Last week, I walked into Dante’s Gourmet Deli of White Plains and I was hit with a smell that I suddenly realized I’d been missing in these antiseptically odorless days of Whole Foods, Fairway, and Tarry Market. It was an intense, soulful, delicious funk; a poetry of hanging salumi, prosciuttos, and sharp, salty cheeses. Occasionally, I’d catch a yeasty whiff of the boules of fresh bread in the racks, and I could smell the hot lunch of roasted pork sandwiches being served that day with sautéed broccoli rabe. My mouth watered. My heart broke. And I spent a lot of money.
The restaurant myth goes that you “eat first with your eyes,” which is an oft-trotted cliché used to excuse stupid, high-concept plating. (And I, for one, have never wanted to eat a sculpture—plus, Keith Richards, that philosopher, calls eyes “the whores of the senses,” so it must be true). I would counter that most people really eat first with their noses. My most memorable eating experiences have always been preceded by wonderful smells, like standing at a pintxos bar in San Sebastián, drinking the local wine, as the cook patiently sears locally foraged wild mushrooms. You stand, and you sip, and you wait, and you enjoy the long tease of aroma. When you finally get your plate after all the foreplay, let me tell you, those mushrooms taste good.
Europeans seem to get the importance of smell. Unlike cheese shops in this country, which require that most cheeses be suffocated in plastic wrap before being refrigerated behind glass (like the Ebola virus), cheese mongers like Neal’s Yard Dairy in London let their cheeses sit unrefrigerated, in stinking piles, out in the open, in specially humidified shops. It’s wonderful. The air is full of smells, different smells – salty, milky, sharp, barn-yardy, funky, rotten. You only need to get about 18 inches from each cheese to know what it’s all about.
One of the many heartbreaks of hanging up my cook’s whites was that I was suddenly excluded from the rich world of kitchen smells. Cooks work with intense smells all day long, which range from veal stock bones roasting in the oven (a favorite), to bad things, like the meat order, which stinks like cold blood soaking into cardboard with a touch of rot. To a cook, smells offer critical information—smell is probably more important to their work than taste because it’s much faster. You can quickly smell when those scallops can’t be used anymore, or when the garlic is acrid, and the lemon juice has gone sour. With experience, you can smell when meat is perfectly roasted, when the root veg is caramelized but about to burn, etc. Some cooks swear that they can smell salt in a dish.
Currently, as a food writer, my working world of smell is restricted. Oh, I use it—for instance, I know when I walk into a dining room and get slapped by an old-fish smell (which happens amazingly often) that I probably don’t want tonight’s paella. And sometimes, I catch a whiff of other people’s food being carried through the room by a waiter (“Whoa! Post-dated scallops!”), but, mostly, I get only the limited aromas emanating from my plate. With safety-obsessed America (and its nanny-state restaurant codes stipulating roaring restaurant hoods—some BS about fires), you’ll probably get more pleasure from the smell of your food being cooked at a restaurant if you stand in its parking lot under the exhaust fan. Which sucks, literally and figuratively. And which is why you’ll find me loitering in rich, scent-filled places like Dante’s. Here are three more great smelling places:
– The patio at Bedford Post – you’ll find Chef Jeremy McMillan cranking the primal, mouth-watering scent of wood-roasted quail and figs, branzino, and asparagus outdoors, sans hood. Yum.
– The parking lot outside the Willett House in Port Chester and, if the wind is right, downstairs beside X2O in Yonkers. In both cases, the scent will make you pick up the pace as you walk to your table.
– Shack Shack in Westport creates a massive cloud of the smell of searing Pat LaFreida beef. You can float on this dense ribbon of aroma like Wile E. Coyote.