Becoming remarkable defies common sense

You stand at the entrance of a large painting gallery. The ceiling floats 3 stories above your head. The warm lighting rakes across textured fabric that papers the wall. Hundreds of people press against a railing that gives distance from just one picture. It stands alone, a single wall shielded by bullet-proof glass and watched by uniformed guards. Even though the image is only the size of a postage stamp from where you stand, you recognize the most famous painting in the world.
"Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre

“Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre

Books of intelligence have discussed Mona Lisa’s torrid history. It’s theft and recovery. Attempts to defile the surface.

Historians muse about her languid smile and the hazy atmosphere. Some pundits go on to say that the subject is not the wife of rich merchant, rather it’s the master himself dressed in drag.

Dan Brown lights up his own drama by placing the Mona Lisa as the trail head to an saucy adventure. A journey which tumbles down a rabbit hole of intrigue built around a centuries-old secret society. Welcome to the Da Vinci Code.

Photo: Visitors at the Louvre Museum in Paris gather around the "Mona Lisa." Credit: Francois Mori / Associated Press

Photo: Visitors at the Louvre Museum in Paris gather around the “Mona Lisa.” Credit: Francois Mori / Associated Press, presented by LA Times

Da Vinci is a troubling artist for restorers as well. Always tinkering with technique, he might add pigment into varnish. Instead of being the final seal, the varnish becomes yet one more way to layer dimension and mystery.

His mind was eternally busy. Studying nature. Designing war machines. Writing backwards to obscure insights from unwanted eyes.

“Madonna of the Rocks” by Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre version

This might account for so few finished works. Certainly a prolific engineer, inventor and artist, not many completed paintings exist. In many ways ANY painting by Leo ought to be revered. This is not the case. We flock to one picture without reservation.

People march to the Mona Lisa and depart. They march passed Madonna of the Rocks. They march past a work so important, that he painted the scene twice. One hangs in the National Gallery in London, the other in the Louvre in Paris.

Madonna of the Rocks depicts the Virgin, an angel, Jesus and John the Baptist. It may look ordinary, however Leo stacks meaning after meaning into this picture.

In many High Renaissance paintings, the Holy Mother is depicted in heaven surrounded by cherubim and seraphim. In Madonna of the Rocks, the Virgin Mary lives in the real world with skin pressed against the earth. No light rays or trumpets. No puffy wings or velvet clouds.

Just a of woman on a play date with toddlers in a tender moment. And if you missed the moment, the angel would remind you with a finger point.

To put this into perspective, this would be like depicting Lady Gaga powering down french fries at a food court in the mall. No makeup. No flash photography or microphones. No puffy wigs or velvet costumes.

Aged NY strip from Sullivan's in Austin

Aged NY strip from Sullivan’s in Austin

Most high end steak restaurants dress their dining rooms with dim lights and plush furnishings. Jazz notes swirl around three hundred dollar bottles of wine. Only those with stout expense accounts trundle these dining rooms with a confident step.

Sullivan’s steakhouse is not radically different than Morton’s, Smith & Wollensky or the Palm. It’s the art of the steak experience. Rich cuts of beef, dry aged and grilled to your taste. As delicious with a pinch of salt or doused with Bearnaise sauce. Sides inflated with butter, cheese or both adorn the table. Every bite bouncing the needle of the Richter scale of umami (savory).

Deviled eggs with white truffle vinaigrette from Sullivan's in Austin

Deviled eggs with white truffle vinaigrette from Sullivan’s in Austin

And while many steak lovers have their favorite, filet mignon is recognized as the king of cuts. It’s never served in obscene proportion because there’s nothing to trim away. No gristle. No bone. Nothing other than concentrated flavor of meat.

With a tooth that is masculine enough for a cowboy jaw and easy enough for a fast talking socialite. This is steak than can never be under-cooked. It is as elegant and as balanced as a gymnast poised to take home the gold.

Yet the secret of killer steaks is no secret. It’s about quality ingredients and quality environment.

Chefs across the high end eateries turn up the volume in the same way. They expose prime steak further to time. This aging process reduces water concentration, deepens color and enables a further break down of cellular walls. All of which yields a more pleasurable and intense party on the palate.

What they fail to recognize is that their steak is not differentiated at all. Go to the name brands with a blindfold. Can you tell their best from one another?

To wit, the best steak may not even be obvious. It may not be steak at all.

Duncan J Watts explains in Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us, once you know the outcome, all things require no explanation. But what about BEFORE the outcome? Is it possible to create an evaluation criteria for what will turn heads? Consider the following notion.

Steakiness is really a collection of attributes. It’s texture, flavor, juiciness. And to be clear for those of us who like a steak with enormous chew of a sirloin, nothing else will compare. However if we take the king of cuts to task and compare it to another picture hanging in the same gallery we might find adventure awaits.

The chefs at Sullivan’s have raided the church picnic and lifted the lowly deviled egg. They have modernized this cliche of the seventies by dressing it with white truffle vinaigrette. Would that you pop one of these little tricksters into your mouth, you might quickly forget that they are from a different part of the farm.

Eggs alone posses plenty of umami. The white truffle puts them on the opera stage. Properly cooked, the eggs are firm, albeit a bit more squeaky than the dense sponge of beef filet. The gentle acid and fresh herbs in the vinaigrette varnish in mystery. In a sense, this dish answers back as sultry as Marilyn Monroe in a press interview.

Compare that to the $55 NY Strip Sullivan’s offered that same night. No comparison. The eggs proved never to underestimate the uncommon.

It is completely reasonable for gourmands to take issue that anything but steak will measure up to steakiness.

However the point is really this. Don’t rush blindly into any menu. Take care not to miss the real toe-curling bite. Don’t rush past the Madonna in favor of the Mona. You might just be surprised in the masterpiece hanging on the other wall.

Have a tasty treasure that was overlooked? Let us hear about it in the comment line. Or if we tickled your imagination, let the world know. Share this post.

One comment

  1. John

    “Yet this secret of killer steaks is no secret. It’s about quality ingredients and quality environment.” So true, so true!

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