Cross-posted on Gourmet Gourmand Glutton.
If you've spent much time in Chicago fine-dining restaurants, you may have noticed an intriguing fact (well, it's intriguing if you're me, and, given the size of my readership, for all practical purposes you are): they don't put salt and pepper shakers on the table. This is not the case in New York or San Francisco or New Orleans, only here. I have to say, I like this; I think it shows a becoming arrogance: your chef is telling you, I'm in charge here; I know how to season your food. (And may I add: bee-yotch, he goes on. He's kind of a dick, this chef in my head.) This is a risky move; far safer is the route proposed by the woman I used to call the Not-Girlfriend (because of how she was not my girlfriend) one time when I had overseasoned some seared scallops I'd made for her: barely season, and let the diner decide how much or how little salt he or she wants. Personally, I regard this as weak-kneed wimpiness. Take a stand, damn it! Your food should reflect who you are, should taste like you. (Well, not like every part of you, because, well, feet.) (And of course, ass.) Some people won't like it, but the hell with them. I've never been in a place where they've been less than cordial about bringing salt and pepper if asked, but the ideal is: you shouldn't have to ask. The chef should have taken the risk of seasoning appropriately to bring out all the other flavors in the food. Because that's what salt does: it opens up your tastebuds and opens you to all the nuances of the dish. That's why, no matter how many herbs or spices you dump into a recipe, if it doesn't have salt, it will still taste bland.
My daughters and I went over to try Blue 13 a few weeks ago, and I had high hopes; after all, this was a place that advertised its "rock and roll" sensibility, whatever the hell that means, and had a dish on the menu called "steak and eggs on acid." Sadly, as happens so often with fine-dining restaurants, nothing lived up to the hype; the only flavor in the crispy pork belly was kimchi, and it too was bland (I know: bland kimchi; that's just wrong, and I think maybe against the laws of god and man), the truffled mac and cheese was watery and tasteless and the steak-and-eggs not so much on acid as on some form of mild painkiller--ibuprofen, perhaps--or possibly a placebo. They, like most everything else, pretty much lacked all flavor; I say "most everything else" because the short rib, which was undercooked for a braise, did have flavor, a weird and unfortunate flavor, slightly reminiscent of wet dog or skunky beer. And everything, every! damn! thing! we tried was desperately, hopelessly underseasoned. I don't think of a "rock and roll" sensibility as "lacking in flavor," but perhaps they're thinking of their favorite "lite rock" station when they use that phrase. Yeah, baby! Bring the Air Supply! Party on, though not past 9:30.
I mention one more disappointing fine-dining restaurant not because I'm a particular devotee of applying cudgels forcibly to defunct equines, but because Blue 13, like most other Chicago fine-dining establishments, does not put out salt and pepper on the tables. But here's the thing: if you're not going to make salt and pepper readily available, you must be bold, and damn near perfect. That was my objection to Blue 13: pictures of tattoo art on the walls or not, there was no sense of boldness there, no sense of risk-taking. Mungeing together steak, pierogies and wasabi is not taking a risk if the steak, the pierogies and the wasabi all taste the same, and if the wasabi has no kick at all. Sometimes if you are bold you will fail, put too much or too little salt in your food, but there's no risk without the chance of failure. Julia Child, one of my culinary heroes, never suggested, "Put a little less salt in; the people you're cooking for will add their own" or, "You know, that might be a little too much butter for some people..." She dropped butter in by the handful--more even than Jacques Pepin apparently could handle on occasion, and he's French, for god's sake--and attempted, not always successfully, to achieve the perfect level of seasoning. Anything less is an abrogation of responsibility, throwing your hands up and saying to your diners, "Ah, well, you go ahead and do it."
Balls! Take a stand, and if you screw up, take the blame, but don't push your job as a cook off on the diner. Well-behaved women, it is said, do not make history, and self-deprecating chefs do not make tasty food. (Well, I do, but I'm only self-deprecating in my blog.) Cooking is art, not color-by-numbers.