Lifestyle & Culture > Fab Five

Fab Five

By GREG MAFFETT
Published: July 2, 2011

Love people, cook them tasty food. That is the trademarked motto of Penzy's Spicey, so I will credit them with the brand recognition. But US patent laws aside, its also a pretty solid idea. Granted, the first time I read that slogan I stopped reading after the first four words and got a Donner Party flash, but that didn't last long. I'm tracking with them.

And that is part of the idea for this article. The other part comes from Anthony Bourdain's arguments against the huge degustation menus that the top chefs have been putting together. These are symphonies of food set off over 4-6 hours. Tasty food, true, but at the end of it he admits that he is left immobilized by the overwhelming desire to crash on his bed and digest for 12 hours or so. Being stuffed like a goose that you are trying to make into foi gras...not feeling the love. Those places are great on the tongue, but too pretentious. I don't think it is nuts to not only feel good before eating and during the meal. But afterwards too.

So where do I go for tasty, unpretentious food that leaves me feeling better after the meal?

That is the question I was pondering while sitting in my favorite place to eat. I'm trying to fill out the list and I get four easy. Five is hard to nail down, so let me go through the top four as there is no doubt about those places. There is no way I’d pass up a chance to eat at any of these places if I were in town.

In fact, the place I’m at is a 2.5 hour drive from where I’m staying. It was worth the drive, no question. The chef is genius. The place is unpretentious. Those are my two criteria to make my fab five. There are “better” places. More elegant places. More expensive places. True. But these are ones that are brilliantly etched in my memory.

Arr Place is at the top of the list in so many ways. It starts off by being out of the way. It’s in Newport, Oregon, making it hours from the major population centers. Then you need to hit the beach, turn left take off on a side road and then find the place hidden off the road. There is no advertising. There is a cardboard sign in the window that says “OKAY” when they are open. Inside there is a bar that seats maybe 10 people and tables that might seat 20. You can be seated at a big table with others if they get busy. They didn’t.

Think I’ve eaten here three times, but not sure on that. It’s a place where everything is so good, you could use a dice roll to pick. I was going to let the chef pick as I knew he knew what he did best. But the Ahi with Jasmine rice was still on the menu. Couldn’t pass that. Added a small plate of ravioli. I forget what was in the ravioli. Goodness to be sure, I’d say something balsamic in the sauce. It was flawless. They changed the Ahi from last time, sauce was different. It was green before with the wasabi, now it was brown and the Ahi sat atop the wasabi. Well three years since I’d been there. The new version was just as good, but different. That and two Lagunitas IPA’s totaled $36. Unreal, there is no better value anywhere that I eat. I am sure you will never get anything here that is not excellent. And as such, you get your money’s worth and more.

An equally genius chef works in Norfolk, VA. Empire Small Bar on Granby Street is roughly the same size as Arr Place. This place is a martini bar, but they also serve a few craft beers. Add the beer to the menu items and it’s a very close second. Here the menu changes seasonally, but intelligently. The chef experiments daily. The three specials are his science projects. The printed menu items are rock solid. He(she?) tries stuff out and I think those that rock make the printed menu. Those that don’t are gone.

I don’t mind the approach, you just need to know what you are doing here. For me, I go through the printed menu my first 4 days in town, then repeat my favorites on the last day in town. Unlike Arr Place, you can get a “bad meal” here, but the only way is to order off the special menu on the chalkboard. You just have to know that you are rolling the dice. Understand that being genius doesn’t mean you never make mistakes, it just means that you are willing to take a risk…and the upside is that the best stuff on the printed menu is so good that at times it becomes surreal on your tongue. The quail is one such item that comes to mind from the prior visit. Also a raw beef dish, a carpaccio was right there. Also…also…also..genius.

Ok, off to New York. Lots of pretentious dining in Manhattan. But there are two places with great eats and no pretense. Well, I’m sure there are more, but there are two I know of and never miss when I’m back there.

The first is Inoteca. It’s somewhere villagy, maybe east village. Its in a run down hood and it comes with a light patina of dust and well worn tables. The deal here is unpretentious intensity. The simple lunch here is antipasto and a glass of Barolo. I hear the truffle egg toast is great too. But I can’t get past the antipasto plate. I know it isn’t even cooked. It’s shopped and arranged on a plate. But the shopping and arranging is perfect. So is the wine, Barolo by the glass is rare and theirs is both rare and excellent. My argument here is that simple intensity is a star. All they need to do is not shoot off their foot. Sometimes life is that simple.

Last stop in NYC is Shopsin’s. Kenny, all 300 fly killing pounds of him is the avant garde sell taught genius that many food snobs hate. I’ve written enough about him before that I think all I need do is offer a salute and tell you that you are lucky to be walking the earth at the same time. Do what you will with that information on your next trip to NYC.

So this brings me to spot five in my fab five. And here I drew a blank. There are easily two dozen contenders, places I frequent often. I have a dozen places I enjoy in San Diego, I practically live at Ritual. The food there is very good, but they don’t match the other four. Same goes for Alchemy, The Linkery, Urban Solace and on down the list. Very good, but just a hair off.

I’ve had great meals in San Francisco, Aqua is a showstopper, but it is uber pretentious.

Three great places in the Ventura area, Café Zak, Side Car and the Curry Leaf. Love all three, but don’t 'love them want to marry the chef' love them like the top four places.

Brewer’s Art and Regi’s in Baltimore are in the same class. Love ‘em, but…didn't make the grade.
Berlin? Wow, three or four great meals there. The top place was very much like Aqua in SF. All world, but not an elbows on the table relaxed deal. The place where I had the veal cheeks…amazing. The place where I had the duck or goose on Christmas…that was the strongest contender for fifth place in Europe. It was corner bar comfy with great food.

Perhaps it was the symmetry of the thinking. Or perhaps it was homesickness striking me while in the Northwest I started this writing about Arr Place and I’m uh, ending up with My Place. Yeah, my fifth favorite place to eat is my house. It meets the requirements. It is unpretentious. Service is informal. Chef is a genius, but like the one in Norfolk, sometimes the experiments go awry. It is offset with a pretty solid wine list that generates the occasional ethereal pairing.

Well, that is it. My fab five as of summer 2011. And four of them will seat anyone with money (two are cash only I think).

The last place, there the chef will seat anyone with a documented antisocial personality disorder.

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