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Robert Appelbaum
Pontus! Served Me Frozen Crab – But Maybe It’s
Okay Being Thirty Years Behind The Times
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Pontus!, in a word, didn’t seem to get it. It didn’t seem to know the difference between serving a style of
food and serving that style of food well, with care, respect, intelligence and inventiveness. It didn’t even
get the Japanese flavours or the look of Japanese food right. I could imagine that, in most of the Western
world, if this food had been served in this way in, say, 1980, it might have seemed interesting and fresh: a
European seafood house that also served sushi. But that was thirty-two years ago. In 2012, in San
Francisco, New York, London, Paris or Barcelona (to name only a few places that might be mentioned)
Pontus! wouldn’t last more than a few months. It just isn’t good enough, and it isn’t interesting enough
either.

I ask myself why. And I ask myself this in view of context – the context of the restaurant, the context of
the time and place and of Marion and me, the diners, and the context too of the culture of restaurant-
going and restaurant-blogging in which I myself am playing a role. Between 1980 and the present, in
countries like the United States and Britain, there has been a revolution in the quality of food on offer. (I
understand that the same thing has happened in many parts of Asia and Latin America, too, even places
with longstanding culinary traditions like Japan.) I am told that there has been something of a revolution
in the quality of food in Sweden as well. But to this diner, so out-of-date is most restaurant culture in
Sweden, it hardly shows. And yet, on the other hand, I have to wonder about another set of changes
between 1980 and now. In countries like the United States and Britain, the social compact has been
devastated. Income inequality has grown to cancerous proportions. Educational and economic
opportunities for the majority have vastly declined. The general physical health of large groups of the
population of both countries has deteriorated – in reverse proportion to wealth, since in fact the wealthy
are living longer and better than ever, it is the poor who live worse. One of the main reasons food in cities
like New York and London is so much better than it used to be is the obscene concentration of wealth and
social capital that have become so intensified in both places. Wealth and social capital pay the bills for
chefs and restaurateurs who aspire to be artists, using the best ingredients and serving food with
sophistication and respect. Outside the enclaves of wealth and prestige in the United States and Britain,
the food is still often not very good, and, all too frequently downright awful.

Thinking sociologically, in the grand tradition of Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, used to mean trying
to assess societies according to correlations: the suicide rate in correlation with measurable social
integration, prosperity in correlation with specifiable religious faiths, and so forth. Is it legitimate to even
think about establishing such broad correlations anymore? Could one compare two countries or two
capital cities, say, in view of the quality of restaurant fare, on the one hand, and economic inequality on
the other? I don’t know the answer to that. I suspect that a superficial study could easily vindicate the
idea that the concentration of wealth and social capital determines the quality of an urban food culture –
except that it would be very hard to establish the nature of ‘quality’ in this context. Sure, I can tell you
that in my experience I have eaten much better in grimy but wealth-concentrated Philadelphia than in
pristine, egalitarian Stockholm, but such evidence is merely anecdotal, and it is based on a subjective
assessment that would be very difficult to put in persuasively objective terms.

Moreover, it is relative to at least two additional factors. The first, another subject I broach in Dishing It
Out, is the difference between general culinary culture and elite culinary culture. While elite culinary
culture in Sweden may lag far behind elite cultures elsewhere, it may well be that, in spite of the absence
of really excellent local cheeses, vegetables, alcoholic beverages, seafood emporia, raw bars and the like,
Swedish citizens on the whole eat better than their counterparts elsewhere. Traditional Swedish cuisine,
which still holds sway for most meals in this country, is often boring, but it is also healthy. Obesity is not
endemic in Sweden. You hardly ever even see it, outside of tourists visiting from Philadelphia.  Rather,
you see a thin, healthy and proud (or quietly snooty) people.  And at meal time you can go just about
anywhere – a café, a bar, a corner restaurant – and get a healthy, more or less freshly prepared meal, with
lots of greens or berries, or plenty of lightly dressed seafood. In a Swedish pub (and all pubs by law in
Sweden serve meals), if you order the traditional (albeit originally German) wiener schnitzel, you will
hear the sound, from the kitchen, of a cook pounding with a cudgel a fresh veal cutlet to the right
thinness and then the sizzle of a grill pan. In Britain, in most pubs, if you ordered something like wiener
schnitzel, the only sound you might hear is the cook ripping open a cardboard box of pre-frozen breaded
veal cutlet, and then popping a piece into a deep fat fryer. My point, though it is based on anecdotal
evidence and subjective assessment, is that general culinary culture in Sweden is better than general
culinary culture in, say, Britain, even though the latter has a much better elite culinary culture.

A second factor to take into consideration is, well, me, and people like me. What is it that I am really
looking for when I go to the restaurant? And should I be looking for it? And do I have a right to be
disappointed when I don’t find it? Who am I to demand fresh young soft shell crab, lightly battered and
lightly fried? Of course, I am a paying customer, but who cares? I am nobody, really, and my personal
needs, in the larger scheme of things, are inconsequential. And even so, there is more to being a
customer than may be readily apparent. Writing as a critic, comparing my seafood meal at Pontus! to all
the many seafood meals I have had in restaurants in my life, and finding it wanting, I register a objection.
I observe that this restaurant doesn’t get it; it is behind the times; it has no respect for real Japanese
cooking or even for the general art of sourcing and preparing seafood. But I have not said that the
restaurant has no respect for the customer. Apart from the lack of a host or maître d’, the restaurant
seemed well run and the staff treated us fine. We had a nice bottle of wine, an Alsatian pinot gris, with
our fish – nice, but of course, expensive. And we enjoyed ourselves. The fact is, given the right
circumstances I might very well dine there again.

If what is missing from Pontus! is ‘it’, the problem then is the nature of this ‘it’, the nature of what it is we
think we get when we get really good food, prepared with inventiveness, artistry and flare. What is the
nature of the art of good food?  What are we getting when we get it, and what are we missing when we
don't have it? The evidence of my experience at Pontus! is that when we are missing it we are missing
something special and perhaps even essential, a way of being thoughtful in our sensuality, and sensual
in our thoughtfulness, either of which seems to be foreign to Swedish tradition. But if we are missing ‘it’,
perhaps we are getting instead something even more important: a good society. I’ll try to think about that
problem more on another occasion. For now let me just say that, when all is said and done, given the
alternative, perhaps it’s not always such a bad thing to be thirty years behind the times.

        
      

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