At least Tony Bourdain opened last night's No Reservations by acknowledging that this scattershot episode, entitled "Heartland," was born out of nothing so high-minded as his latest book/speaking tour. To have masqueraded it as something more thoughtful or purposeful would have been even more insulting to many viewers than the episode already was.
Whoa!, you say. You've mentioned your appreciation for Bourdain on many occasions. What's with the anger? Very simply, I don't think this episode was as pure-of-heart and genuinely appreciative of the so-called heartland of America as we're meant to interpret.
"Along the way, as happens every time I cross my country, I saw a few things," the host intones. "These are some of them." This high encomium kicks off the episode, which starts with Brian Polcyn, author of Charcuterie and teacher of the meatly arts in Livonia, Michigan. There are few revelations to be had here; turns out, fat is flavor. I think most of us know that, as well did we know that Polcyn co-wrote the book with Bourdain's good buddy, Michael Ruhlman.
Ruhlman is Bourdain's net, there to save him when he throws himself over the cliff of populism and into the hordes of little people between San Francisco and New York. He appears again in Columbus, Ohio, at the sushi counter of Michael Kimura's bracingly genuine Japanese restaurant, Kihacha. Fried skeletons, tuna collar (that the chef gets for free from the fish market), and sea squirt appear in sequence. On the latter, Bourdain goes again to the well that "for most Americans, this would be a difficult dish." So many thanks go to Chef Kimura, who responds, "Even Japanese, too!" Being non-American doesn't automatically pay your dues in the Eating the Right Way club.
Ruhlman, who comments on the cognitive dissonance of this place being in "Applebees Country," also provides some valuable counterbalance when Bourdain puts on his man-of-the-people hat and tells him to give the plebes a break; "Your first email to me asked me if we had indoor plumbing." Snark is at the heart of Tony Bourdain, for better or worse. He does seem genuinely impressed at Gary Robinette, a one-man-show in the kitchen of Clever Crow Pizza.
There's a lot of traffic between Madison and Austin, Texas, so I'm sorry to tell you that the Austin segment is almost a complete waste. "College-aged kids started giving a fuck about food," Tony wonders. "Shows you how hopelessly out of it I am." Yep.
Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman run a solid operation at Perla's Seafood & Oyster Bar, serving the food they want to serve the way the want to serve it. Very nice, and illustrative of the ability of those of us in the Great Middle to run a serious restaurant. But the food truck segment is worn out and uninteresting. Drunk people like to cobble together bizarre doughnuts late at night? I'm sure Austin is thrilled that that will be their culinary legacy. Also highlighted in this segment is that Bourdain didn't really do much of the legwork for this episode. He doesn't appear at any of the trucks, offering only narration.
Worse than Austin, though, is Denver, Colorado. Take Frank Bonanno, chef at Mizuna. (How Bourdain resisted making a comment about the last name, shared with a major crime family, is beyond me.) I was all ready to be impressed by his menu, as Bourdain discussed Bonanno's run at the estimable French Laundry. And then, in an episode that closes with a lauding of the sophistication of modern diners, Bonanno tells us that he doesn't disclose that there's blood sausage in the cassoulet because "it would kill the dish." By that, I assume he means that people wouldn't order it. Whither, sophistication? Or is it a lack of respect on the part of the chef?
At last, we come to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Like most of these cities, Milwaukee's food and culture scene could probably support a full episode (The Safe House? The Oriental Theatre, where the Violent Femmes played?). But here, too, Bourdain spends his time at one restaurant: Bacchus, joined by owner Joe Bartolotta and Chef Adam Siegel. Thankfully, Bourdain gives some shout-out and screen time to local vendors that supply Bacchus' kitchen, like Larry's Market, The Spice House and Strauss Veal. And it's a nice restaurant, but guys -- stop helping. "Everything in Wisconsin has to be geared towards keeping you warm," Joe? Really, no. And Chef Siegel sets some foam atop the beer cheese soup (ugh), revealing that it is nothing more than the head from a pour of Sprecher Special Amber: "Molecular gastronomy, Wisconsin style." Yup, we're all out of tricks here in Wisconsin, and beer is all we know.
(Incidentally, it's Bourdain who really needs an education in craft beer. Yes, Sprecher Amber is a fine brew -- I had one last night, actually -- but it's far from the best this state has to offer. Tony's appreciation for beer can be summed up in two words, thanks to the "American Southwest" episode: Shiner Bock.)
Bourdain does, at least, save his best segment for last. Chef Doug Flicker of Piccolo in Minneapolis, Minnesota, represents the Twin Cities food scene well. Though I'm dubious that any good restaurant reviewer would write, "Why can't they just put twice as much food on the plate?" as Flicker claims, he defends the diner, saying that restaurant people are underestimating their customers. No hidden blood sausage here; it's clear that he's putting a lot of care and craft into his dishes, and wants the diners to know. A double-sous-vided pressed guinea hen thigh, bricked and seared -- that's an endeavor. Chef Flicker brushes off thoughts of staging at a bigger kitchen in a bigger city, telling Bourdain, "I like my little corner of the world." Good for you, chef.
I really like the idea of featuring cities not located on America's coasts, and I'm glad whenever Bourdain acknowledges that there are some places, people, and concepts that have left him in the dust. But I wish he'd selected chefs that better represented their cities and didn't build in the same kinds of contradictions that Bourdain often puts forward. Calling this episode "Heartland" is, honestly, meaningless pap designed to make Bourdain look like the reformed sinner who now speaks for the downtrodden flatlanders.
He's done a collective episode featuring Baltimore/Detroit/Buffalo ("Rust Belt"), visited Cleveland for one episode based almost entirely around Michael Ruhlman living there, and of course came to Chicago. Let's see Tony Bourdain spend some time in one Midwestern city that takes him outside of his comfort zone. While we're waiting, let's see how long it takes him to return to taking jokey shots at flyover country.
The graphic hook of this episode was the postcard for each city. People choose postcards for the picture on the front, not the message on the back -- that's a pretty good summary of "Heartland," too. Bourdain doesn't give these cities half the credit he thinks he's giving.