Sunday, January 22, 2006

What I Expect.

I eat all sorts of things.

When I cook at home, I expect to either have a nice, simple meal, learn something, have a good time preparing the meal, for it to be cheaper than most restaurants, and for it to be healthy, and/or tasty.

When I eat, for <$20, I expect that the food will be relatively simple, but good. I'm thinking a good burrito, a nice burger, sushi from Geta - something along those lines. Your sort of standard walk in & eat, or take out sort of food. Sustenance, not art, but still pleasureable.

$20-40 sort of holds a slightly higher standard. Aperto, Cuvae - nice restaurants. Generally nicer stuff than I can make, without careful, iterative improvements on a recipe I know well. I'd say there are maybe three or four dishes I could put together that might, with more practice, be worthy of this sort of menu, and they're generally things I could only cook on the weekend. Still, what I expect out of a meal like this is the high end of what I think I can do. Flavors might be something I'd expect, but done well. Aperto, Cuvae, and Angelfish, my three favorite restaurants in this category, do that, and also periodically surprise me with something that's quite brilliant.

$40+, and what I want is an *experience*. When we ate at Morimoto, which was ~$100/per, what we got was an extraordinary balance of flavor. Combinations I wouldn't expect, but were harmonious, in a way that felt completely natural, even if unexpected. That's my yardstick for "fine dining" - that perfect, harmonious balance of flavor - something that has been, and will continue to be for some time, out of my personal reach. This is not something I understand how to do at home, and could likely not replicate it, even given a relatively precise recipe. This is the sort of thing that a talented chef is required to make, and to understand to get right. When I'm looking at $40+ per person, what I *expect* is something that I can marvel at, and wonder how the chef managed to pull that off.

Which brings me to the main point, really:

Rubicon, for ~$45/per, did that. The pork belly was perfectly done, slightly smoked, giving it a just-barely-hamlike flavor, though it retained a very characteristically "pork" flavor independent of the ham. The skin was crisp, the meat was tender, and all the side dishes worked together in various combinations to create a wide palette of flavor to draw from. The pork went beautifully with a thin polenta. It could be accentuated by the dried fruit compote that accompanied it, giving it a subtle sweetness that echoed the sweetness of the pork. The slightly bitter, slightly sweet green that sat to the right provided balance, and contrast that worked beautifully.

The dessert was a nougat glace, which I can't really explain. It was like a nutty icecream, with bits of pistachio and dried cherry, but it was dryer than any ice cream I'd ever had. It was served over grapefruit slices that had been marinating in some sort of carbonated , fruity liquid, that also served as a sauce for the nougat. I suppose that was the glace. It was quite unlike anything I've ever had before - the bubbly, fruity liquid melded beautifully with the creamy nougat, and the contrast between the creamy and very bright pop of the liquid was completely unique. Ok, maybe not - it was like a fruity root beer float like thing, but again, what it had was that sense of harmony, that I imagine would be very hard to replicate.

La Suite, on the other hand, was largely a run-of-the-mill meal. The starter, a pate, with some warm toast, mustard, and cornichons, was good, but nothing I'd write home about. I've had better pate. The mustard was good, and it worked well together, but the ratio of toast to pate was a little bizarre, and I ended up using a number of pieces of bread from the basket to finish off the pate. If I had finished the pate with the amount of bread they'd given me, the ratio of pate to bread would have been pretty extreme.

The main dish was beef cheek, with some vegetables, served over mashed potatoes with what appeared to be some sort of red wine sauce. The vegetables, straight off, were perfect. Absolutely perfectly done. The cheek, on the other hand, was tender to the point of absurdity, and lacking any real beefy punch. It was good, but the lack of textual contrast between the beef, and the mashed potato was a little disappointing, and I expected more of a beefy flavor. Maybe that's what the cheek is supposed to be, but I found it less appealing than it could have been. The sauce was also overpowering, and very hard to eat without a spoonful of mashed potatoes. That is, the beef, on its own, was overpowered by the sauce, and needed to the potato to cut the saltiness of the whole thing.

I don't mean to sound like it was a bad meal - it wasn't - but instead of the $40+ category, it's squarely in the low end of the $20+ category. I've had many superior meals at Aperto. Not to mention that the service was absolute crap. The guy who came later to keep our water full was spectacular, and I'd have switched him with the main waiter, who was a condescending, brusque snot. We mused that if we'd had a more competant waiter, the whole experience would likely have left a very, very different perception in our minds. But fundamentally, the whole experience is what I'm looking for, when we're eating in that price range, and that man had no place at a fine dining establishment. Boy, do I sound snooty.

Still, Rubicon? For $50, yes. A fine meal, and one I would definitely try again, on some special occasion. La Suite? For $35, no. For $20, yes, but that's a pretty big difference.


Blogger A_B said...

It looks like, at La Suite, you're paying for the real estate.

2:10 PM  
Blogger ei-nyung said...

But that's just the Bay Bridge! :D Actually, there are lots of restaurants along the pier further north, but this is one of the pricier ones. Many have better views. We were also stuck in a little corner with absolutely no view. Oh well. The decor was very warm and nice though.

3:20 PM  

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