Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are." Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said that, and I believe it. What a person eats says volumes about his personality; his choice in food speaks with a clear voice straight from the heart and gut. And that's why I went chasing off after George W. Bush at Heaven Dragon (see review). I was hoping to learn something about the man that was outside the territory of sound bites, policy debates and thirty-second standups on the south lawn, something about his love and craving.
Sadly, because the restaurant itself was so confoundingly mediocre, I was unable to come up with anything more insightful than this: Our president likes cheap, salty, strip-mall Chinese food.
And not just in Denver. After assembling Bush's order this past May, Heaven Dragon owner Dan Tang told a reporter why he'd slipped in an order of hot-and-sour beef: He'd read that the entire Bush family has a fondness for Peking Gourmet Inn, a restaurant just outside D.C., and that Bush Jr. particularly enjoys the hot-and-sour beef prepared by chef Robert Tsui.
"Follow the moo shu," whispered my inner Deep Throat. And had my schedule (and my expense account) allowed, I would've hopped the first redeye to Dulles and picked up the tastebud trail out in Bailey's Crossroads, Virginia. Instead, I sleuthed through the Internet.
Like Heaven Dragon, Peking Gourmet Inn is in a strip mall, and from the outside appears to be just any old suburban wokshop. Inside, according to Albert Eisele of The Hill, it's like something "straight out of a Fu Manchu movie." The Bush family has made more than fifty visits to this place over the years, and they always order the same thing: Peking duck (the restaurant's specialty), hot-and-sour beef, fried shrimp and Peking-style lamb chops. Also like Heaven Dragon, Peking Gourmet Inn has rave reviews scattered across the Web, glowing declarations of love from regulars on CitySearch and Epinions and Chefmoz. But it's also got this knuckle sandwich from Phyllis Richman, critic for the Washington Post, who -- confounded by the joint's popularity -- said it "seems like a standard pack-em-in-and-feed-em-quick Chinese restaurant," then added that the kitchen can't even do dumplings right, "and it's hard to find a dumpling that isn't lovable."
So now we have more than a habit. We have a pattern. George Jr. likes his Chinese sweet and salty and nasty. (I have another theory on food preferences -- this one originally posited by Adam, one of my old line cooks -- which involves being able to tell how a fella likes his ladies depending on how he eats, but I don't know Laura Bush well enough to get into that here.) More to the point, our C-in-C, the Leader of the Free World, Mr. POTUS himself, likes neighborhood joints. He eats like a truck driver, like a college student, like any other Johnny Paycheck coming in from a long day at the office and getting elbow-deep in a little sesame chicken and fried shrimp while unwinding with the family. And once in a while, he likes to go a little crazy and treat himself to some second-rate Peking duck. He eats what he eats and he likes what he likes, and though he's not scouring the fifty states for Hudson Valley foie gras, iced caviar and a bottle of '45 Petrus, seriously, would you expect him to?
Heaven Dragon -- despite my unpleasant experiences there -- is a wildly popular restaurant, just like Peking Gourmet Inn. I may not have loved the place, but then, that Brillat-Savarin rule applies to me as well. My palate is informed by a totally different set of circumstances than those of most folks who flock to Heaven Dragon and are fiercely loyal to the place. For example, I loved Ocean City Chinese Restaurant (1098 South Federal Boulevard) from my first meal there, when I ate pig's ear salad and sea turtle and blood sauce and rice gruel and really, truly dug it because I am a slut for traditionalism. Tell me that the crispy fried intestine on your menu is prepared special, just the way it has been for the past 500 years in the little village where you were born, and I'm asking for seconds before I've even finished my firsts. Just like the editors at Gourmet magazine, I like JJ Chinese Restaurant, 1048 South Federal (see Leftovers for details), because of its obsessive specificity: Everything on the menu comes straight from Guangdong province, where the chef grew up. I also go ga-ga over chef John Broening's charcuterie plates at Brasserie Rouge (1801 Wynkoop Street), the pho at Pho 79 (1080 South Havana, Aurora), the potato dumplings at Kabul Kabob (11002 East Yale Avenue, Aurora), and tapas wherever I can find them. But then, most people don't eat like me. Most people wouldn't want to. Most people seem to eat like George Bush, and if George likes Heaven Dragon? Well, that's a pretty big endorsement for his culinary constituents.
Thomas Jefferson, America's preeminent warrior-statesman, loved the pomp, the circumstance and the social combat of formal dining. William Howard Taft's favorite dinner was two whole roast chickens and a bucket of butter. (Okay, I'm guessing on that one.) When Richard Nixon went to China, he ate a fish that had been brought out still squirming, then was fried alive in front of him. Apparently Nixon liked it, or at least liked talking about it: Death on demand always fascinated him. And Bill Clinton, that polecat-crazy, stump-jumping hillbilly, sucked down the Big Macs, loved him some barbecue and decimated Krispy Kremes wherever he went. He was a fast-food gourmand, approaching it with a reverence and an appetite that was both startling and hedonistic, and that's just something I can't help but respect. This was a president whose predilections marked him in neon as a creature of instant gratification and poor impulse control from the start -- traits that certainly played out later in his private life, and proof of Adam's food-and-sex equation. What's more, Wild Bill's favorite restaurant in the world is this little hole-in-the-wall dive down in Little Rock called Doe's Eat Place. I've been there, and I know that Bill and I would've gotten along just fine over a few cold longnecks and bowls of Doe's killer chili.
