on the eugene restaurant scene

It’s been a few days now since the Iron Chef Eugene 2011 competition, and I’ve been thinking of the restaurant scene in Eugene in general. It has really improved since I’ve been here, and for that I’m thankful, but it still has a long way to go.  It seems that the Bite of Eugene was a big hit this  year, both with the crowd and the vendors, and I’m still floaty-happy with what I saw and ate, especially the dishes in the competition.  I’m still planning to write out my thoughts on the competition, but first I have to rant about restaurants I *don’t* like.

Folks who have taken my Changes to Culinaria Eugenius poll so far have overwhelmingly indicated their desire to have me write more restaurant reviews (but I must add that “keep the CE mix it is now” is a close second, thanks!).

I don’t like writing restaurant reviews for several reasons.  I will certainly share when I find a restaurant or dish I like, but I’m not out for comprehensive coverage. First, we don’t have many good restaurants here, so my reviews would be overwhelmingly negative.  Second, to write a good restaurant review takes a great deal of time and effort.  One needs to visit the place on several occasions to do the review justice. I don’t, frankly, have the stomach (or budget) for that if the restaurant cuts corners with commercial produce and meats, and charges as if it doesn’t.  I also understand that we live in a small town, and small business owners can easily be ruined by bad press, and who wants that kind of bad karma?

Plus, many people are perfectly fine with family-owned, family-oriented restaurants — or expense account restaurants, for that matter — that cater to a quintessential “American” palate.  You can read their reviews on Yelp or Urbanspoon.

I’m not willing to apologize for elitist tastes, since you can eat like I do in many cities in very non-elitist places, but I’m very willing to acknowledge that my tastes are unusual.  We’re pushed to like certain kinds of food and many people don’t want to push back.  That’s fine for diabetes them.  And it would seem that many restaurateurs and chefs in Eugene don’t travel much and don’t explore different kinds of cooking, so we don’t even have a chance to broaden out our tastes in town.  Worse yet, the ethnic food in town is mostly sweetened up to American tastes so the places can stay in business.  Every Asian joint in town has to serve teriyaki to survive.  Ugh.  That’s a big downside to living here: the lack of diversity.

Robert Appelbaum posits that a restaurant is a unique place in society — it’s both public and private, individualized and generalized.  And the clash of expectations when something is private and individualized versus public and generalized offers perspective on why folks might react so strongly to dining in Eugene.  I’ve seen and heard of people actually becoming angry when confronted by a dish that isn’t familiar to them (and thus not the private, individualized experience THEY are seeking.  I use the term ‘confronted’ because that’s what people seem to feel is happening.  It’s as if any experience that doesn’t mimic one they have had at another restaurant (or, perhaps, at home) is an actual challenge to their way of life.

There seems to be a spectrum on which customers might be placed.  On one end, there are those who are seeking a familiar experience, and on the other, those who are looking to try new things that take one far out of one’s comfort zone. Every once in a while, someone will write to me and ask for a restaurant recommendation.  If they say, “I’m interested in a healthy lifestyle and we usually eat chicken breast and grilled veggies and salad at home,” I know they’re looking for the familiar.  Someone who says (often rudely) to a server, “I don’t even know that that is!” “Everyone likes hamburgers!” or “Where do they think up these things?” is also probably seeking the familiar.  These types of diners just want nourishment and not a challenge (to their eyes, tastebuds, or social milieu) while eating.  And that’s just fine, I suppose, as long as I don’t have to eat their food.

But I — we — do.  There is a very serious down side to exclusively eating familiarly, and you can see it in our growing problems with Big Ag.  Standardization means less variety.  You want a tomato that looks like a round, perfectly red tomato?  One that fits on your burger?  And all you eat is burgers, and therefore all you want to buy is that perfectly round red tomato?  Then the market will give you that and only that.

My blog is more for the person for whom “make it new” appeals, and I hope that Eugene’s dining scene continues to improve in providing for those customers.

For now, however, if you’re interested in change and culinary diversity, go forth, young people!  Stop settling for sugary meals.  Explore small, excellent, family-owned restaurants in Portland.  Better yet, go to Woodburn and try some of the Mexican places there.  There’s great, non-teriyakified Chinese food in Seattle.  At the very least, go up to lunch at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, where they serve Frank Morton’s healthy farm-bred lettuce hybrids selected for flavor, not storage capacity.  You’ll never eat commercial mesclun again.

