THE CASE FOR GRILLED HAM & CHEESE
August 21, 2010 § 1 Comment
Despite the constant upward surge of inflation and the continuing devaluation of the mighty dollar, there is still a lot one can do with ninety three clams these days.
Like almost filling up your gas tank, for starters. Or buying two grapefruits and a box of rice crackers at Whole Foods. Even better, you could make a donation to Meg Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign: she’s spent a hundred million so far and is still in a dead heat with a guy who’s spent… about ninety three clams, but she has to save the three billion she’s got left in her savings account for her failed presidential run in 2012, so you’d really be helping the dame out.
Just a few examples. But there are other ways to blow ninety three bucks and last night, cloaked by a soothing Pacific breeze, with hope in our hearts and a rumblin’ in our tummies, Victoria and I walked through the doors of Planet Raw, a supposedly trendy, all-vegan “eatery” (all who use that word in the absence of jest should be publicly flogged in the town square) in Santa Monica, a beachside neighbourhood here in LA.
I must preface what is to come with a qualification: we weren’t expecting miracles. Years ago, I happened upon the perfect approach to maximize one’s enjoyment (if that’s possible) of this kind of culinary fare:
Keep your expectations very low.
How low? Well, it’s surprisingly simple: expect that everything will taste like perfectly seasoned dirt, and work your way up from there. You’d be shocked by how pleasant vegan food can be when you don’t assume it will be in any way satisfying. Heavens to betsy, last time Victoria and I ate at a vegan restaurant, we found some of the food to be almost decent. A stunner in anyone’s book.
So it was in this state of passive acceptance together with girded loins and bored, pessimistic taste buds that we were seated at a table at Planet Raw, a strange moniker which could also have served as the name of a bondage club, which I think is perfectly appropriate, given the sadomasochism inherent in eating this kind of food on a regular basis.
The menu began with a full-page dissertation on the benefits of eating raw, organic food, the positive environmental effects, the geo-political and sociological ramifications and other facts and proclamations of global import. I understood the strategy; it was as if the owners were saying hey, the food you are about to consume may end up on the pavement outside at the end of the evening, but at least you’ll be saving the world. It felt like the culinary equivalent of telling your friend that the blind date you’re setting them up with has a great personality.
With sinking hopes, we surveyed the menu. It promised the world: gluten-free spaghetti and ‘meat’ balls, warm lasagna (warmth seems to be a huge draw in the raw world) and my favourite, a bacon western double burger. Who needs meat, dairy and flour when you have these treats? Hope returned; my taste buds stood on tiptoes; Victoria and I looked across the table at one another and afforded ourselves a smile, the leering grin of diners anticipating dizzying, euphoric satiety.
After what seemed like an hour (although the waiters here didn’t offer cow, they seemed to enjoy moving like them), our young aspiring model showed up, asking us if we were ready. You bet we were. I ordered the spaghetti and meatballs with a straight face, while Victoria went for the cheezy kelp noodles, after an appetizer of guacamole and chips.
We waited. Wheezing, dessicated homo sapiens surrounded us, proudly devouring their morally superior food, casting suspicious glances at us between wooden forkfuls of high-priced, designer roughage. They can smell our meat breath, I told Victoria. Nevertheless, we felt safe; these people could barely lift a water glass to their pallid faces without fainting.
Tectonic plates heaved. Continents shifted. Finally our guacamole arrived with what this establishment so cavalierly referred to as ‘chips’. These small bricklets came in two varieties: one was a seeded cracker of some sort, which passed as edible. The other? No amount of hypnotherapy could have prepared me for this waking nightmare. The last time I had seen objects like this was when I tried to dig through the wall of a Tijuana jail cell- I’m sure these moistureless nuggets now gracing my plate had the same properties as those I had hidden from the guards on my way out to jettison them in the exercise yard. Concrete is vegan, as far as I know. I never escaped from that Mexican prison. I won’t digress any further, except to say that forced sodomy on a grand scale was looking pretty good right now when faced with inserting one of these things into my gob.
But I did. Victoria stared, seemingly entranced by the horror show playing out on my sheet-white face. This was not taste; this was anti-taste, all the evil in the world pumped into one mortifying bite. I calmly placed the rest of the thing down on the plate, slowly took a sip of water and exhaled, a tiny sob escaping my offended lips. Victoria, having dodged a bullet, instead reached for the seeded crackers which, once buried under guacamole, were mildly acceptable.
Appetizer attempted, we sat back in our seats, already exhausted. We were like the boxer who returns to his corner after a bruising first round, his former feeling of invincibility suddenly transformed into doubt, introspection and, worst of all, fear. Heaven knew what awaited us.
Finally, the main course emerged. As soon as the plates hit the table, we knew that this meal could only have been constructed in Hell. My ‘spaghetti in marinara sauce’, as described on the soapbox disguised as a menu, was a sham, the greatest of hoaxes. Forget Nazi propaganda, forget Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’, forget “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, forget even “mission accomplished”… this was The Greatest Lie, trying to pass itself off as dinner. I imagined a bunch of wise guys from The Sopranos showing up here, ignorant of the kind of restaurant they were walking into, and ordering the spaghetti and meatballs. Tony would take one bite, calmly put his fork down, politely pay the check and tell the guys that they were leaving. An hour later they would return to the scene, baseball bats in hand, and the next day Planet Raw would be a steak house.
Victoria wasn’t doing much better. Her ‘cheesy kelp noodles’ were a modern disaster, right up there with the Greek economy and Kelsey Grammar’s Macbeth. Victoria’s face reminded me of my father’s when we went to see A Night At The Museum. This was disassociation in its purest form, taught to young federal agents to prepare them for torture and interrogation. Victoria had disappeared, only her body remaining, shovelling the food into her mouth as her mind thought of puppies, tropical paradises and harems containing attractive men who cooked and cleaned.
I snapped my fingers, startling her back to our miserable shared reality. It was time to get the hell out of here, and based on the evening’s experience I knew we had to start Project Runway on preparing our check now if we hoped to get out anytime soon. I hailed him and told him we were done. He asked if we wanted to box anything up to take with us. We told him we’d love to but were going to a party. He said he understood completely. I gave him my card and he left, saying he’d be right back.
That of course was ‘right back’ in vegan language, which we now knew meant at least ten minutes, during which time Victoria and I were able to each go to the bathroom and weep quietly, all the while nursing an ever-increasing hunger that would not quit. I dreamt of rare steaks topped with melted cheese and then layered on top with more steak, which was lovingly covered with steak-flavoured cheese. Not to be.
I returned to our table and there the total lay, winking at me: $93.20. We had spent ninety three American greenbacks on this fiasco. I saw the manager standing by the door, ready to bid us good night. Rage boiled inside me, courtesy of this con merchant and the people who employed him. It was time to burst the bubble, to pull the curtain back on this operation and say what most of these customers had to be thinking, that this was highway robbery and it had to stop. Now.
We headed for the door. He shook my hand, gave me a winning smile and asked how everything had been for us that evening.
I looked him right in the eye.
Stared deep into his burning soul.
Picture: A standard entree at Planet Raw.