far as suburban towns go, a total shit hole.  It's suburban sprawl has suburban sprawl.  You would never, ever bring a date here.  No one you'd ever want to impress.  Annandale is downright nasty.  And so is the strip mall that houses A & J Restaurant.  It is, as suburban strip malls go, among the most homely and downtrodden I've ever seen.  It's a vintage 1971 model, and sits adjacent to a number of abandoned and bombed-out single family homes.  The neighborhood smells of ruin.  Of decay.  But it also smells of incredibly good Chinese food.  Freshly-cut scallions are in the air.  As is the unmistakable redolence of melted duck fat.  And fried pork.  Heaven smells of Chinese food.  Salvation clearly awaits here at the A & J Restaurant.  So I hurry in.

And this is where I ask you, dear reader, to imagine the sound of a record needle being dragged across twelve inches of vintage black vinyl.  Because my young family and I are the only white people here.  Because when we enter, everything stops, goes silent.  Talking.  Eating.  Moving.  Everything ceases.  And everyone looks at us.  Every person here is Chinese.  And they are, as a group, clearly thinking the same thing:  the white people are health inspectors, immigration police, or tourists who have taken a very wrong turn.  The hostess asks us in passable English is we need directions back towards Washington.  We need a table, we say with a smile.  So we share a table with another family, two elderly adults and their adult child, who, as it turns out, is visiting from Oakland, California, and is nearly the only one here who speaks English.  He kindly offers to help us navigate the menu.

"Circle the food you want," he says, pointing to the pencil on the table.  So we do.  We circle two bowls of noodle soup and six plates of dim sum.  It's a lot of food for the four of us, a blowout in fact, so the waitress considers our order and asks us, finally, if we'd like our noodles skinny or fat.  Both is what we tell her, and in no more than thirty seconds later we are rewarded with two steaming bowls of fried pork and fried chicken soup with house-made noodles, both skinny and fat, both incredibly fresh and delicious.

We slurp our soup loudly, as Chinese manners allow, and watch as the plates of dim sum starts to roll in.  First comes the Pao Cai, the pickled cabbage, which is simply a slaw of cabbage, red chili pepper, and whole pepper corns in rice wine vinegar.  The summation of flavors is hot, tart, bitter, and delicious.  Thai-like and nothing I've ever tasted of Chinese cooking.  Next comes the Ma La Er Si, or slicked pork ears, which my six-year-old daughter and I set upon with particular ferocity.  Sure, they are a bit springy and tough, but they're also sublime, earthy, somehow tart, altogether a rare treat.  The Chinese family at our table stares with open-mouthed incredulity.  The elderly mother speaks to her son in quiet Chinese.  The son nods his head, then speaks to us.

"My mother wants to know if you know what you're eating."

I tell him yes, that we are eating pig's ears, and that we're eating them with a pleasure that is truly keen.

The mother nods and speaks to her son in Chinese.

"My mother wants to know if you've told your daughter what she's eating."

I ask my daughter to describe the food presently in her mouth.

"Pig's ear," she says.

"We honor the animal by eating all its parts," I explain.

The son translates what I've said and his two elderly Chinese parents smile, then break into applause.  Whatever I've just said, whatever its translation, has just won them over.  They smile at us and pour us hot tea in our cups and nod their heads at us and pat our backs the way dog owners approvingly stroke their own pets.  White people we are no more.  We are something else.  Something sympathetic.  Knowable.  And that's when the rest of the dim sum starts to roll in.  When we've been deemed worthy by this Chinese family, part of the extended Asian tribe.  Scallion pancake, Pan Fried Pork Pot Stickers, Chinese Sesame Biscuit with Sliced Pork, Thousand Layer Pancake, and some of the best fried chicken (outside Old Town's fabled Blue and White) that I've ever eaten.  Plate after plate after plate of the best Chinese food I've ever put in my mouth.  This from a guy who hates (or so I thought)  Chinese food.  Cantonese and Szechuan cooking styles, with their endless parade of sauces thickened with corn starch and buttressed with the empty pop of MSG, have always left me, post-meal, feeling angry, cheap, dirty, ripped off, and somehow, in a purely culinary sense, fucked with.