But, if you want to know what I’d say if I were willing to write more restaurant reviews, I’d come down hard on my least favorite kinds of menus:

  1. big chain restaurants: salty, low quality meats, vaguely Asian sweet sauces, steamed vegetables, overpriced frozen seafood, achingly sweet cocktails and desserts featuring ice cream and chocolate, and mesclun salads;
  2. sandwich shops: sandwiches made of subpar cold cuts and big, dusty, sweetened wheat bread (or the alternative, tortilla “wraps,” ugh), sweet mayonnaise, and mesclun salads;
  3. hippie joints: bowls of goop, including some kind of soy product and vegetables, then drowned in a too-sweet sauce, and mesclun salads;
  4. “comfort food” places: see #1, plus an obsession with bland, white foods.  For me, comfort isn’t bland, and it certainly is not macaroni ‘n’ cheese or mesclun salads; and
  5. mesclun salads.

That encompasses about 75% of Eugene dining.  Another 20 percent is BBQ places (all with sweet sauces) and fast food (burgers and pizza).  Honestly, I’d rather eat at a fast food place where I can get dill pickles on my burger and fries without ketchup than at a place that non-consensually coats me in sugar.  Even the vegetables at these places are at best, uninteresting, and at worse, befouled with sugar.

And I just hate mesclun.  It’s the new fast food — standardized, bred for longevity, not taste, and dull.  Look at your salad.  There are several greens in there.  Why do they all taste the same?

When I go to a restaurant, I look for the dishes that have the best balance in flavors.  If anything, I tilt toward vinegar.  Strong flavors are better than bland ones.  Pickles, sour sauces, garlic, tomato, chili, sesame, lemon, mustard. I’m not a huge fan of organ meats, but I’ll take something with the slight bitterness of liver, say, than a dish that presents as five kinds of sweetness.

That’s me.  What about you?

Photos from top to bottom: dessert wines at King Estates Food Justice Conference dinner; lunch at Montana food conference; Iron Chef Eugene 2011 Heidi Tunnell’s chicken-under-a-brick and Chef Mike Meyer’s almond cake with chicken liver mousse; Tunnell’s grilled radishes.

6 thoughts on “on the eugene restaurant scene

  1. Laura 26 July 2011 / 2:20 pm

    Amen, Sister! We have such fabulous produce here in Eugene, and lovely farms that produce meats. We need more chefs willing to do something interesting with them.

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  2. postymcposterton 26 July 2011 / 2:25 pm

    “we don’t have many good restaurants here”…? Seriously? I think for a city our size (medium-to-small), we have some fantastic GREAT restaurants.

    ~Dan

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  3. Eugenia 26 July 2011 / 2:29 pm

    Seriously. We do have some very good restaurants, and some fantastic new additions to the scene. But we could seriously have more. As Laura said above, our region has amazing produce and local meats — unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else in the country. Our restaurant scene could be fabulous. But instead, it’s just decent. What do you look for in a restaurant, Dan?

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  4. Katherine 26 July 2011 / 4:14 pm

    Earthbound Farms has alot to answer for, but the ubiquity of “meslun”, mediocre mesclun, is really their fault. Big “organic” producers can be just (almost) as evil as non organic ones are. The key is in the size. Mono crop anything is the problem. Our salad greens (at Holy Cow) come from Sweet Leaf here in our part of the valley and are picked fresh several times a week, travel no more than 15 miles and every leaf tastes amazing………don’t throw the baby out with the bath water…..just say no to restaurants whose only “organic” contributions are mesclun and coffee…..how about the spices and the oils and the dairy and the…….list goes on. Ask before you buy into the green-wash……

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  5. postymcposterton 26 July 2011 / 4:28 pm

    I think it is quite fabulous for a medium sized city… we aren’t Portland. I think we have it great here, though.

    As far as what I look for… great veggie options and creativity. P.R.I., Nib and Off the Waffle come to mind and serve both those needs for me.

    ~Dan

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  6. Eugenia 27 July 2011 / 12:02 pm

    Always room for improvement, Dan! The places you mention are delicious, though; you’re absolutely right. Off the Waffle is an excellent business model, in particular — I watched those guys from day one hawking their product, giving out samples, working out trades. They deserve every success.

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