I wanted to know where John Kerry ate when he was in town last week, holed up at the Inverness Hotel to get ready for his next debate. But oddly, Kerry's press people never got back to me with details of their candidate's habits. What, like they had something more important to do?
And while it may not be borne out by his name, his past or his checkbook, George Bush fashions himself an ordinary man -- a plain-speakin', straight-shootin' Joe out of West Texas, the kinda guy you want to watch the Sunday NASCAR wrap-up with, then maybe share a pitcher of sweet tea and ribs out on the screen porch. He wants you, the voter, to see that every plank in his platform is stained deeply blue from his collar. And sure, the shirt is borrowed (or possibly just bought cheap off the back of some poor shlub who needed the cash after having his job outsourced to Mexico), and the whole sales pitch is the worst kind of political bait-and-switch, because common is the last thing this nepotistic, Yale-bred fortunate son actually is. But none of that matters. Because eating is the most heartfelt expression of one's most personal self, I have to believe there's some truth to the just-folks image. He's not trying to fool anyone with what he has for dinner while he's flitting around in Air Force One. He's not stumping when he's in his hotel room dripping plum sauce on his pants and fumbling with the chopsticks. He is, in those moments, likely more truly himself than at any other time -- and what he is, is common.
Of course, I've never been terribly fond of the common man. Personally, I prefer the extraordinary man and will be taking my preferences with me to the ballot box next month. I'll be casting a write-in vote for Gaius Caligula. Now, there's a guy who knew how to eat.
Pretty boy floored: While I'm still on the national beat, let me share the news that uber-chef Rocco DiSpirito got banned by court order from ever setting foot in Rocco's on 22nd, the New York City restaurant that he founded, opened, then ran into the ground in front of millions of viewers during the run of The Restaurant, his quote-unquote reality TV show. His partner, Jeffrey Chodorow, has sued DiSpirito, claiming that he mismanaged the eatery -- because it's tough for anyone to run a restaurant with his tongue in the mouths of nineteen-year-old chef groupies.
Recently, DiSpirito was canned from his post as executive chef at Union Pacific in Gramercy Park -- his show-pony house and the kitchen where his cooking first brought him national attention. UP itself will close at the end of the year. So DiSpirito is now entirely without a house of his own. He's done, yesterday' s news and -- as I have always maintained -- still a friggin' embarrassment to working chefs everywhere.
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Anyway, Rocco, you know that feeling you got in your chest after seeing your troubles splashed all over the TV Guide and the New York Times? They call that poetic justice. Hurts like a bitch, don't it?
Leftovers: The current Gourmet magazine has four -- count 'em, four -- bumps for local establishments in its annual "Where to Eat Right Now" restaurant guide for the editors' thirty favorite cities. Of course, we're sharing ink and space with places like Dallas, Baltimore and Chicago -- cities whose restaurant scenes are no match for Denver, recession or no -- but still, press is press, and three of the four picks are solid.
Brasserie Rouge stunned whatever anonymous editor was in charge of this section with John Broening's wonderful French brasserie cuisine in a region better known for fat steaks, microbrews and Rocky Mountain oysters. M&D's Cafe (2000 East 28th Avenue), which is now open for Saturday brunch, makes the list with its barbecued ribs and peach cobbler (not the first time either have been mentioned outside of Denver, mind you). JJ was a great choice for Gourmet -- and for anyone looking for truly authentic Chinese fare -- because it's tucked away in a solidly ethnic neighborhood and just not the kind of place you'd expect the national press to find. The eponymous JJ was formerly in charge of the kitchen at Ocean City, and he's brought everything that was great about that restaurant to this one just a couple of doors away. The Kitchen over in Boulder (1039 Pearl Street) rounds out this gang of four, and while I didn't love the joint when I recently reviewed it ("Boulder Blahs," July 15), I also have a bone to pick with Gourmet's writer, since the blurb reads like it was taken off the Kitchen's website -- complete with the owners' commitment to local product, their wind-powered kitchen and bio-diesel fryer oil. Nowhere was there anything specific about the food -- but that may have been a mercy. And finally, in the same issue, Gourmet gives the nod to Gold Hill Inn, in the old mining town of the same name, for its sour-cream apple pie.
Although John Kerry could never have found the time to drive to Gold Hill for a piece of pie, right across from his hotel was a worthy eating option: Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, the latest entry in the upscale-steakhouse sweepstakes, opened on October 4 at 191 Inverness Drive West, with the usual big-meat amenities as well as a hundred wines by the glass.