Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bondir's Harvest Opera: Son et nourriture

I'm always interested when people pair food with something else. Wine, yes, obvs, but more than that: theater, music, story — a different aspect that brings an extra dimension, or context, to the act of eating.

So I was excited to learn about Sensing Terroir: A Food Opera (PDF), a collaboration between Bondir chef Jason Bond and Ben Houge, a digital audio artist. Their plan was to create a dining experience that paired each course of a meal with specific sounds, connecting dishes to the farmers and producers that contributed the ingredients.

To quote from Houge's Food Opera Manifesto:
I’ve long appreciated fine food, and somewhere along the line I realized that enjoying a well-crafted meal was an inherently time-based experience, akin to ballet, music, or film, but tailored to the sense of taste. This is true not only in the succession of courses, but in the way a course evolves, as flavors meld, textures break down, and hot and cold converge to room temperature. Even psychologically, our perception of a new dish changes as we become accustomed to it. Once I acknowledged this, the desire to compose music to accompany a meal, just like a dance or film score, followed naturally.
The idea was to synch the sounds to the dish each individual diner was eating, using video-game technology and tabletop speakers, so that the experience would be customized to each person, regardless of when they started eating or how long it took them to finish.

Brilliant, right?

When we arrived, the first thing we noticed was the drone. It filled the space, a low, electronic sound, gently rising and falling in intensity, with occasional accordion-like trills underneath. The sound came from speakers at ceiling level and large pods on wooden stands on the floor.

You can see one of the floor-pods just next to The Boy's hand (plus Houge talking to a table behind us):

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

Each table also had a set of these:

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

These smaller speakers were intended for the specific sounds that would accompany each dish.

The low drone continued throughout the evening. And while we looked over the menu, we heard this from the tabletop speakers:

(Water? Traffic? Fryolator? Not sure.)

One of the waitstaff came over to check in. "You've been here before, haven't you?" she said. "You sat over there." She pointed to the table we had last time.

Wow. We were last at Bondir three months ago.

"How could you remember that?" I asked.

"You had blue and green nail polish," she said, smiling.

Maybe it's just that I have the world's worst memory for faces. But that was scarily impressive.

The first course was a poached egg, warm and soft, with beets in solid and sauce formats and a ginger-sesame foam. The sweetness of the beets, the spicy-sweet foam and the richness of the yolk were a lovely combination.

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

This was served with Pu-Erh tea in the world's daintiest cup:

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

Interesting idea, to start with tea, and it marked the first of five excellent beverage pairings. The next course came with a hot spiced chianti that was more delicate and streamlined than the usual mulled wine. It was a great accompaniment for the pig's ear terrine.

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

I've only had pig's ear in crispy form, so this was new. It was tender and delicious — not chewy, not over-salted. It came with Roxbury Russet apple (which made me excited, as I'd learned from Amy Traverso's The Apple Lover's Cookbook that it's the oldest variety of apple in the US, bred in what is now part of Boston).

For the next course, The Boy and I went different ways, as he can't do anything that wears its skeleton on the outside. I had lobster (from Scituate) on top of a baby pumpkin stuffed with creamy, rich, delicious grits and a garnish of caramelized seaweed.

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

(BTW, I realize the photos aren't great; the light wasn't quite strong enough for my little camera.)

The Boy had the other option, a sweet potato tart. Which had spent, unfortunately, a couple of minutes too long in the oven.

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

It was good, apart from the very burnt bits.

Somewhere around here we realized we weren't getting the full son et nourriture experience. Apparently the system had crashed (ah, techmologee!) and after the reboot it wasn't reaching all the tables.

Part of the reason it had taken us so long to notice was that the whole room was so loud. If there had been any customized sound, it had to compete with this:

The system was soon back up, but it was still hard to hear anything from our tabletop speakers. There was occasional dialog (Houge had interviewed some of the farmers whose produce we were eating) but much of it was washed away in the sea of room noise. I heard something about growing butternut squash, but that was about it.

Oh well, more food. We diverged again for the next course: The Boy chose chicken with bacon, chestnuts and turnip, the meat juicy and tender.

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

I had a fennel gratin with assorted fall veggies and a cube of teff polenta. I think that was my first time with teff — would def do again.

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

And then dessert. There were two choices, so we got one of each and shared.

Chocolate "enlightenment," a dense, rich mousse that came with, among other things, a parsnip purée that worked surprisingly well:

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

And angel-food cake with a lovely black walnut ice cream and a deep, fruity swirl of huckleberry sauce.

Bondir Harvest Opera dinner

Dessert came with a glass of Dolin red vermouth. More restaurants should serve tea to start and vermouth to finish. Just sayin'.

So, was this a successful experiment? From our perspective ... almost. The concept was great, but the setting was, I think, an obstacle.

Even if, as Houge's manifesto notes, "the awareness and appreciation of food happens intermittently, during pauses in the conversation," there's an assumption that those pauses will allow for an aural experience because people are quietly eating. In a busy restaurant, however, any pause in one table's conversation is filled by laughter and conversation from surrounding diners.

So, for instance, I wasn't able to hear the farmers talk about their work, but I did get to hear all about Montessori schools from the next table, whether I wanted to or not.

I'd be interested to see how this concept develops, and whether the answer involves more specific targeting of directional sound. Or smaller audiences. Or having someone stand over every table like this:

(Actually, Cusack? Definitely count me in.)

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