Not at A & J.  Not here, brother and sister.  Every flavor is deeply honest, if not outright vibrant.  Every flavor is surely and unmistakably north-Chinese and starch-heavy, for sure, but it all manages to pull off the difficult trick (for Chinese food, at least) of appearing naked and fresh and vital and vulnerable to easy corruption.  Sauces laden with corn starch and MSG need not apply at A & J.  Here each protein, each vegetable starch, stands by its own merits and fails by its own shortcomings; food is allowed to succeed or fail nakedly, as it so goes in most Thai, Japanese and Korean cooking.

So is found my own Sunday salvation at A & J in Annandale, Virginia.  On this bright, balmy Sunday.  Here is Chinese cooking at its most humble and yet, most elevated.  Here is a restaurant full of Chinese nationals willing to share their most guarded culinary secrets with a white-American family of four in the naked light of Sunday.

And this is when the old Chinese man at our table leans over toward me and asks me, in perfectly passable English, where I'm from and if I've enjoyed my meal here today.

I'm from Missouri, I tell him, and I've never tasted anything like this.

He nods and smiles and tells me that he too has lived in Missouri, in Springfield, to be exact, and he informs me that Springfield is the home of the American movie star Brad Pitt.  This I know.  I ask him if he found Missouri, my home state, the state I so deeply love, to his liking.  He frowns and considers the question.

"It was slow there," he says.  "And the Chinese food wasn't so good."

No doubt.  Absent from professional palates was the cuisine of A & J Restaurant.  Go there if you can.  Venture into Annandale.  Sure.  You will find it sprawling.  You will find it ugly.  But you will find some of the best Asian food that this country has to offer.  Korean.  Thai.  And Chinese.  Especially Northern Chinese.  A & J Restaurant.  And share a table.  You never know who you'll meet or where they're from.  They just might be from China.  Or Missouri.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Manifesto: Chef Juan Mari Arzak and the Burning Bush

Manifesto: Chef Juan Mari Arzak and the Burning Bush: God speaks Spanish. And has three Michelin stars. I know this, because he has just spoken to me at this five-course luncheon, on this col...

Chef Juan Mari Arzak and the Burning Bush

God speaks Spanish.  And has three Michelin stars.  I know this, because he has just spoken to me at this five-course luncheon, on this cold, rainy mid-October afternoon, in the middle of Washington's Rogue 24 dining room floor for all here to see.  He touches my arm and speaks to me again, more slowly this time, almost languidly, the way an all-knowing abuelo will speak to a dimwitted, if favorite, grandchild at his knee.  He tells me, his head waiter charged with leading today's service, to slow down.  To concentrate.  To keep breathing.  To focus on what I'm doing.  He tells me that life in the Basque Country of Spain is not about speed.  Not about efficiency.  Not about rushing food from the kitchen to the table.  No.  That's gringo style.  The disease of North American fine dining.  Basque cooking is about taking one's time.  It's about the savoring the delicacy of life's many flavors.  It's about finding the reflection of one's very own soul in the pearly brine of an oyster shell.  And he tells me this, all of this, in Spanish.

"Entiendes lo que estoy diciendo?"

I tell him I understand everything.

"Claro, chef," I say.  "Si, claro.  Lo siento."

But I understand none of what he's trying to say.  Not just because my Spanish sucks (as clearly it must), but because this is a case of an oracle speaking directly to an acolyte from on-high.  Because this is a case of God speaking to Moses through the burning bush.  For while I might understand the words themselves and the sequence in which they're spoken, it's the concept of what's being said that I'm now struggling with, and mightily.  No doubt Arzak has already sized me up with his god-like acumen and spotted me for the food-professional impostor that I am, the foodie idiot savant.  I am not worthy.  Not to stand before him.  Not to serve his food.  He sees this or something like it in my face and smiles.

