Is it time to stop worshiping high-end restaurants?
I’ve never been big on super-duper-expensive restaurants. When I first started this gig of wine writing, I got lots of invitations to San Francisco’s top eateries, and I confess that I was thrilled each time one came in. There were dinners at Fleur de Lys, Masas, Aqua and Square One, intimate private meals at Boulevard and One Market, wine country feasts at Tra Vigne. It felt privileged and exclusive. All that filet mignon, salmon, lobster and caviare, those old vintages, the fabulous desserts. And I didn’t have to pay!
That was then, this is now. My “era of fancy feasting” didn’t last very long. I gave it a self-imposed burial. My reasons: (a) I was putting on weight and as most people know I’m a health nut and gym bunny. (b) I got tired of going out at night and stumbling home towards midnight, wobbly. And I no longer cared to drive home from Napa half-drunk. (c) I took up the serious practice of classic Japanese karate during the 90s and our dojo classes were at night. I decided I’d much rather be sweating in a clean, healthy martial arts environment than stuffing my face. (d) Truth be told, many of the dinners were boring. They weren’t fun affairs with family and friends. For the most part, everybody’s working.
People often expect that I know all the latest restaurant openings on both sides of the Bay (San Francisco and Oakland/Berkeley), and I think they’re surprised when they find out I don’t. I don’t actually eat out all that much. If I do, I’d just as soon go to some Vietnamese place than an expensive “white tablecloth” restaurant. Partly it’s because that level of dining is really expensive, but partly it’s because I’m usually disppointed at high-end places, and almost never at my little, local ethnic restaurants. For example, last night I went, with a friend, to the celebrated San Francisco restaurant, Ame. Michael Bauer had it in his Top 100 list in the Chronicle last year, and I’d never been there. Have to say how disappointing it was. My friend had the duck, which was O.K. but nothing special, and the chunk of foie gras that accompanied it looked like something the cat upchucked — not neat slices but a gray, ill-shaped lump. My bruschetta with mozzarella appetizer was fine, but the entree fell apart. I had the chef’s signature black cod with shrimp dumplings — fantastically rich and delicious — but why dump it into a weak, flavorless shiso broth? I’ve had better pho. It would have been better on something solid, like puréed vegetables or millet or even mashed potatoes; pasta would have worked, too. When I asked our waiter to recommend a glass of wine to have with my cod, he brought a tasting sample of a Marsannay (2006 Joseph Roty) that was totally inappropriate. It was dry, tannic and acidic, quite good by itself, but hopelessly mismatched with the cod, whose sweetness made the wine rasping. I suggested this to the waiter; he returned with a 2006 California Pinot Noir. It was fruitier, of course, but the tannins were still way too fierce. Maybe an older Pinot would have worked, or even something Alsatian. When I suggested all this to the waiter, he explained that, with so many wines on the list, and so many foods on the menu, it was impossible for him to accurately pair things well all the time. Well, when the bill comes to $160 for two, I expect accurate wine-and-food help.
black cod with shrimp dumplings
It’s all a matter of expectations. I once went out to eat Chinese food. We were running late for the ballet, so jumped into a cheap little joint on Mission Street for some quick potstickers and an entree. Our waiter didn’t speak English. I ordered a $5 glass of Chardonnay. It was slightly corked. My cousin said I should return it. I told her that our waiter wouldn’t understand what the heck I was talking about, and neither, probably, would anyone else in the restaurant. So why make a scene?
Lots of themes wound together here, but one of them certainly is that, as wine lovers, our obsession with high-end Michelin restaurants might be askew. As we democratize to newer varieties from smaller appellations and more obscure countries and regions — as we come to view Classified Growth Bordeaux as so yesterday — as we retool in this post-recessionary environment — so too might we see the traditional luxe restaurant as an anachronism. Does that mean a three-star restaurant doesn’t have its place? No. But I’d love it if someone who knows I’m a wine critic said to me, not “Have you eaten at the new Pat Kuleto restaurant?”, but “What are your favorite Asian restaurants in downtown Oakland?” That makes more sense, from the point of view of just loving wine and drinking it everyday.
I’m suggesting that in this new era of post-conspicuous consumption, we Americans might just return to the good, simple fare of our local restaurants, and if we’re lucky enough to live in a cultural smorgasbord, as I do in the Bay Area, we have the cuisines of scores of countries, from every continent, to explore — at a fraction of the price of the high-end joints that, after all, can be let-downs. I’ve almost never been disappointed with Korean, Afghan, Burmese, Chinese, Thai, Ethiopian fare, the way I was at Ame. I might return the next $5 corked Chardonnay I get at one of these places, but only if the waiter speaks English.