Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A shift in priorities

So, I get it. I understand the whole "fine dining" concept. Great food, great service, subtle balances of flavor. It's incredible stuff, and I'm totally over it.

That is, we've had some exorbitant meals, both in terms of cost, and overall quality, but the value per unit of pleasure has fallen off relatively quickly. $150 is a lot for a meal. A few years ago, I'd have thought it was completely, utterly ridiculous. I still do, but it's been worth it because I really wanted to explore what the high end of food was all about.

Now that I know, that experience holds less and less value for me.

A dinner at Gordon Ramsay at the London is fun, and interesting, but so is a dinner at Cuvae - and the dinner at Cuvae is cheaper, more accessible, and more relaxed. The thing I loved most about the dinner at the London was hanging out with the people I was with. The food made a great conversation piece, but the biggest part was the social experience, and how the food enabled that.

I think that's the draw of a lot of the post-Alice Waters-era cuisine. Create a novel sensation that spurs people to think, and to talk about the experience. Challenge what the eater expects, make them reconsider how they perceive food, and then get the people involved to discuss their experiences.

That holds a lot of interest to me. It's the *best* part of a meal - that shared experience. And that's the sort of thing that could cost hundreds of dollars or next to nothing, and change very little.


Blogger Seppo said...

The thing about food as a motivator for a shared social experience is that to me, it almost decouples the quality of the food from the experience. I could say that, for instance, the food at Cuvae isn't as high quality as the food at the French Laundry. The technique isn't as refined, the presentation isn't as well done, and the ingredients as a whole are undoubtedly a step down, both in terms of cost, and in terms of quality.

Largely, though, it doesn't matter - because what the prime goal becomes is food as a social agitator, rather than as an experience where quality is paramount. Sure, quality food is good, too, but it's less the thing that's attracting me to the meal than the possibility of some sort of mental stimulation, or motivation for social interaction.

Would I care, for instance, whether El Bulli's carrot foam contained only the freshest local organic carrots? Probably not, given that the way that I would experience that flavor is so radically removed from what I'd expect of a carrot. Give me something that tastes distinctly of carrots, and I'll probably be satisfied.

I dunno what the point of discussing that is, though - maybe that the emphasis is more on the end result than the ingredients? Whatever. :D

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stop talking to yourself!

In any case, I was having this discussion with someone last night that usually, it's not worth it for me anymore to go nuts for the sake of the meal. This person mentioned Thomas Keller's restaurants and I said I'd never go back to Per Se (if I was buying).

I've become pretty jaded. It's almost impossible for me to be impressed by a meal these days. Maybe Il Bulli if I ever go. I'll like plenty of meals, but the "shock of the new" is lacking, regardless of what I pay.

However, a good slice of pizza can be as satisfying as a dish at Per Se. (A place where, to this day, I'm still smarting over the bill.) Because of that, I wonder why I blow the kind of money on a meal that could get me more long term enjoyment. Like a Wii or PS3 or something.


5:23 PM  
Blogger Seppo said...

Exactly! The moment-to-moment enjoyment of food is about as good for a really spectacular sushi dinner ($40 at most?) as it was for a dinner at the French Laundry ($250ish). Mind you, the French Laundry was worth it... once. But I can go to Angelfish, stuff myself on absolutely awesome food, and never really think about the price.

French Laundry, I'm like WTFPS3?

6:35 PM  
Anonymous becky said...

There are a handful of high end restaurants that I absolutely want to go to - once (maybe more than that if once I do go I find it worth it). I'm thinking French Laundry, Cyrus, Aqua, Per Se, and the like. I don't know that I can stomach $250 on dinner (and that's without wine!) when I can barely stomach paying that much for a hotel room. The one exception to this rule is Chez Panisse; the combination of food, ambiance, and experience will have us going back every year, at least once a year. To us, it's just *that* good.

7:41 AM  

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