Post 350: “restaurant mouth” revisited

The excellent local food blog Show Me Eats (run by a valued friend) recently marked its 500th post, starting on January 29th, 2008. With this post, I’ll hit 350 on a blog started one month later. Though I ran the blog all through 2008, it wasn’t until 2009 that we really started seeing good readership numbers, so there are a lot of interesting items tucked away in the early posts that haven’t seen much light of day. Over the winter, I’d like to start going back and calling attention to some of these.

In honor of Show Me Eats, however, which was founded by a foodie sick of bad and imported food in the supposed breadbasket of America, I offer a reprint of my favorite column from the early days of Food For Thought:

March 19, 2008: Restaurant Mouth

We don’t eat out much. After years of eating meals made at home, scratch-made from fresh, quality ingredients (there are few canned or processed ingredients in our kitchen), our taste buds have become exceedingly sensitive to the taste and presence of preservatives, salt, and other chemicals in most prepared food. Every now and then we’ll try a new place that claims to use “only the freshest ingredients”, with a chef on hand cooking real meals, only to come home with “restaurant mouth”.

This is the term we’ve coined for the dry, brackish, basically nasty aftertaste invariably left in our mouths after a restaurant meal. I’m not talking about fast food or chain establishments here, I’m talking about supposedly real restaurants with kitchens and “chefs”. We’ve reached the point where we can taste the canned ingredients, low-quality spices, or processed sauces in the dish with the first bite; the preservatives and over-salting are obvious. This pattern is proven by the consistent high quality and lack of restaurant mouth in the few regional establishments that we know for a fact use nothing but real, clean ingredients and have real, skilled chefs and cooks. These consistent winners always prove to us that (a) it’s possible to cook real food from real ingredients in a restaurant, and (b) that we’re not imagining our negative reactions to other establishments.

Speaking of negative reactions, “restaurant mouth” is often accompanied by “restaurant stomach”. We’ve found that our digestive systems as well as our mouths have become really sensitive to over-salting, preservatives, chemical flavors, and other signs of poor ingredients, because a visit to an unknown establishment tends to produce several days of upset stomachs or worse. We recently had an especially bad reaction to a supposedly high-end place that turned out to be one of the worst meals we’ve had in years, revealing abundant signs of kitchen laziness, incompetence, and poor ingredient quality. It doesn’t matter that your menu offers fancy entrees if they’re made with generic ingredients and little skill.In our experience, restaurant quality is only tangentially related to the “fanciness” of the place or the menu; our safe bets range from higher-end establishments to simple cafes.

A better yardstick for restaurant quality is the presence or lack of good vegetarian entrees on the menu (by good, I mean something more creative or skilled than a veggie burger). While we’re not vegetarian (at least at home), we’ve found that the presence of real vegetarian entrees tends to mean that (a) the chef is skilled, creative, and able to use raw ingredients well, and (b) the restaurant is aware enough of food and dietary trends to make that option available to its diners. All it takes is one good vegetarian entree in a menu of 10-15 meat entrees to please the vegetarian in a group, yet so many restaurants don’t even bother to learn how to make the myriad interesting, quality vegetarian dishes that are easily within their grasp. And to reiterate the point, I don’t mean the standard sops like veggie/mushroom burgers, canned tomato sauce on pasta, or tofu. A chef or cook with the confidence and insight to offer real vegetarian meals is far more likely to know what (s)he’s doing with everything else, too. The common thread is real, clean, fresh ingredients, cooks/chefs who know how to use them without the crutches of salt, chemical flavorings, and processed sauces, and an understanding of dietary culture that accommodates broad interests and needs. It’s a rule that’s rarely failed us in predicting or avoiding restaurant mouth.

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