Friday, November 16, 2007

Food was meant to be enjoyed, but...

A recent comment on my blog "gently" blasted my critical approach to
dining out. Although Ibelieve that most of my posts heap praise on
tasty dishes, I do consider it my obligation to share my questions and
concerns with other consumers. For me, part of the satisfaction of a
good eating experience is not only the flavor, ambiance, service and
company (hi Karen!), but also the monetary value of the meal, the ethic behind the operation, and the educational opportunity of a new experience. Therefore, when an meal is puzzling or troubling, then I feel compelled to share my thoughts. For instance:

I love to eat fish and, for me, Carytown Seafood is the most convenient place to buy it. I'm also an admitted cheapskate. I'd rather pay $6.99 a pound for mahi or wahoo and heap on the marinades and rubs, than pay $11.99 for grouper that sings with a squeeze of lemon. Of course, I waffle back and forth depending on the occasion or if I need to impress my wife. Either way, the folks at Carytown Seafood usually don't steer me wrong. However...

One day while at Carytown Seafood, I saw the most beautiful looking fillets for only $5.99/lb. They looked like Chilean Sea Bass, only smaller (and hopefully not nearing extinction). The sign read: Escolar. The firm cuts would be perfect for grilling. I went with a simple salt/pepper rubdown, figuring that its mackerel-like oiliness would offer a flavor to be savored.

Let's fast forward. The meal was great and my wife and I were happy with the
bargain fish. But, as the night went on, we both independently sequestered ourselves in separate bathrooms. Why? Let's ask Wikipedia about Escolar.

Like its relative the oilfish (Ruvettus pretiosus), it cannot metabolise the wax esters (Gempylotoxin) naturally found in their diet, which accumulates to give an oil content in the muscle meat of 18–21%. These wax esters may rapidly cause gastrointestinal symptoms following consumption; however, these effects are usually short lived. The gastrointestinal symptoms, called "keriorrhoea", caused by these wax esters may include oily orange diarrhea, discharge, or leakage from the rectum that may smell of mineral oil. The discharge can stain clothing and occur without warning 30 minutes to 36 hours after consuming the fish. The oil may pool in the rectum and cause frequent urges for bowel movements due to its lubricant qualities and may be accidentally discharged by the passing of gas.

If you dare read further in the Wikipedia entry, you will find out about the legislation against commercial use of the fish, or the ban on escolar in certain countries, or the list of fish that you buy regularly, but might actually take home escolar. At any rate, I don't think Carytown Seafood should sell the stuff, and I told them as much. Their response amounted to a shrug and I don't blame them. Being a bargain hunter, I'm still almost tempted to buy it every time I see it in the case. Well, almost.

Another food that seems almost too good to be true is the sunchoke,
or Jerusalem Artichoke. The other night, Karen and I had them sauteed
with garlic as well as a razor-thin-sliced raw preparation drizzled with
olive oil. Both were awesome - possibly the best tubers I'd ever had.
The next day, my wife wound up conferencing about the effects, a
pattern that is becoming all too familiar for us. That night, when
Karen went to bed early, I went down to my basement office and didn't
consider my bubbling combustion to be abnormal or offensive, since I was by myself. However, in retrospect, I probably could have levitated on a pillow of air that night. It was my polite and dainty wife's experience at work the next day after having leftover sunchokes for lunch that inspired this post (and probably a few gripes from her co-workers).

Again, let's consult Wikipedia about Sunchokes (Jerusalem Artichokes):

The inulin is not well digested by some people, leading to the misconception that sunchokes are not edible or an assumption that they cause flatulence and gastric pain. Gerard's Herbal, printed in 1621, quotes the English planter John Goodyer on Jerusalem artichokes:

"which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men." [4]

This account was not typical of most peoples' experience eating the tubers and they were cultivated in the gardens of Native America and the Pilgrims. They continue to be planted and consumed.

Yeah, right. I'd like to know if others have had this experience to these squash tasting parsnip-like root veggies. And how about a little warning next time, huh? While at work, coping with her intestinal distress, my wife found a blog post from a sympathetic foodie who uses a Rolling Stones song to summarize thesunchoke experience. I also turned up a fart-free
preparation tip that might inspire me to try these root veggies again one day.

Culinary misadventures aren't only suffered at home. Often times they begin while dining out and we are rewarded for patronizing a restaurant with stabbing pains in the gutz and hours sweating it out on the commode. I hear it's a common risk, but what is a consumer to do for recourse? Can you imagine going back the next day and complaining that you got the runs? Do people do that? And who wants a free meal in return? I'd like to name names and rattle off some restaurants that I can't bring myself to visit ever again, but it could be construed as slander and it's just plain embarrassing all around. Of course, not every customer gets struck by a bacterial chain reaction. So, as much as I'd like to break the apparent silence, I don't really know if it's right to mention offending restaurants by name. And who knows, maybe it's me (no matter how infrequently it happens or the fact that everyone around the table is usually victim of the same symptoms). Do any of you have any suggestions? Do you want names? Is it safe to say?

I will say that I used to live near El Rio Grande Cafe on Cary Street in the Fan. Since it's closed now, I can say that no matter how many times I went and ordered different (always vegetarian options) I had the worst digestive response. I started calling the place ElDiarrheo Grande. And then there's OBurrito , also thankfully defunct. Really painful problems thanks to a bunch of teens shoveling who knows what into enormous tortillas. This is usually my favorite recipe, by the way. But my problem isn't just withtex-mex, the unnamed establishments are mostly asian , but I don't think it matters. If you readers respond with your tales, I'm sure that every type of cuisine would be charged with allegedly poor practices in terms of hygiene.

As you can see, I like to point out the potholes in the roads that cut through an otherwise splendid neighborhood. For me, it's worth navigating a minefield to have those few transcendent experiences where I wind up talking endlessly about a restaurant (see Taqueria del Sol) and becoming a regular customer. But, as a guy who likes to write and share, it's the questions that really compel me, even to the point that I'm willing to paint myself in the most unflattering scenes and admit my own guilt as a frugal freak. But I'll make no apologies, because it's my curiousness that keeps me going. One day, you'll probably read my obituary: RVA Foodie, died of botulism from eating food from dented cans purchased at his favorite grocery store, Salvage Barn. My dying word, "It was 75% off the retail price. I couldn't help it."


  1. Cassie2:47 PM

    Remember that salvage grocery store in Arkansas we went to, "A to Z?" Well, I eventually learned to love it, but as a child I was horrified by my mother's pantry of dented, labelless or otherwise questionable cans and boxes. I hope for yours and your child's sake that it doesn't run in the family.
    I also wish I could eat some of these creations.
    Oh, and I say use names. Definitely. I'd want to know and I'd like to read the defenses that may get posted in response.

  2. Ambivalent Richmonder12:46 PM

    Don't worry about the critic's critics.

    If you criticize a restaurant, you're bound to anger someone. But for those of us without a lot of cash, blogs like yours help make decisions about where to dine out and what to get when we're there. After all, isn't that the point of restaurant criticism? Helping interested readers spend their money wisely and encouraging the survival of good restaurants?


This site has moved to
Please comment there instead.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.