The in-Authentic Cafe

There are two types of restaurants in the world: authentic and inauthentic.  Right now I’m sitting at one that’s right on the fence, and can go either way.

I’ve been going to Surfas for 20 years.  I liked it better when it was a jumble of kitchen supplies and eclectic gourmet items in a stuffed warehouse on National. When it moved to its new spacious Williams-Sonoma-esque location around the corner on Washington Blvd., the selection improved, the prices rose slightly, and the whole experience began to fall off.

A café adjacent to the store is bright and honey.  The menu has all the right words: Nuetske this and organic that. 72 layer biscuits with imported raspberry jam. Cinamon canelles.  It’s got the menu.  It’s got the look.  But it lacks.

Hard to put my finger on it, but it’s something missing Cafe surfas as there is from a lot of restaurants.  The servers lack a certain engagement.  The kitchen turns out food from the fridge, not the heart. Customers chew decent food like feeding ruminants.  The atmosphere is transactional, unspontaneous.  The place is organized but uninspired.  Every one does their job.  It’s like a boring day in shul: Mouthing the prayers, unmoved by the spirit.

What results can never be great, and is often just plain not good.

I ordered the fried egg sandwich: two pieces of fresh whole grain peasant bread, mayo, tomato, white cheddar and a fried egg.  A high-end self-conscious foodie gourmet café should be able to pull that off, right? 

What I ended up tasting, then picking at, then putting aside, was a greasy little sandwich with a strange non-food flavor.  Hmm. Grill grit? Rancid oil?  Grill cleaner and burned butter?  Inside the cheese sweated grease. The toasted bread was slathered with mayonnaise.  The egg picked up and dispersed more of that mystery taste.  I didn’t bother biting into the yolk.  I calculate calories in a dish by how much tennis I’d have to play to work it off.  I’d have to go five full sets and a tiebreaker with Federer to burn through the goo in this concoction.

So what are the signs of the authentic café?  Here’s what’s bizarre: they are same three signs of an authentic religious experience.

I’m not talking about a peak religious experience, what William James described as transcendence, a sense of the ineffable, a dramatic change in one’s life.  I mean, it’s a fried a egg sandwich.  I’m talking about an authentic moment, when you’re trying, and focused, and open—it may lead to a peak experience, to transcendence, but it’s no guarantee.  For that I think you need three things:

First, commitment. It starts above all with the owner.  The person who cares, who loves food and feeding people, is there and enthusiastic and inspiring, or at least has created a felt presence. Surfas in general feels like no one’s in charge, the café even more so. Slackness, diffidence, a kind of friendly resignation to mediocrity.

Then, intention. That’s where the kitchen comes in.  You can train anyone to copy a recipe, but you can’t teach them to do it with love, intention, what the masters of Hebrew prayer call kavanah.  The food you serve is feeding a body that feeds a soul that creates the world.  Don’t just throw it together and throw it on a plate.

Finally, openness.  That’s the customer.  Are you open to having your world rocked, your taste buds jazzed, your heart racing?  Are you just there to eat food, or to taste it, to enjoy it, to experience it.  I have to say, when it comes to dining out, I’m almost alays open. My wife rabbi would confirm I’m a lot more open to authentic experience in a restaurant then I am, bitching and moaning, in shul.

And when it comes to Surfas, I’m still open.  They are one good manager away from being a good, and true, and authentic cafe.

In the meantime, I’ll just make shakshuka at home.