Monday, July 23, 2018

LA Loses Gold - Their Venerable Food Critic Who Knew Good Food And How To Write About It

Jonathan Gold was my guide to eating out in LA.  As a food critic, he wasn't snobby.  As Sunday's LA Times article tells us:
"Food criticism before him — and even during his time — focused on the austere, the high-end, the Michelin stars. Gold redefined the genre, drawn more to hole-in-the-wall joints, street food, mom-and-pop shops and ethnic restaurants than he was to haute cuisine. Although he appreciated and wrote beautifully about fine dining, he revered the taco truck more than the tasting menu. . ."
“Jonathan understood that food could be a power for bringing a community together, for understanding other people,” said Ruth Reichl, who edited Gold at The Times and at Gourmet. “In the early ’80s, no one else was there. He was a trailblazer and he really did change the way that we all write about food.”
"Gold was mission-driven as a critic, hoping his food adventures through the city’s many immigrant enclaves would help break down barriers among Angelenos wary of venturing outside their comfort zones. In the process, he made L.A.’s enormousness and diversity feel accessible and became one of the city’s most insightful cultural commentators.
“I am trying to democratize food and trying to get people to live in the entire city of Los Angeles,” he said in a 2015 interview with Vice. “I’m trying to get people to be less afraid of their neighbors.”
In 2007, when he was writing for L.A. Weekly, Gold became the first restaurant critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. "
His death at 57 is a great loss not only to LA, but to the art of writing about food.  So it is with sadness, I post about him today.

And I've had a draft post up for nearly a year now because I was so taken by one of his reviews last year.  It was over-the-top, but then the restaurant itself was beyond that even.  Was the chef a true artist who sculpted not only the food, but the whole dining experience and, with Gold's help, found people to pay for his art? (Dinner for two was $1000.) Or was he spoofing restaurants who gave people a square plate with couple of artfully placed asparagus and dribbles of colorful sauce for $40?

I never posted about that review, but it seems appropriate now.   Especially because today's article tells us:

"Gold was protective of Los Angeles and how it was portrayed. For years, when the Los Angeles food scene was overlooked by critics who preferred dining in New York and San Francisco, Gold was quick to defend and champion it.
After New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells disparaged the Oakland location of Locol, a fast-food chain that originated in Watts, Gold penned an impassioned essay in response.
“Locol is less a replacement for a fast-food restaurant than a better version of it,” he wrote. “Someday, if he’ll allow me, I’d like to take Mr. Wells to Watts.”
Perhaps to make a point, when it came time to pick his first Restaurant of the Year recipient three months later, Gold chose Locol."
Verspertine is about as far from the the Southern India spot in the Culver City strip mall or the food truck anywhere.  His review begins:
If you were looking for the oddest dish being served in an American restaurant right now, you should probably start with the fish course at Jordan Kahn's new Vespertine, a dish that nudges the idea of culinary abstraction dangerously close to the singularity. It doesn't look like fish, for one thing — it looks rather like an empty bowl, coarse and pebbly inside and out, of a blackness deep enough to suck up all light, your dreams and your soul.
If this were Coi or Alinea, to name two modernist temples, your server would instruct you on how to eat the dish, or at least on where you might direct your spoon. At Vespertine, the server, wearing a severe frock like something out of "The Handmaid's Tale," does not. If you prompt her, she may whisper the word hirame, which in a sushi bar can mean either flounder or halibut. She will leave before you discover that the flounder has been pounded thin, crusted with charred-onion powder, and pressed into the bowl over a kind of porridge studded with minced shallot, perfumy bits of pickled Japanese plum, and bright, crunchy bursts of acid that could either be finger-lime vesicles or chopped stems of the wildflower oxalis. You are not sure exactly what you are eating. You are not meant to know. You have traveled from darkness into light, and that is enough.
The link here is worth it just for the pictures, but also for his words.  Gold knows that few of his readers will ever go to Vespertine:
I would say that a meal at Vespertine is mandatory for a certain kind of diner, but mandatory in the way that the James Turrell show at LACMA a couple of years ago was mandatory, or Berg's "Wozzeck," or the current season of "Twin Peaks." It's not dinner; it's Gesamtkunstwerk.
But for most of us, reading Gold's description (it's way beyond a review) of the Vespertine experience makes me, at least, feel like I was there with him.  Vespertine was his Restaurant of the Year for 2017.  I imagine he saw it not as a spoof, but the work of great artist, and like a Lamborghini, something to admire, but something only a few would experience.

May Anchorage's food critics read Jonathan Gold's old reviews and set their sights much higher.

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