By MAX HARTSHORN
La Belle Province, or should I say Provence? Its very name evokes images of that hallowed region of southern France: the fields of marjoram and lavender, the plush landscapes of Cezanne and Gogh, and the equally luxurious wines of Bandol and Cassis. I’ll admit, it was longing for those lost months spent summering in the lush depths of the Rhône valley that brought me here, with a faint hope to capture at least a taste of that lost youth and innocence. Little did I know whatever shred of purity I still retained from those days would be stripped from me more cruelly than the skin off a ripe Amandine potato.
Upon entering the establishment, I sniff – something is horribly amiss. After years of reviewing restaurants one’s nose becomes accustomed to being greeted by an aromatic array of herbs and spices. The distinct, almost Lacanian lack of even the slightest hint of seasoning begins to haunt my olfaction faculty. (I must note that the omission of a single spice here and there is not necessarily a bad thing. As I detail extensively in my book on minimalist cooking, Thyme-less Wonders: in Search of the Raymond Carver Snackwich, such practice may actually be the key to unlocking a food’s true flavor. Yet an absence of any herb whatsoever is simply too much to bear.)
The décor is the one thing that seems to emit an odor. Sandwiching the customer between a plain brick wall and a shimmering metallic counter forces one to lay bare and come to grips with their own existential angst. Yet the symbolism is so overwrought, so heavy handed as to border on camp, reminding us that the difference between Sartre and satire is but a single letter. I express my initial antipathy to the owner who in turn tells me, and I paraphrase here: ‘to suckle manfully on the testes of an Equus caballas.’ I tell him he could suck on my testicles had they not spontaneously retracted into my body cavity the moment I set foot in this dump! Disgusted, at both my own demeanor and the demeanor of the proprietor, I nevertheless place my order. Such are the trials of the food critic; “that we must stomach even the vilest of ragout / and pass our knowledge on to you” (from my other book, The Rhyming Structure of French Cookery: A Treatise on Post-Structuralist Food Criticism).
What strikes me first about the burger is its transparency. Not in the visual sense of course, but in the way it leaves itself so readily open to analysis. I mean they even ask you what to put on it! Any true chef combines a delicate sense of artistry with subtle whimsy and just a dash of mischief. Here the common fool can walk right in off the street and order whatever combination of ingredients he wants without even the slightest conception of what makes Romanian Urdă so metonymically superior to Norwegian Geitost. (Hint: does the rennet enzymatic reaction ring a bell? Then again, I do favor complexity in my cheeses…but I digress.)
Some of my contemporaries may attempt to place this ‘new’ way of ordering in a positive light. They may argue that customer choice allows for the playful fragmentation and problematization of hegemonic food structures. Yet the perennial list of stock ingredients: lettuce, tomato, onion, is always the same. Any sense of creativity is pure illusion, as pre-packaged as the steak patty itself. It so stifles the imagination that I cannot even come up with an appropriate metaphor to describe it.
As I search my rucksack for some spare porcini mushrooms, anything to salvage this wreck of a meal, my attention is drawn reluctantly to the fries. Each more phallic than the last, they slump reproachfully over one another, clumped together in a massive orgy of soggy erectile dysfunction. And people dare prefix the word ‘French’ to the term! Alas, I cannot bare even a single one. Do you ever get the feeling a great tragedy has unfolded on miniature scale before your very eyes?
I repress the sudden urge to vomit, though I do wonder what it would taste like. No doubt my stomach could make a better cook than anyone here. At La Belle Province the only flavor to be found is in the salt of one’s own tears.
Rating: one disinterested “meh”