I’ve been from heaven to hell.
It wasn’t difficult: They’re only ninety miles from each other.
I’m in food heaven, the Napa Valley. Skies are clear, the weather warm, I’m eating and drinking at superb establishments, lollygagging around a boutique hotel, flitting from one winery to the next, sipping the wares, being pretentious. Everything is as it should be.
I slosh down zinfandels at Ravenswood, sparkling wines at Domaine Chandon and Mumm, cross the Rubicon at Niebaum-Copolla.
Fast forward and I’m at a small French restaurant next to the Napa River, finishing a New York strip with bordelaise and a mess of frites, twice cooked, crispy and puffy the way a good frite should be. In the spirit of overindulgence, I’ve added a “macaroni gratin,” doubling up on the carbs, piling on the fat.
The gratin consists of elbow macaroni, cooked al dente, plopped in a small baking dish with a ton of butter and a serious load of several cheeses — one of them a fine Gorgonzola. The concoction is baked until the top is golden brown. I happily spoon the macaroni into the bordelaise on my dinner plate.
It all goes quite well with a Napa red blend. A piece of lemon tart terminates the experience in fine fashion.
Thirty minutes later, Kathy and I are in our room, the door open to a balcony overlooking a deep and slow flowing river. We’re bundled into our fuzzy monogrammed hotel robes and I’m snug as can be, watching Teletubbies. I inhabit a universe in which everything is pthalo green, cerulean blue, cadmium yellow — unbearably bright, chock full of inarticulate good will. I experience a vision of how everyone will be in two more generations: narcotized by promise, loving, huggy, marching in jaunty lockstep through a shallow surf as their corporate masters play inane music in the background.
I am reminded by my highly chromatic television friends of the comforting, constant conjunction of “cloud,” “rain” and “umbrella.” It is a world in which everything good happens over and over and over again, until one realizes, happily, how very simple it all really is.
I’m in heaven.
The evening is the culmination of an outstanding trip to the valley — to Sonoma, Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, Calistoga. If you love food and wine, this is a great place to be. Some of the world’s great restaurants are here as are many of California’s great wineries.
That’s what I tell Raoul at the spa. I’ve finished a mud bath where I am suspended for half an hour in a hot and nasty blend of moss, hot mineral water, volcanic ash, and who knows what else after a succession of patrons have indulged the treatment in the same mess. From the mud, I waddle to a hot mineral bath and after that I am wrapped in heavy blankets, like a swollen bratwurst in a bun, and left on a bench to sweat for another thirty minutes. Raoul tells me the sweat removes toxins from the body. If that’s the case, the EPA should analyze my blankets and someone should bundle them with crime scene tape.
Then it’s off to another cubicle for a massage.
As he manipulates my flab, Raoul asks me where I’m from. I tell him I am from Siberia With a View. It is obvious he doesn’t care.
In a polite gesture, I ask Raoul where he is from. Raoul is from Jalisco. Guadalajara. One of seventeen kids. It is obvious I don’t care. But, that’s the nature of polite discourse.
“You live in food heaven,” I say as Raoul trips the light fantastic on my rear deltoids.
“Have you tried the sopa mariscos?,” asks Raoul. “Or the camarones in garlic butter? They are as big as your hand.”
“No,” I say, recognizing a kindred spirit, “but I’ve had some fantastic calamari, at a restaurant called Celadon, in Napa. The squid is lightly breaded and flash fried. Remember, Raoul, to ensure tender calamari, the flesh must be cooked very briefly or for a long time. Anything in between will produce shoe leather.
“The calamari at Celadon is perfect, swathed in a honey/chipotle glaze and accompanied by pickled ginger.”
Raoul does not care and proceeds to hit a knot in my trapezius. “The sea holds many wonders.”
“Ah yes, amigo, that it does.”
Food heaven is noted for its wonders and I encounter my share. In our journey through the valley, I chow down on a perfectly cooked filet, served with a light blanket of Gorgonzola, atop garlic mashed potato with a side of spinach sautéed with garlic.
We stop into Keller Brothers Meats in the heart of downtown St. Helena to see what is reputed to be one of the great cheese shops in the nation. The shop is amazing, Fromage Central, and I walk out with a bonus — a gigantic sandwich: rare roast beef, vine ripened tomato and an indescribably good cheddar, all wet down with fresh mayonnaise and stone ground mustard, bedded on a baguette baked not an hour before in a joint across the street. I’m on the Beef Express, violating dietary law at breakneck speed.
Kathy insists on trying a funky little taqueria in Calistoga, all chipped tile and metal tables. It is a hit, with small tortillas made on the spot, great meats and a fresh salsa the equal of any.
The same at another restaurant, in Sonoma. Real Mexican food.
But alas, I take a wrong turn and go to hell.
The day starts well. We jump in a rental car and head out of the valley, down to San Francisco. We swing over to the Pacific Coast Highway and motor south.
There is no inkling of what is to come. That’s a problem with evil: Despite what moral midgets profess, its not always easy to spot. It can creep up on you, surprise you.
