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  • It was not the economic data that clued me into the imminent crash. That was still upbeat: record highs in the market, luxury car and SUV sales booming, start-ups frothing in San Francisco. It was the menu that tipped me off.

    Early Fall is the best season in San Francisco: warm, sunny weather instead of chilling summer fog. The bustle of people emits a certain “frequency” that makes things hum. My friends and I walked in pleasant conversation, taking in the splendid day, then turned into COTOGNA for lunch. The venue featured that mystifying contrast of high ceilings yet low, dim light, simultaneously opening up the space while seeming to tuck you in to a small, pseudo-private area. Seated at a long, bench type table in the middle of this milieu, we perused the menu.

    I had difficulty. Fully half of the menu was in Italian. I know it's chic to have foreign words on the page. In California, where half the population is Hispanic, a significant number of establishments have Spanish. But Italian is less familiar. While I like the sound of the language, ordering by it was a form of culinary roulette I did not wish to play.

    “Gazpacho?” Sure, I knew that: cold soup. “Summer vegetable capricciosa with salsa di tonnato?” Vegetables with tomato sauce – probably. “Pici Toscani?” Lost me there.

    When I got to “Strozzapreti 'cacio e pepe,'” I put down the menu and looked around for a translator. On cue, our waitress arrived. Or is that “wait-person these days?”

    “Excuse me, but I could use some help with the menu,” I said to the cheery young blonde who greeted us. “First of all,” I pointed to the top of the menu, “what does the name of the restaurant mean? A place, a person or a food?”

    “It means quince.” I blinked, drawing unsuccessfully from poorly stored memory of a Southeast Asian fruit.

    Okay, an unusual and rather odd food by my account, but I was always up for something new. I pursued this line with appreciative enthusiasm. “And which of these items features quince?” I asked.

    “None. It's not really quince season yet,” explained our translator. “They're still too ...” she searched for words: “tart and a little acidic.”

    This was not encouraging. “Surely you have some quince preserves or reduction saved for such off-season times,” I suggested. Unfamiliar with the genus, I asked, “Are those fruits in the maitre'de's table quince?”

    “No, we don't have quince right now, in any form. Those are crab apples.”

    “Do you use them in any dish?”

    “No. The look nice, but they're kind of bitter. We had a crab apple tree in our yard when I was growing up, but we didn't use them for anything.”

    “Not even throwing at your little brother?” They seemed about the ideal size. It turned out she had no brothers and I decided to reign myself in to the subject at hand, to wit: my inability to speak Italian and the challenge of ordering lunch. While she had no clear explanation of why half the menu was in Italian, she had the pronunciations down and quickly responded to my question about the Strozzapreti. However, she spoke rapidly; the restaurant at noon was noisy; I couldn't make out the answer. I quickly abandoned that particular item and looked for another.

    “Chicken with corn, leeks and basil” had the distinct advantage of being an understandable combination, but I wasn't in the mood for chicken. I was in San Francisco and wanted something different – just not a dart-board surprise.

    “Fried Green Tomatoes with Burrata and White Anchovy?” Not into anchovies. “Agnolotti Dal Plin?” I flipped the menu over in a desperate attempt for clarity. The entire back, with very little white space, was dedicated to wines and various alcoholic choices. Noon was too early for me, and I was about to drive up through wine country anyway. I'm happily impressed with California wines and try to focus my understanding on appellations in which I can both buy and drink locally – doing my bit for the domestic economy.

    “I'll have the buckwheat crepes with berries, please.” I felt a sense of relief at my decision, even if the choice of fancy pancakes was a little tame. My friends all selected items off the English list: dual orders of eggs benedict with arugula & early girl tomatoes and one wood roasted sausages with something Italian on top, or perhaps on the side. I was disappointed in their timidity, as I had hoped to play roulette at someone else's expense. Or reward. Who knew?

    I took one last look at the menu, hoping the overall theme would dawn upon me. Nuvo Italian Fusion? Alas, I had to admit my unworldliness. I could, and did, order coffee.

    “What's your version of a Latte Macchiato?” It was, after all, an Italian restaurant.

    “You mean a Cappuccino? I'm not really a coffee person.” Sure; fine; a cappuccino would do.

    The food was light and tasted good, satisfying us all. The crepes were lighter still. Fortunately, I had cooked myself an asparagus omelet a few hours earlier and was content with the lighter fare. One thing bothered me though: the silverware.

    I don't mean to be fussy, but it was hard to hold. The shape of the stems was different, akin to fusing a chopstick to the prong of a fork. I of all people am up for alternate approaches; I search for them with delight. But these shanks did not fit my hand. Procuring the food on the plate required a caution and attentiveness which distracted me from appreciating the meal. To top it off, the knife would not rest on the side of the plate. When I laid the blade flat on the edge of my plate, the weight of the piece and the narrow side of the stem caused the knife to rotate 90 degrees. There it brought the flatter side of the stem to the table, coming to rest – with the sharp side of the blade sitting vertical, right about where my hand was when I leaned forward to speak with my friends. In disbelief, I tried this again, and again, each time with the same result. It seemed unnecessarily perilous.

    As our waitress chirped in to clear plates, I ventured a suggestion. Knowing her patience to be stretched, I calmly tried to explain the liabilities the restaurant faced by having such a hazard. I demonstrated how the knife flipped when placed in the way to which I was accustomed.

    “I've never seen that before,” she said with an indifference that chilled. My friend offered a solution I had also considered, that of placing the entire knife on the plate. However, I preferred not to cover the food and complicate eating by cluttering the plate with all the utensils.

    “Maybe you should just chuck the silverware and start over,” I said hastily. Too hastily. I had exceeded her tolerance and she silently removed the plates. My friends chuckled and waved me off. Inglorious, I held my tongue.

    “Tell me something,” said one of my friends in a conspiratorial yet laughing whisper to her. “Did you enjoy serving us today?”

    This question, well intentioned and targeted to the issue at hand, was unlikely to get an objective answer. “What can she say?” asked another friend. “She hasn't got the tip yet!” I stayed quiet as the laughter died and dishes were cleared.

    Picking up the check, I found that sausages, eggs, muffins, buckwheat pancakes and coffee for four had exceeded a hundred dollars. Dutifully, I included a $25 tip to compensate for my boldness. She would remember us, hopefully with a smile and perhaps a future demonstration of hazardous cutlery.

    I looked around again at the stacks of firewood, the stylish furniture, the long bar and low lighting, all supporting an Italian name that few people knew of a fruit that was not being used for any offerings in a rather expensive restaurant. Surely we had come to a desperate pinnacle of competitive differentiation that could not be meaningfully sustained.

    San Francisco sported thousands of start-ups, all striving to be cool if not financially successful, and hundreds of restaurants desperate to keep up. Condo and house prices skyrocketed while posh outlets of all kinds sprouted for the high rollers of this hyper-frenetic game. Yet we had lost the relationship of form and function; design had broken away from useful purpose in a race to outdo, or at least out-impress. Adrift from any cohesive theme, we pursue a random collection of greater glitz. That simple interface for which the technorati has so strived is now obscured behind attempts to be newer, flashier, more hip than the next.

    We have lost our way, passed the pinnacle, the tangential turning point. Surely, the crash is soon to come.
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