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It's Not the Theme That Counts--Just the Food!

October 18, 1987|ROLAINE HOCHSTEIN | Hochstein is a Tenafly, N.J., free-lance writer

My husband's an adventurer, which is how we happened to be lost in the boonies.

We were lost somewhere in the Pennsylvania Poconos (don't ask me where) because my husband, as usual, was searching for a restaurant.

It was more by coincidence than orientation that we pulled up at our destination, the Bullhead. There was a "For Sale" sign on the door, but we went in anyway and found that people were dining at all six tables.

My husband was ecstatic. There was the chef, cooking in a sort of phone booth with burners. He was wearing boots and a red flannel shirt. He said he was selling his place because too many strangers had discovered it.

We dined on fillet of striped bass stuffed with lox and cream cheese, and there was a nice daqouise for dessert. We could have had as good a meal at half the price in a dozen places within five miles of home. But that is beside the point.

The Food Adventure

The point is adventure. My husband craves challenge. He likes to forage for his food. He abhors trends that turn dining out into a spectator sport or performance art. He laughs when waiters stand in a row like percussionists. He disdains restaurants with themes. He is bored with grapefruit ice intermezzo and kiwi puree on raspberry sauce.

But he'll detour eight miles from the highway for a lobster roll at a stand on the bridge in Kennebunkport, Me. (It comes with big chunks of fresh lobster and your choice of hot butter or cold mayonnaise for about $7.)

He'll happily wait in a three-hour line for a table at Joe's near the dog track in Miami, where the stone crab is inimitable and the creamed spinach quite tasty. Dinner about $25.

My Gastronomic Adventurer doesn't want dining out to be luxurious or fussy. He searches for the unusual, the esoteric, and sometimes the bizarre.

For example, he eats steamers only in the Clam Broth House in Hoboken, N.J., where he stands at a bar, ankle deep in sawdust and broken shells. (A sit-down restaurant is attached, but my husband wouldn't step through the door.)

Like all gastronomic adventurers, he's a sucker for specialization. Find a restaurant that serves only one thing and my husband will cross the world to get there. He has a knish place on Houston Street in Manhattan and an omelet place (500 varieties) on the upper East Side. He has a place on the Rue d'Amsterdam in Paris that offers a seven-course dinner, all cheese.

Joe's (in Reading, Pa.) specializes in mushrooms. Mushrooms en croute . Wild mushroom soup, $6. Beef roulades with mushrooms. Squab with mushroom stuffing. Mushroom casserole. Chanterelles. Porcini. Morels. Cepes. Black trumpets. Mushrooms that Joe's people pick themselves in the Pennsylvania woods and mushrooms they bring back from Poland.

Mushroom Museum

Joe's has a sort of mushroom museum in one room: giant jars of fungal exotica; reverent photographs of slinky, jaunty, majestic and fantastic individual specimens. A la carte dinner $35.

My husband's search for special dining led us to Thelma's in Breaux Bridge, La. Breaux Bridge bills itself as the Crawfish Capital. Thelma was known as the Crawfish Queen. Crawfish is really crayfish (but don't tell Louisianans), and in France it's known more elegantly as ecrevisse. In any case, it's a raunchy, scrawny kind of shrimp with legs, quite tasty if not overcooked.

Finding Thelma's wasn't easy. We left New Orleans and hit the bayou, and after getting directions from several people named Cormier and Broussard we got there.

Thelma was regal but reserved, more Victoria than Marie Antoinette (though her attitude was clearly, "Let 'em eat crawfish"). Her place was so functional, undecorated and downright clean that it looked as if she hadn't opened yet.

'Worth the Pilgrimage'

She had two crawfish dinner specials and the rule was for two people to share one. But in our case she served one each so that between us we had every crawfish dish in the kitchen: crawfish bisque and crawfish chowder, crawfish patties and crawfish in pastry shells, boiled crawfish and crawfish etouffee (stew). "Worth the pilgrimage," my husband said.

We've been trying to match the Thelma experience in New York. We went to a restaurant called L'Ecrevisse but they were out of crayfish. We would have stayed, but the menu was too Parisian.

As a gastronomic adventurer, my husband loves foreign food, but it has to be from out-of-the-way places. Find him a cuisine that's Leichtensteinian, Andorran, Botswanian, and he'll be at the door.

He was the first in his crowd to try Ethiopian, scooping his food from a central bowl with slabs of limp flatbread for a spoon. He hasn't touched Mexican since it became popular and he'll eat soul food only at Gospel church dinner sales or at Sylvia's in Harlem.

For a Chinese restaurant to please him, there must be no menu and no English spoken. He orders by pointing to what he wants on someone else's table. He pays what the server writes on a scrap of paper.

'Country' Japanese

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