I am lulled into a sense of false security when Kathy sees a sign advertising strawberries, “no spray.” We lurch off the highway, speed down a back road, stop at a dilapidated barn and purchase a small basket of fruit. The berries are unbelievably tasty: ripe, meaty, sweet glorious, distant relatives of the weak, pale disappointments shipped to the supermarket in Siberia With a View.
Down the highway a bit and we’ve made short work of the berries, but we’re still hungry. On the outskirts of Santa Cruz, we decide to stop for a bite.
It is here disaster strikes.
Every trip to hell is prompted by a bad choice.
In this case, the choice involves the rule I establish as we speed into town. Since I am at the wheel, suffering from perilously low blood sugar, my noggin full of weird ideas, spots jumping around at the periphery of my vision, the rule is that Kathy has to select the restaurant; it has to be on the right side of the roadway and there can be no turning back.
I admit it: I set the stage for a disaster.
Each place Kathy spots violates the rule. No, that’s on the other side of the highway, can’t do it. No, you didn’t see it soon enough, and we’re not going back. Pretty soon, we’re on the far side of Santa Cruz and Kathy is a bit frustrated. She bites my arm.
“All right Brainiac, we’re nearly out of town, and I’m starving. Make a right at the next stoplight. We are going to find something, or else.”
I do as I’m told.
“There,” she says as she points down a street in a residential neighborhood. I see a Ferris wheel turning in the distance. On the corner is a squat structure, its walls painted in garish, neon colors. It looks like an escapee from a mental institution was hired to decorate the joint: crazy uncle Eddie has crafted crude lavender flamingos that soar above acid green water; a child with a huge head and three eyes plays with a misshapen monkey.
“This is it, furball,” says the bride.
All the place needs is a sign above the door: “Relinquish all hope, ye who enter here.”
A television is bolted to a plywood shelf above the dining area and four small tables sit in front of a greasy counter. The television is tuned to hip-hop videos; the sound at jet engine level. It is not Herman and the Hermits.
A surly lad with jellied hair drops a basket of tortilla chips in front of us. The chips taste musty, of rancid fat.
We ignore the omen. A problem when confronted with evil.
Kathy orders carne asada tacos.
I scan the menu. I remember the taqueria in Calistoga, I remember Maya, in Sonoma. At both establishments, I ordered carnitas. The choice was right; I was rewarded with superb renditions of the traditional pork recipe.
“I’ll have the carnitas,” I say. “And bring me a bottle of Tamarindo to wash things down.”
If you go to hell, it’s your own fault.
It is not five minutes more before I realize: We are in the Worst Restaurant in the Universe.
Worse than anything in downtown Kabul.
Worse than a Baghdad lamb gland parlor.
Worse than a sub-standard chicken foot shack in Kowloon.
A plate materializes in front of me. Heaped in the center of the plate is a pile of meat. It is muddy yellow-gray in color, like the soil washed off a tailings pile at a uranium mill. It is outer space meat, the flesh of a creature from another dimension. Thick, tough skin covers the sides of the hunks of flesh and the pile sits in the middle of a pool of odd, purplish grease. There is a wad of limp, brown shredded lettuce at the side of the pile. The lettuce is crowned with a deposit of Miracle Whip and there is a wedge of unripe tomato half buried in the industrial glop. At the other side of the heap o’ flesh are two thin wedges of oxidized avocado, each still bearing the skin, each too hard to cut with the plastic utensils furnished by the less-than-attentive wait staff.
One glance at the mess on the plate in front of me tells me the Beast Master is in the restaurant business.
So, I eat it.
Well, not all of it. The layer of hide on the flesh is impossible to penetrate.
Kathy avoids her food and snatches my Tamarindo.
“Serves you right, chubby.”
As we head north into the verdant San Joaquin Valley, I begin to swell and I can’t help but wonder if there is a pod growing in my intestinal tract, nourishing itself on my internal organs, preparing for the moment when it will realize its gruesome essence and burst through my abdomen, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, ready to exact a horrible revenge on mankind.
Why would anyone want to produce the Worst Food in the World at the Worst Restaurant in the Universe?” Is this more proof that banality is the bedrock of all true evil, that badly made food is evil — if for no other reason than nothing, not even a being from another dimension, should die in order to become an ingredient in a crummy recipe?
How hard would it be to pop a boneless pork roast or a pork shoulder into a pot, brown it, toss in some onion and garlic, then some stock and herbs and chiles and let the darned thing braise for four or five hours? You shred the pork and serve it with fresh tortillas and some condiments — cilantro, chopped onion, queso fresca and tomato — and you’ve got simple, tasty, heavenly eats. Cube the pork, dust it with chile and seasonings and roast it, if you want. That’ll do the trick.
Why try to kill innocent people?
Obviously, to teach them a lesson, to punish them for their transgressions.
I learn my lesson: You’ve got bordelaise, stinky cheese, Teletubbies and some of the best wines in the country — don’t come up with a lot of rules and, better yet, stay put.
Then again, an occasional trip to food hell makes time spent in food heaven all the more sweet, makes a return trip to heaven more desirable.
I intend to return in the near future.
As soon as this pod matures, moves on, and I have some time to heal.