Steven A. Shaw vs. Food

This originally started as a review of his first book Turning the Tables, which I realized two-thirds of the way in that I had indeed read it. My LibraryThing confirmed it.  Oh well, it was still a good and quick re-read and I needed the “T” for the challenge. And then I read Asian Dining Rules in two days after and decided to combine the two.

As I noted from re-reading my review, the book was dated in 2010 and is even more so now. Neither being “the Internet food guy” nor experiencing high end dining is that unique. The Time Warner Center isn’t new and the “famous” chefs have lost media ground to the latest crop of “famous” chefs due to the growth of Food Network and its cousins. In fact, some of Shaw’s subjects and favorites are no more:

  • Gray Kunz is back in exile ala his time after Lespinasse with the closing of Cafe Gray (discussed in the book) and Grayz, which followed
  • His eagerly anticipated Time Warner restaurants struggled
  • Tabla was a victim of the recession
  • Starwich closed following a bankruptcy

In fact, Shaw himself is gone. He passed away in April 2014 and was mourned by some of those he wrote of in Turning the Table.

While some of that was exacerbated by the recession of 2007-10, some also has to do with NYC’s changing dining culture. Shaw’s eGullet lives on despite a state of the 90s web design, but the internet has drastically changed food writing just as technology changed food availability.

A central tenet of both of his books (2005, 2008) discussed the theory that each restaurant is two: one for the public and the other for the regulars. And I agree with him that  “There are few things more comforting in life than hearing a waiter say, “The usual?”” but I think he overestimates the wow factor of that now. 

I enjoy Shaw’s writing style, he feels like someone I would have enjoyed having a meal with even though I’m not a fine dining person.

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Asian Dining Rules  was written three years after Table and as with his previous one, it’s dedicated to getting an inside view. While its chapter on Japan was a nice complement to my recent sushi reading, I think the book came from a point of Mr. Know it All. Some of what he hated in Zagat (which formed a chapter of his book, nearly verbatim) came through in his analysis of the restaurants. Ditto with his dislike of critics.

That said, he added some additional info to that which is typically known of “ethnic” food. In fact, he has some interesting thoughts on what American diners really mean when they say “ethnic”.

Indian restaurant owners have told me that, time and again, their non-Indian customers order mostly the same five dishes. Thai restaurants seem to sell more pad Thai than everything else put together; sushi restaurants serve up an alarming number of California rolls; and many Americans assume that Korean cuisine equals and is limited to Korean barbecue—if they’ve even had Korean cuisine.

That was true when he was researching the book and is, with broad generalizations, still true in 2015. With eGullet full steam by the time he wrote this, some of the chapters are available online in condensed versions, but this was still a good read with them well-edited together.

Some other funny moments/interesting takeaways:

  •  Just as Masa was in the news while he researched these two titles, it is again at the time of this reading with the opening of Kappo Masa. The latter of which has broken the Internet.
  • “Chances are, your friend who doesn’t eat Japanese food will at least enjoy tempura. When cooked properly, tempura is the lightest, least greasy fried food imaginable. Unfortunately, most tempura served in Japanese restaurants in North America isn’t particularly good.” Sadly still true.
  • I really enjoyed his insight on off the beaten path places like Indochine in North Carolina. Truly shows the impact of  immigrants, but his comments on the lack of Filipino restaurants are sad.

An enjoyable if light read. Shaw’s beloved Empire Szechwan is still there on the UWS. Maybe I should go in honor of him.

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