False alarm

Firehouse's hot food gimmick masks a creative bistro

"The red and green peppers on the side of your plate are called habaneros," our young and overly earnest waiter told us. "If you like your food spicier than it is, just chop up the habanero to add a little heat."

Excuse me?
Some chefs don't even allow salt cellars to be placed on the table--they have prepared the food the way they think it ought to taste and you, the philistine diner, are there to appreciate their artistry, as much as you can, as is. The plate is the chef's canvas, and I mean, would you want museum-goers feeling free to rouge up the cheeks of Desmoiselles d'Avignon?

Food is always more than nourishment--it's wealth, it's power, it's love, among other things. A few weeks ago, I met a man at a dinner party who asked me, immediately after our introduction, "Do you think food is like sex?" Not accustomed to lines like that at my age, I immediately answered, "Yes" because food is about pleasure, physical fulfillment, and physiology. But if food is an art, it's an interactive one, so the chef-artiste attitude errs on the far side of ridiculous. Diners should be allowed to season to taste because food is, above all, flavor, and people's perceptions of that vary physiologically.

But these days, some asbestos-mouthed people seem to regard food neither as treasure, high art, nor pure pleasure, but more as a macho, thrill-seeking sport--hence, Firehouse, a new restaurant on Greenville Avenue that specializes in spicy food and invites its guests to dare palatal suicide by chopping dangerous foods with their bare hands. (I could ask, Do you think eating is like bungee-jumping?)

Each dish on Firehouse's menu is rated, from "mild" (one pepper) to "scorcher" (four peppers). A habanero pepper packs 325,000 Scoville units--that's the official unit of measurement for heat units, or parts per million of capsaicin, the hot stuff in peppers. Capsaicin is not a flavor, it's a sensation (speaking of sex and bungee-jumping). It actually affects the pain receptors, not the taste buds. (All this information is printed for your edification on the back of Firehouse's menu.) Habaneros have more capsaicin than almost any other pepper, enough to literally blister your lips if you're not cautious. Professional chefs wear gloves when they handle habaneros, and needless to say, they don't cut them up with the utensils they're going to put into their mouths. The temperature of McDonald's coffee was no kind of liability compared to the damage a diner could self-inflict with a habanero pepper.

Cheap tricks like chop-your-own-peppers keep Firehouse from being the chic little bistro it was intended to be, and tries to be. The owners would have been better off keeping things strictly camp and calling the place "Hell"; instead, they sold out to the theme, and Firehouse takes itself so seriously that it ends up slightly silly instead of stylish. Too bad, because despite the Brinkeresque name and a concept that looks like a restaurant chain in the making, Firehouse (a spinoff of the Whiskey Bar next door) is distinctively good-looking. An angled bar shields the dining room with its mirrored mosaic wall and swooping, tall purple velvet banquettes from the bar area in front; the dim light and industrial concrete floor makes Firehouse feel like an upscale, hip little Soho situation. Then that earnest young man brings you an oversized, illustrated, laminated menu and you feel like you're eating with the Big Boy again.

The menu describes itself as "international hot and spicy cuisine." It offers variations of dishes from hot spots all over the world: the Caribbean (swordfish with a Jamaican scotch bonnet buerre blanc), Mexico (a filet mignon with a poblano glaze), the Mediterranean (eggplant dip with garlic), Louisiana (andouille sausage kebabs), even Texas (Dallas-made jalapeno mozzarella). And along with the treatise on peppers, verso, there are field-guide-style renderings of various peppers, their provenance, and numbers of Scoville heat units, recto. It's the overly informative menu that makes you realize that what's missing here is the punchline. Are we going to have fun or what?

Peppers have become a design motif as prevalent as ducks, hearts, angels, and cows. There are catalogs and magazines devoted exclusively to chili peppers which, like chocolate, have become their own genre of cooking--probably because both foods cause the body to release pleasure-triggering endorphins. Passion for pain-on-a-plate has been increasing for years. So the real disappointment at Firehouse was that the pepper markers next to the menu items were completely meaningless--nothing we tried was very hot at all (though the lack of pepper didn't prompt us to pull out our pocketknives and start dicing the habaneros). Firehouse didn't serve anything nearly as hot as the jalapeno spaghetti sauce Pete Z serves at Dancing Marlin, and Pete's service offers common sense with a sense of humor--the searingly spicy pasta comes with a chaser of chocolate milk, a remedy for pepper pain recommended by Firehouse, but not provided. At Firehouse, the eggplant and roasted garlic dip was served with tostados and would have been better with pita; it was flavorful, but had no burn at all. "Buffalo" shrimp, grilled and marinated in a satisfyingly soppy sauce of serranos (23,000 Scoville units), was hotter. The hottest appetizer we tried was the Dallas-made mozzarella, rolled around chopped jalapenos and drizzled with a deceptively cool-looking pesto of parsley, sage, and basil. The fat, soft cheese was a nice palliative to the rawness of the chopped pepper jelly-rolled inside, and the grilled tomatoes on the side offered a fruity contrast. Thick, meaty gator sausage chili, available as an appetizer cup or an entree bowl, had a little more bite, but I don't think it was even as hot as Wick's Two Alarm Mix that you can buy at Tom Thumb.

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