Monday, June 19, 2006

In Praise of Regionalism

I've done a lot of local traveling over the past few weeks: down to Lexington, Virginia for my sister's graduation, up to the Poconos for our biannual weekend at Sarah's family's house, over to St. Mary's County for a pretty daytime wedding on the water. Nothing more than a few hours away, but all locations with their own distinct characters.

The night of my sister's graduation, my family went to dinner at the Southern Inn, a restaurant in historic Lexington. It holds special significance for my family - we had lunch there when we dropped Erin off at school her freshman year and dinner (and drinks) there a few years later, when she turned 21. It only seemed fitting to round out her four years at W&L with one last visit.

It's a nice restaurant, with good food (but generally horrendous service - though our 21st birthday waiter was pretty spectacular). Despite it's name, though, it's not overly southern. At the graduation dinner, I thoroughly enjoyed my roast duck breast (coated with a crunchy sweet honey glaze and served with savory garlic bread pudding) and savory cheesecake appetizer. The flavor combinations were interesting and the preparation was pretty flawless (delivered by a surly waitress, but I digress). I was more than happy with my meal. But it certainly wasn't anything I couldn't have ordered in a restaurant in Maryland. Or New York. Or Wisconsin.

Which made me think: with all of the emphasis that chefs today place on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, why is it that even completely interesting dishes turned out by great restaurant kitchens so often lack a real regional feel. When Tony Bourdain visits other countries, why is the food he tries in 5-star restaurants so much less interesting and unique than what he eats on the street? Where is all the high end local food?

The week after we came home from Lexington, Cooper and I went to a family birthday party - a crab feast. Summer is a great time to be from Maryland for exactly one reason: steamed crabs. I can't think of any other food that so perfectly combines taste and ritual on a completely local level (plus, of course, it's totally fun and crabs are delicious. But I'm biased.) But there's certainly nothing high-end about crabs. Sure, just about every restaurant in Maryland, no matter how fancy, has crab cakes on the menu. But that slight nod to local cuisine is a far cry from a truly local menu.

All of this is my very long-winded way of saying that it's too bad that the national adoption of the local produce craze hasn't produced more of a national emphasis on top shelf chefs working with local or regional flavors. That it's more common for higher end restaurants to gravitate toward a certain type of "upscale" repertoire, rather than being really gutsy and going local.

And, yes, I know there are exceptions to this rule. But when the dinner I have at a regionally-named restaurant in Lexington so closely resembles something I'd find on a menu in Minneapolis, I can't help but long for a little differentiation.

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