Friday, May 6, 2011

Topless Dining - More Than Meets The Eye

On all of those television cooking shows – “Top Chef,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” The “This Risotto Tastes Like Cardboard” Hour (why do these aspiring chefs fail so badly at making risotto? It’s just pasta. I burn toast approximately 98% of the time but even I can pull off a mean, albeit boxed, risotto) – you hear judges, taste testers, chefs, etc. mockingly insult contestants’ cooking skills by comparing their culinary creations to banquet food. So often you see chef Gordon Ramsay screaming, spittle flying all about (which seems rather unsanitary in a kitchen), calling someone on his show an “arse” and telling them that their peas are mush and their salmon tastes like wedding food.

Ah yes, at some point “wedding food” became synonymous with things that are bland, boring, poorly cooked and, frankly, an insult to one’s taste buds. In fact, our expectations of banquet-style food are so low that when we actually attend a wedding where the food is decent – adequately seasoned and not over/underdone – we are pleasantly surprised (“Wow, this steak is actually edible and, for once, doesn’t resemble a brick!” is a phrase that is sometimes thrown around at more upscale events). It’s understandable why this happens though. I mean, imagine trying to cook a 4-course meal for 150 people. How good can it be? If you think about it, banquet facilities are really just prettier versions of your school cafeteria. They need to serve a large number of people in short order. And they’re not just doling out greasy pizza and little cartons of milk here – they’re expected to perform feats of delicious extravagance. While a regular restaurant would never seat 15 parties of 10 all at once for fear of overloading the kitchen, that is exactly what happens at a wedding.

Since my Groom-A-Saurus Rex (GAR) and I are somewhat decent foodies (which I have decided is just another term for people who enjoy eating food that actually tastes good – novel idea, I know) we really wanted to offer our wedding guests something to eat that, if not totally fantastic, would at least knock their socks off in an “Okay, that was better than I thought it would be … for wedding food anyway” sort of way. And so, when looking for reception venues, we sought out places that are primarily restaurants that just happen to offer banquet facilities on the side (as opposed to venues that are designed explicitly for hosting catered functions, which generally have more homogenized menus). And naturally we chose to look only at restaurants that we think offer really good food. I was also leery of dining concepts that are “trendy.” Right now the big craze for weddings is customized chef-manned food stations and we were pitched this idea at most of the venues we visited. While I love the idea of everyone having food that’s created just for them, just the way they like it – made-to-order omelet and crepe stations, assorted combinations of mashed potato creations served in a martini glass, you-pick-it pasta selections – I thought that, realistically, doing things in this manner would take too long. I was picturing 100 people queued up for half the reception while they waited for the chef to torch the top of their individual-sized crème brûlée. Sure it’s cool, but is it practical to have to balance half a dozen tiny plates of food back to your table?

In the end we selected a venue with fantastic food, Ceviche. The menu at Ceviche offers more than 100 dishes to choose from (a daunting enough task when you’re in the dimly lit dining room straining to read about each one in Spanish, but even more daunting to sort through when you’re trying to pair together an assortment of dishes to serve at your wedding) served tapas style (if you’re not familiar with “tapas” it’s basically just the Spanish term for appetizers, and when I say it aloud everyone seems to think I'm saying "topless." Generally you order a bunch of different tapas for the whole table to share and sample … and as you sip on sangria you order even more … and then when the bill comes you wonder why you spent your whole paycheck on olives and exotic cheese). Acknowledging that Spanish cuisine is not everyone’s cup of tea I poured through their menu and selected a great combination of items with a good flavor, but which would still please pickier palates. So while items like oxtail and chicken livers may be delicious (I said “may,” I actually have no idea how they taste), they got the axe. As did the items that GAR and I would normally choose for ourselves – squid, shellfish, tofu, anything smothered in a spicy “diablo” sauce, and even the namesake dish of ceviche itself. And when you break it down to the items people are most likely to eat – salad, chicken, fish, potatoes (and, yes, some of those exotic cheeses I mentioned previously) – it does start to look like any other wedding menu. And, heck, we even ordered one of those trendy chef-attended stations, though ours is serving up paella.

That said, we did our menu tasting this week and wow! It sure doesn’t taste like bland wedding food. We sampled so much (for our guests’ benefit, of course) that we practically had to be wheeled out of there due to overstuffing. GAR didn’t even get to enact his plan to try all of the most expensive, crazy items on the menu for free. There just wasn’t any room left for that. In the end we think the menu choices we made will knock it out of the park. Although, once everything is made in mass and placed on a buffet I can’t help but worry that it will still feel a little like dining at Golden Corral. But, hey, at least it will be an exotic Golden Corral … I mean, “El Corral Dorado!”

In the end, what do we care? After all, everyone says you’re too busy to eat on your wedding day anyway. Although, if it’s up to us (and frankly I think it should be), we’ll try to break that silly fasting tradition by continuously shoving patatas bravas and croquetas in our mouths while we do the electric slide (except, of course, there’s no way we’re doing anything resembling the electric slide at our wedding) because, hey, we picked this menu and we’re going to enjoy it.

Bon appetit! (Okay, I don’t know how to say that in Spanish.)

1 comment:

  1. Can't wait to sample some of these. Buen Provecho, I think.