"Chill out, kid," he says in perfect English.  "Everything's going to be just fine." 

For those of you unfamiliar with the great chef, here's Arzak in a nutshell:  Three Michelin stars.  Chef/Owner of Arzak, a restaurant which international food writers routinely rate as among the world's ten best.  The reigning godfather of Basque Nuevo cuisine.  A true culinary heavy weight.  A living legend. A god of modern gastronomy.  

That I have well over ten years in the business and thousands of events under my belt should make me impervious to all the Food Network induced celebrity chef worship crap that goes with working with the likes of Arzak? 

Hardly.  That ain't the way it goes.

If nothing else, my hard-scrabble years in the food business evoke something just short of pure reverence for the great chef Arzak.

How so?  

Those of us who toil daily and largely anonymously in the industry find (if my may speak for my food brethren) all of this celebrity chef bullshit somehow analogous to the music business:  most rock 'n roll bands, however talented and good, never get signed, never land the big record deal; they are, almost all, relegated to the ash heaps of obscurity, a veritable dust bin of unlistened-to demo tapes, and dismissed to a life of "what-if's" and "almosts."  So it is in the food business.  Daily I am surrounded by ferociously talented cooks and servers, who will, for their entire careers, remain nameless and obscure in their glorious labor.  But that's the gig.  It's what they've signed up for.  It's a given.  You live in the moment.  And when that moment has passed, you move on to the next.  Not until the advent of the Food Network, and still as rarely as lightning gets trapped in a bottle, had anyone (with exemptions allotted to Child and Pepin) risen to true celebrity in the food business.  Only very rarely does this world allow a skinny, big-toothed, knock-kneed punk-rock drummer from suburban Northern Virginia to become Dave Grohl.  Only more rarely does the world allow a Vassar-dropout-cum-brunch cook-cum-junkie become to Tony Bourdain.  And we celebrate those who have gone before, whom have triumphed.

So what, then, to make of this culinary titan before me, this Chef Juan Mari Arzak, for whom our own Food Network/Travel Channel celebrity chefs swoon and revere?  Arzak, I suspect, knows little of such things.  Here is a man, born in 1942, and who came of culinary age when apprentice chefs were physically beaten, and whose stations were, in the American parlance, fixedly blue collar.  

The luncheon for which we're working is for 27 guests.  And it's to celebrate the food and wine of the Basque region of Spain.  All Arzak has to do is show up in his whites, shake a few hands, and smile.  His vast international celebrity can do all of the heavy lifting for him.  It's a veritable walk in the park.  I would know.  I've been working with his advance team of sous chefs for the past two days.  Everything's been prepped; every culinary contingency met; nothing left to chance.  All Arzak has to do is show up and smile.  

But no.  He enters the kitchen and rolls up his sleeves.  He means business. 

And this is why, in a silly blog decidedly about the glories of street food, of populist cuisine, that someone the likes of Arzak shall appear, stars and all.

Because he brings a ferocious Basque-cum-American blue-collar ethic to his cooking; because he is seemingly oblivious to his own celebrity; because he's a man of the people, a man of the street.  I watched him fix an unworthy sauce seconds before plating.  I watched him berate (in hushed, god-like tones) one of his sous chefs for not having a section of beef cheek at proper serving temperature.  I watched him plate every single course, and touch every single plate, that came out of that kitchen.

Is this the life of a so-called celebrity chef?  Is this what international acclaim brings to a no-brainer of a lunch for 27 dim-witted Washingtonians who merely need the famed chef to clap like a seal to feel nourished and well-fed?  No.  This is the work of soldier, who, for no matter how many Michelin stars may be pinned across his chest, will forever fight the good fight, and no doubt die with his culinary boots on.

I salute you, Chef Arzak.  And yes, Chef, I am working on my Spanish.

At this very moment.

And that's a promise.