Pushing palates at Sufi's and Stone Bowl House

Taste-testing the American diet

A few weeks back, I reviewed a meal at LongHorn Steakhouse. Friends eat there regularly and invited me to join them. My reaction to the meal and a subsequent one at Outback Steakhouse was something like finding a cat's head in the back of the refrigerator. I was shocked and repulsed, but I was also morbidly curious.

I spent just more than $50 (with tip) for three courses at the restaurant and was mystified why my friends kept telling me what a bargain it is. I mentioned my cost and they explained that had I gotten an entrée only, my bill would have been less than half.

"Well, duh," I replied. "There are innumerable restaurants in the city that are far better than this, more interesting and cost less."

"Prove it," Bobby, the ringleader, said. "You take us to dinner someplace next Friday."

I doubted I could take them to the outer limits of Doraville for jellyfish, tripe and chicken feet. So I made a reservation for seven at Sufi's (1814 Peachtree St., 404-888-9699). Besha Rodell, CL's food editor, and I have both positively reviewed the Persian restaurant. As Besha noted, Sufi's does not do the usual dumbing-down to ingratiate itself to the typically bland American palate. (Nonetheless, I was happy to find the sweetness of my favorite dish, the fesenjoon — a chicken and pomegranate stew — significantly tempered.)

I made a couple of small mistakes in choosing Sufi's. First, the bar there is still not selling alcohol. Second, one of our party, Jim, is a pilot for a Saudi family and ODs on all things Middle Eastern.

As it turned out, the restaurant really only challenged one guy at the table — and he is famous for his unadventurous palate. One reason is that most at the table selected kabobs, which have become ubiquitous in our culture. I did talk Bobby into ordering one of the exotic stews. He said he liked it.

This repeated itself the following week, when we visited Woo Nam Jeong Stone Bowl House (5953 Buford Highway, 678-530-0844), a Korean restaurant that has been delighting foodies in town since last spring. My friends thoroughly enjoyed it, too, although most of them did, as at Sufi's, pick fairly tame dishes like bibimbap or simple rice topped with bulgogi, the Korean barbecued beef that has been fully mainstreamed by the wacky popularity of Korean tacos. I picked a dolsot bibimbap myself. ("Dolsot" refers to the sizzling stone pot in which the rice and its toppings are served. The particularly good thing about the dolsot style is that it browns the bottom layer of rice to a crunchy texture, like some Vietnamese dishes.)

Nobody left any food on their plate. Despite the rather ordinary choices, I was impressed by how much they seemed to like it. I have actually had this experience frequently over the years. I drag friends, kicking and screaming, to places like Penang or (the old) Pung Mie and they end up addicted.

I always ask them why they never visited such places on their own before. The responses are always the same. They say the menus are intimidating without a guide. They cite the language barrier and unfamiliarity of ethnic customs. But most — and I include myself — have limits to what they are willing to eat.

Studies have demonstrated beyond question that we are born with inherent preferences for certain tastes. Even in the womb, the child prefers sweet tastes over bitter ones, for example. But the way taste develops throughout childhood — whether it broadens or not — is mainly a function of exposure and the acquisition of memory about the food. It's totally natural for any child to suffer bouts of "food neophobia" — a refusal to ingest food that is unfamiliar.

The French have long recognized this and became alarmed at children's growing taste for fast food a few years ago. They initiated classes in public schools with the idea of broadening and improving taste. It takes repeated exposure to develop a taste for unfamiliar foods. Remember your first taste of booze? Or remember tasting strong cheese as a child?

NPR recently broadcast a piece about food neophobia (without calling it that) among children. It focused on the difficulty parents have convincing their children to eat certain foods, like vegetables, which are almost always rejected by young children at first. Specialists in this phase of parenting explained that the strategy of forcing a child to eat something or trying to trick him into it backfires. He simply develops a bank of unpleasant memories that, I would argue, produce long-term "taste aversion," in the same way getting very ill from eating something makes it repulsive long past the illness.

Instead of coercion, experts say parents should let children regulate their own diets. All evidence suggests they do this quite naturally if given broad choices. Further, the strength of inherent taste moderates over time and the child will become more naturally investigative of various foods.

Obviously, if a parent limits diet and doesn't offer diversity or responds angrily to the kid's pickiness, the kid isn't likely to grow up to love experimentation. Interestingly, by the way, there is evidence, too, that developing more adventurous taste has the effect of making a person more generally adventurous.

My friends are all well-traveled, well-educated people, so I'm not surprised in retrospect that, given the opportunity, they chose to play with their taste. But it all begins with baby steps — as a kid or adult. I guess that makes me a good mother.

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