TASTE: Food For Thought

Fiamma, Aureole are enough to ward off fears of brain lesions

Max Jacobson

Last Wednesday, I had a typical food journalist's workday. It began with a multi-course lunch at Fiamma, the chic, new Italian trattoria in the MGM Grand, consisting of arugula salad, silky tomato soup laden with portabella mushrooms, grilled bread stuffed with San Daniele prosciutto and roasted red peppers, slices of Kobe skirt steak, and the coup de grace, hot doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar, and served with vanilla, lemon and pomegranate sauces. Fiamma is now open for lunch, if you didn't know, and the food is terrific.

Now, a meal like that might finish an ordinary eater for the day, but that same evening, I found myself at Aureole, Charlie Palmer's showcase restaurant in Mandalay Bay, accompanied by fellow food journalist and wine-maker Eric Cinnamon from Rancho Zabaco in Healdsburg, California, where I knew there would be an even more indulgent meal.

I love Aureole, and for good reason. While swans glide back and forth in a bucolic pool behind panoramic glass doors, the restaurant's wine angel is hoisted repeatedly up by rope to retrieve bottles ordered by guests in the 44-foot, Lucite wine tower.

Aureole recently acquired chef Phillippe Rispoli, a genius with charcuterie (French for cold cuts), and platters of his homemade salami arrived soon after we were seated, along with crispy risotto balls and crostini, slices of crisply toasted, country white bread topped with black truffles and shavings of Parmesan cheese.

The feast continued with chicken broth laced with more black truffles; cheese-crusted onion soup with a rich pastry hat; frisée salad sprinkled with bacon and crowned with a poached egg; meltingly tender black bass; and a platter of raw-milk, French cheeses.

For dessert, we had pastries in a compartmentalized bento box, various homemade chocolates, and amazing, hand-crafted marshmallows from the hand of Aureole's pastry chef, Megan Romano. Cinnamon generously supplied seven of his wines, mainly Zinfandels. It was indeed a meal to remember.

But on the way home, I had a sobering thought. I should have been feeling a tad uncomfortable, maybe even sick, from all the rich food I had eaten, but I was fine. In fact, more than fine. Then I thought about Jeffrey Steingarten. His latest tome, entitled It Must Have been Something I Ate, now available in paperback from Vintage Books, has a provocative theory that applies to foodies like me.

Steingarten, if you are unfamiliar with his work, is food editor at Vogue, where he writes impressively-researched pieces on every food-related subject, from bread to chocolate. His latest book, a compilation of essays, features one entitled Brain Storm, which postulates that obsession with gormandize is the result of a lesion in the anterior portion of the right brain. I would take exception with his conclusion, were it not for the five concussions I sustained as a child.

A doctor-friend contributed that the problem may lie in a portion of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus, sort of a relay area between the frontal areas of the brain and the limbic system, where pleasure is centered. Problems here are traditionally linked to obsessive compulsive disorder, excessive spending, and much more.

Steingarten actually went so far as to get an MRI in Switzerland, from Theodore Landis, the very neurologist who wrote the article that started all this trouble: Gourmand Syndrome, Eating Passion Associated With Right Anterior Lesions. I am, at this moment, negotiating with my bosses for the very same trip, but I'm guardedly pessimistic about my chances.

Dr. Landis did find evidence of lesions in Steingarten's brain, mainly a tad of scarring at the right edges. Depressed, he repaired to Paris, where he was again examined, this time by two well-known French radiologists, who advised him to forget the whole thing, even though they concurred with the diagnosis.

Now, if you are obsessed with fancy foods, don't go running off to some diagnostic imaging parlor; just lean back and enjoy. That has to be healthier than the stress caused by worrying about lifestyles. But I do encourage you to go out and buy one of Steingarten's two books, (his first, called The Man Who Ate Everything, is very good reading, as well), and definitely put that extra pat of butter on whatever it is you are chomping on right now.

In his latest book, you will learn everything you always wanted to know about sushi-grade tuna, the FDA's position on raw-milk cheeses, and MSG, (to simplify these three subjects: sushi is way cheaper here than it is in Japan; you can import all the contraband cheese you want, providing you declare that it is for your own consumption; and that reaction you are having to MSG is more likely than not imaginary.)

Me, I plan to soon head back to both Fiamma and Aureole for more dishes I want to try. Fiamma serves wonderful short-rib-filled ravioli, and one of the most delicious rustic fruit tarts in town, while Aureole has hundreds of interesting wines to match with Rispoli's home-cured meats and chef-owner Charlie Palmer's classic American fare.

I just hope my anterior cingulate gyrus can take the pounding.

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