~In Defense of Fine Dining~
"I just never get excited about fine dining," that’s what a friend told me as we stood huddled under a dripping awning on Broome Street, sharing a cigarette. "I feel like there is so much more interesting food to be had at a cheaper price, and in a room where there is so much more life," she exclaimed.
And here, I have to disagree.
Not only do I find something extremely satisfying about crisp, starched table linens, beautifully crafted silverware, and meticulously designed surroundings, but I happen to think that there is something undeniably special happening on those pristine white china plates, or whatever other artful object in or on which the chef might see fit to present his or her edible creation. I agree that as a diner I prefer to consistently enjoy my time at youthful, independent and casual restaurants or eating “street food” or homecooked meals. Even if funds were not an issue dining at a three Michelin starred establishment for the majority of my meals would be far too extravagant, and frankly, kind of boring, but I could never discount the innovation, creativity, and inspiration that comes from a fine dining establishment. As someone who loves eating I think it would be terribly silly to turn up one’s nose to any eating establishment - especially one that I have never experienced.
My friend’s distain for fine dining establishments came as somewhat of a surprise considering she had previously worked at two well-to-do restaurants in Vancouver (the gone-but-not-forgotten Lumiere and C Restaurant). As an educated and regular eating companion her dismissal of upscale meals was fairly shocking. Why knock something one had, up until that afternoon, admittedly never tried?
This evening’s conversation was sparked by a revelatory experience at chef Eric Ripert’s three Michelin starred Le Bernardin, in New York City. I had insisted that we dine there, made the reservation a month prior, and had poured over the online menu to further whip myself into a frenzied state of anticipation. On the flip side, my friend had been less than enthusiastic about the reservation but stayed quiet, never caring to research the restaurant or the menu, and worrying only that she had nothing appropriate to wear to a restaurant that requires men to wear jackets (a tie is optional) on a day where the temperature was pushing well over 90 degrees.
Upon arrival (thanks to the intense Manhattan traffic we were 10 minutes late for our lunch reservation) we were greeted and ushered into the bar area. Immediately we realized that our sleeveless outfits, while perfect for the balmy summer heatwave outside, were inappropriate for the overly air conditioned, lofty, wood paneled room. After being seated we were greeted by a host of servers, bussers, hosts and a sommelier; it was a little intimidating, but we quickly settled in.
After looking through the menus she selected: the Bacalao (grilled salted cod) with baby romaine hearts and “Caesar” vinaigrette; the Arctic Char (cooked “ultra rare”) served with truffled peas, favas, butter lettuce and a tarragon emulsion; and finally strawberry sorbet with marscapone cream and basil and accompanied by a Moscato d’Asti, Vigna Senza Nome Braida from Piedmont Italy (2011) for dessert (the final course of which we ordered at the end of the meal). I ordered the sea medley; a combination of langoustine, uni, caviar, cuttlefish, scallops and some kind of white fish lightly baked in a yuzu scented custard with smoked bonito broth; roasted monkfish with a wilted mustard greens and daikon “sandwich” covered in adobo sauce (served tableside); and a raspberry sorbet with lychee gelee and rose emulsion accompanied by a glass of Coteaux de Layon, Chaume, Chateau, Soucherie from the Loire Valley (2007) to finish. Instead of opting for a pairing for each course we chose to drink a Burgundian chablish from Domaine Savary (2010) for her, and I, at the suggestion of the sommelier, enjoyed a glass of Gaia Estate’s 2011 Thalassitis (a white wine made from assyrtiko grapes in Santorini, Greece).
We were given an assortment of bread to choose from and a salmon crudo with thin housemade crackers to start. My friend remained fairly judgmental (the salmon on the menu was “organic” meaning it was farmed, which was unimpressive and fairly surprising) and unenthused until my Sea Medley arrived. Upon marveling at the exquisite presentation and then tasting the juicy, sweet, and succulent treasures within she remarked excitedly, “That is gorgeous! So delicious! Oh, I should have ordered something far more exciting; I’m jealous.” Her previous lack of excitement for this meal finally revealed, the conversation about her aversion to fine dining had thusly begun.
Despite her initial apathy and her “uninspired” ordering her enthusiasm grew as the meal progressed. With each bite and every sip we became fully immersed in the experience, sinking in to notice that a few of the servers spoke perfect French, the elegant curve of the glass water bottles, that the expansive painting of crashing waves is featured on the website, and that the chilly temperatures did not hold sway in the refuge that was the women’s restroom.
Afterwards, while she could acknowledge the incredible meal we had just had, and how the attention to detail, meticulous execution, attentive service and quality of product merited the cost (a reasonable $140/person for 3 courses and 2 glasses of wine, after tax and tip) she was still unconvinced that fine dining should be experienced more than once or twice in a lifetime. My final plea was this: think about where all these amazing, talented young chefs - whom we know and respect and whose establishments we frequent - went to inspire and perfect their craft. Where did they go to learn and why? Which establishments helped to inspire their cooking? What restaurants did they travel to - not only to eat at but to work at (usually for free)? The answer: Pied-a-terre, The French Laundry, Alinea, elBulli, Noma, wd~50, Toronto’s Susur and Colborne Lane - the list goes on but the point is clear. If these are the restaurants where chefs that you hold in such high estimation go to develop their own cooking - to initiate and provoke their own creativity - as a diner one would be a fool not to try to seek out these experiences and eat a meal at a restaurant that is not only nuturing the best of tomorrow’s talent but also striving to combine the best of traditional and contemporary styles of cooking.
She nodded in agreement, “well, I don’t know if I will ever go to another fine dining restaurant, but one thing is for sure: I will never hesitate to go back to Le Bernardin.”