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Taste wars: the battle of the watercress

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The contemporary definition of "epicure" would upset poor, old Epicurus. The father of philosophical materialism, Epicurus did stress the attainment of pleasure, but to him that meant tranquility, not constant gratification of the senses. Ah, well.

            These days, an epicure means a gourmand, or, "one with sensitive and discriminating tastes" (Merriam-Webster). To many, the word is synonymous with "snob." Of course, "sensitive and discriminating tastes" tend to be in the senses --- or mind --- of the beholder.

            I prefer the sound of vinyl to digital music. My friend, Carl Pultz, can discern the difference between a good turntable and a better one. He says his boss at the Analog Shop has still more discerning ears. There are analogies for every sense.

            There is also a great deal of charlatanism in "epicurean" behavior. Mark Twain bought cheap cigars, put expensive bands on them, and encouraged his guests to wax poetic on the virtues of the "fine" smokes. One wonders about wine aficionados. Some "epicures," surely, can discern subtle differences, right?

            My lawyer friend, Bill Smith, is a food and wine epicure with some self-consciousness about this. So, when Bill suggested that we taste-test "Delta-grown" versus hydroponic watercress, it seemed like a fun entrée into this broader subject. Matt Hudson, chef de cuisine at Tastings, prepared us a series of dishes all featuring watercress, one portion of each using Delta-grown cress, one using the hydroponic (from Freshlink).

            Tastings is not my style of restaurant. With all of Danny Wegman's money and the Pittsford Wegmans produce behind it, it's hardly playing on a level field with other local restaurants. But I had a fantastic meal there a month ago, and executive chef Russell Ferguson is a great guy. He runs a tight ship, but more than that, he's down-to-earth and extremely helpful, giving his time, recipes, and advice freely.

            Bill feels the most impressive thing about Tastings is how good it is when Russell isn't there, and our watercress tasting proved that point. Hudson, who now runs the restaurant (Russell's been put in charge of all prepared foods at the Pittsford store) served a meal every bit as fine as the other I'd had. Kudos to everybody involved.

            First, we tried a few leaves of each cress, unadorned, and we passed muster, correctly identifying the varieties. The Delta-grown cress was stronger, with more bite and a longer finish, really hitting home in the back of the throat. The hydroponic was very good also, with a brighter bite, and larger leaves with more texture. For people who find watercress bitter, the hydroponic might be a better choice.

            This whole venture had me nervous. After all, a food critic ought to be able to discern such things. "Super tuna" sashimi with ponzu sauce, Thai-ginger-infused hot oil, sesame seeds, pommelo (related to grapefruit), and cress dressed with lime-leaf-infused oil presented a serious challenge. Bill was sure which was which, and after some discussion, I agreed. We were right, but the effort was already becoming annoying. This dish was fabulous, with some of the best sashimi I've ever had --- the super tuna is frozen immediately to -50º --- and here we were focusing on a barely detectable difference in a garnish.

            Next came a seared scallop in concentric rings of parsnip and watercress purées, with red grapefruit sections. This proved beyond us. It seemed, maybe, that one cress purée was smoother-flavored, and therefore blended better with the tart grapefruit. We guessed that one to be the Delta cress, but it wasn't. We salvaged our pride by saying we had correctly identified the characteristics of the different cresses, but had then guessed that the one we liked better must be the Delta cress. That's our story and we're sticking to it.

            By the time the house-blend-curry-rubbed leg of lamb came, sitting in cauliflower purée and lamb jus reduction with wilted cress, we didn't much care which was which. We got it right, though, based upon the denser texture of the hydroponic cress (better, perhaps, for wilting). The lamb was fabulous, and the balance of the dish was extraordinary.

            Conclusions? First, Russell, Matt, and the Tastings crew put on a terrific show with excellent food. Second, we like watercress, and though in raw form the Delta-grown is more intense than the hydroponic, it doesn't make a hill-o-beans of difference in most contexts.

            Less conclusively, I wondered whether the emperor (me) has indeed got a fork, to mangle a cliché. My credentials go little beyond having eaten three meals a day for nearly 40 years. This, of course, we all have in common. Nothing could be more subjective than taste, and, proverbially, there's no accounting for it. Nevertheless, with the help of sweet, loquacious folks like Bill Smith, I shall, as City Newspaper film critic George Grella said recently, endeavor to persevere.

Tastings, 3195 Monroe Avenue, 381-1881. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Food tip

Two sisters opened Julienne several months ago next to Premier Pastry at 429 South Avenue (232-3290). Like Savory Thyme and Ly-Lou's Pearl of the Orient nearby, Julienne offers only takeout or delivery from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. Give a call and check out its freshly made soups, wraps, salads, sandwiches, and desserts.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Tune in Michael on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel (9 a.m. to noon), and on Sundays for Toronto restaurants and wine (10 a.m. to noon) on WYSL 1040 AM. Visit his website at www.SavorLife.com for a peek at Julienne's menu.

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