What do a Sweet Potato and a Museum have in common?
(And a project that could use your help).
Back in October I went to see Frank Gehry interviewed for SF City Arts and Lectures. Gehry is 86, provocative, eloquent, quirky, and refreshingly vulnerable. He addressed issues of public criticism towards his work and admitted consternation over the fact that while his pal Renzo Piano has had twenty-five museum commissions he has had only one. Another of his peeves is that he has never been commissioned to do any buildings in San Francisco. After the interview I ate at an amazing new restaurant, Cala in the same neighborhood. With Gehry’s words and his work still swirling around in my head, I had a lot to chew on.
While visiting Cala, it occurred to me that, like Mr. Gehry, no one had invited or commissioned Gabriele Cámara, (the person behind Cala), to come to San Francisco. Restaurant entrepreneurs like Cámara risk their money and reputations all the time just to have an outside chance of achieving viability. Only a few become celebrities or get rich. A new restaurant is like a Silicon Valley start-up, but without the dream of an IPO down the road.
The Gehry connection arose again as I realized that restaurateurs function not just as chefs, but also as designers. They are architects of food, designers of the eating experience. The similarities between architects and chefs/restaurateurs are numerous:
- They make statements in form and function everyday.
- They deal in aesthetics and rely on the language of visual communication: texture, color, repetition, pattern, etc.
- They create both spaces and experiences that can have a profound effect on us
- We take them seriously, greatly respect them when their work is good, and discuss their work endlessly.
- They reflect the culture of the times and tell us a lot about our values and about ourselves.
- They compete everyday for public approval and are the subject of critics who can be merciless.
Visiting Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao in 2001 was one of my peak architecture experiences. Its elegant fusion of technology and art has set a high bar for modern art museums. The building helped change a city and an economy. It became iconic overnight. There is nothing quite like it.
No restaurant is likely to have quite this impact, but the Cala dining experience, and especially one dish, begged architectural comparisons and made me rethink Mexican food overnight. A board arrived at my table carrying what looked like the charred remains of a prehistoric bone or rock. It was an unusually big form, organic, with an amazing skin – provocative, innovative. (You could use those same adjectives to describe Gehry’s Bilbao). The humongous spud came with a side dish of bone marrow and a stack of fresh corn tortillas, the only element that was traditionally Mexican. It was so original, earthy, tasty, bold. (I’ve tasted nothing quite like it).
The entire Cala experience was a wake up call to excellence in design and to the value of innovation, elegance, and surprise. You sense this the moment you enter and walk by a wall of living plant life into a generous bar area. You find a calming high ceiling of painted white woodwork, greyish walls with original texture and exposed plumbing and quirky ethnic lamps. The chairs are unpretentious and there is a casual simplicity in the tableware, servers’ outfits, menu colors and typography, serving dishes, authentic mescal cups, etc. No detail is left unconsidered, yet nothing is slick or fussy. There is an uncommon freshness and friendliness about the place. Like nearby Zuni, the space and the materials and details are as original as the menu.
Cámara, is something of a rock star in culinary circles for her Mexico City restaurant Contramar, and the professional critics have been touting Cala since before it opened. Our local food critic, with others, others raves about it. The menu has surprises like tamales with embedded mussels, light colored beans served with mustard greens and vinaigrette, a range of mescals probably not seen before by most mortals. I’ve now eaten there numerous times and can vouch for the consistency of the experience. If you don’t have the budget for dinner try their $3.50 lunch tacos served out the back door and see how perfectly a soft boiled egg goes with rice, beans and tortillas.
Your help: one restaurant lead from you.
That Gehry and Cala evening sparked my interest in the intersection of architecture and design with the social activity of eating and the talented people who bring them together. So I’m working up a roster (with some editorial comments) of the more interesting venues around the globe – and could use your help. It will be anything but a Michelin Guide to “dining” or reviews of “designer restaurants”. Rather it should be the discovery and celebration of unusually brilliant, unpretentious venues – diamonds in the rough, like that crusty sweet potato. Maybe it can become something like a Trip Advisor for the rest of us.
I’m starting this with a list of places from chefs recommendations. (Cámara gave me her ten picks in San Francisco). Could you please send your choice of the one eating place that you would single out as noteworthy and soulful (a picture would be great). Send to email@example.com. I’ll take it from there and get back to you.
Thanks and Happy New Year