Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Night on the Towne

I've often longed to be a restaurant critic. Quietly occupying at a new table every night, anonymously sampling food and drink and service - then sharing my findings with the world without so much as a single dish to wash in the morning.

Of course, being a restaurant critic on the South Shore is sort of like being the bolt inspector at a bolt factory. I mean, there are just so many ways you can go with it. Eventually you will run out of ways to describe the deep fried, carb-heavy, creatively-challenged sameness of the cuisine here in God's country.

And so last night's dinner at Towne Boston, a trendy new eatery on Boylston Street was a treat and a half for this weary palate.

It was a special occasion for the family, and I decided it was high time we celebrated in style. A few weeks earlier we'd been entranced by a restaurant segment on Chronicle, which featured Towne Boston, and highlighted it's unique fifteen-item Lobster menu - in addition to it's equally mouthwatering main menu. Sealing the deal, Towne was a collaboration between two local food icons who'd helped lift Boston out of the Bad Food Age - Jasper White and Lydia Shire. How could anyone go wrong with that?

And the experience was probably as close to I'll ever come to feeling like a guest judge on Top Chef. Even the three delicious tiny spreads that came with the bread basket required copious explanation from our heavily-accented server. But it was dessert, in the form of a sparkling foot-high beehive of brown sugar cotton candy that wafted onto our table like a fantasy ballet, which elevated our experience to another gastronomic level all together.

Because let's face it. You're never going to see that sort of thing at the Fireside.

And then, as if things couldn't get cooler for our swank-deprived family, a serious faced food magazine crew set up shop on the table next to us, aiming the most complicated looking camera lenses I've ever seen at bottles of wine and bowls of bisque and plates wood-fired crispy duck.

And that's when I saw it. The dapper elder statesman of the food crew was closely studying what looked like a little paper fan - with a picture of a lobster claw on it. The special fifteen-item lobster menu!

And I wondered why we hadn't been offered this menu. It was a special night for us after all, and I'd gone to the effort to inform the restaurant about it - hence the great table we were sitting at.

Then I remembered a review of Towne Boston I'd read - which mentioned that the restaurant staff had oddly neglected to provide the reviewer's table with the same, much-ballyhooed lobster-only menu.

Immediately, my well-honed sense of injustice kicked into gear.

Hey, what gives? Does Towne only provide the special menu to reviewers who show up with fancy cameras or TV crews, perhaps for the purpose of luring unsuspecting choice-deprived restaurant-goers from Hicksville like me to fill their expensive tables?

Yeah, it looked like it.

Since we were, at the time, finishing up with dessert, I attempted to suppress my disappointment, focusing instead on the fine food, good drink, fun time and otherwise great service we'd experienced. But still... it's not like we're going to go back to Towne next week. If you saw the prices, you'd understand. This was a particularly special occasion, after all, and we'd chosen to share it with Towne, only to learn that we and our special occasion were not special enough, apparently, to warrant a crack at the elusive lobster menu.

I contemplated interrupting the reviewer to ask if I might borrow the menu to take a look, if for no other reason than the hope that nothing on it would even appeal to me anyway. But alas, social anxiety got the better of me. I resigned myself to the fact that I may never solve the 15 item lobster mystery.

Back in Bridgewater, shortly after the polls had closed, the lobster menu was quickly forgotten as we found ourselves confronted with the depressing news that Deval Patrick had seemingly won another term.

A few hours later, I couldn't locate the TV remote and found myself unhappily forced to listen to Deval's victory speech.

Here was the same man who had famously striven to build three mega casinos across the Commonwealth, thus opening the door to a predatory vampire of an industry in the same State that had not only given birth to American Democracy, but could also still count itself among the precious few with the smarts and backbone to stand tall against the easy, sleezy lure of expanded gambling, and yet there he was - proudly, emphatically and without so much as a lick of conscious irony, contradicting all of it.

"To paraphrase President Clinton, there is nothing wrong about Massachusetts that can't be fixed with what's right about Massachusetts."

"Tonight Massachusetts chose to look up and forward and not down and to the past."

"We work to lift every corner, every community of this Commonwealth..."

"Now as always, I ask everyone in the Commonwealth to turn to each other, not on each other..."

"I'm not interested in what's easy, I'm interested in what's right. I'm interested in bearing our generational responsibility to leave a better Commonwealth than we found."

"We must be, all of us, about lifting the whole Commonwealth up, not tearing anyone down, and modeling for a nation hungry for something positive to believe in that we are once again the center, the leader for this country."

As I dug the remote out from between the couch cushions, I felt in real danger of losing the wood grilled portabello mushrooms with robiola crema and & sage crisps that I'd enjoyed earlier that evening.

Slamming the mute button, I decompressed in simmering silence, eventually realizing wearily that Patrick, like Towne Boston for that matter, was merely reciting a well-worn page from the politician's playbook.

The sweet nothing. The promise of something extraordinary that's only really real for the cameras.

So why wouldn't Towne think nothing of whispering it's own sugar-spun lobster nothings to get us in the door? Just one look at all those full tables... or at Deval's dewey-eyed victory night disciples - almost none of whom, I'd be willing to bet, live in a casino hot-zone or have an inkling of what those of us who do had to learn the hard way - and you'd know how insanely well it works.

But why do some of us fall for it so easily? Are we all so bored, so choice-deprived that we get stars in our eyes over something that just sounds different? Are we ultimately more satisfied with a tantalizing empty promise than an unfulfilling gritty reality?

At the same time, there are those of us who will just as inexplicably bypass the promising cutting edge for the disappointingly predictable.

I passed the house of an old friend the other day, spotting a lawn sign for a candidate who, two years earlier had grossly insulted him and others like him in return for a minor political gain.

And while there are people who'd never eat at the same restaurant where they'd once picked up a case of food poisoning, there are multitudes who will go back to the trough, time and time again, of the political candidate who only made them sick once or twice.

Fact is, in every town in Massachusetts, there are lots of places to eat - the good, bad and the ugly. But stellar political choices are as rare as a blue moon.

We can choose to eat at home - even learn to cook like a Top Chef - but unless we are willing to run for office - we are condemned to depend on others for governance.

And yet, ours has become a system that forces our candidates to pay to play, where an altruistic unknown is required to duke it out with millionaires and corporate-backed franchisees. The media and her pundits accept and enforce the system, while the rest of us, unless we have been painfully gifted by the reality that the media isn't, in fact, working for us, or even bothering to keep us all that well informed, fall in line.

And so, out of fear of the unknown or for the shiny sparkle of a continually broken promise, we check a box on a ballot next to something old or something new or something we hope just won't make us sick, coming to terms with our choices sooner rather than later.

Afterward, and without a lick of conscious irony, we'll lean back at our tables with cynical grins, longing for a white knight of change, of democratic salvation, clinging to a fading hope of term limits, deciding that OK has become good enough, accepting the notion that we are individually powerless, and probably never wondering when it was that the unthinkable became the inevitable.

Food for thought.

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