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Is it time to stop worshiping high-end restaurants?

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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.

blackcod

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.

  1. vinorojo86 says:

    Steve,

    Good call not making a fuss over a corked wine at a place where nobody would know what you’re talking about. When I eat at restaurants, if my order is screwed up I never complain or send it back, I mean really, what would be the point? Make everyone with me wait for the kitchen to bring the correct order a half an hour later (if I’m lucky)? Thanks for your down home approach to a great topic.

  2. Couldn’t the same be said for high end wine? In both cases you are certain to receive a product prepared with great attention to detail, made exactly as the proprietor desired. But whether you like it or not is still a function of your own tastes. And at a certain point, price no longer reflects quality but external economic forces.

    I don’t eat at many expensive restaurants, but when I do, the only way to justify it is as an experience. It’s a luxury. Because from a taste standpoint, a pan-cooked pork chop with some basic glaze tastes better than pate or foie gras. For me, at least.

  3. Amen. I’ve certainly eaten at my fair share of “nice restaurants,” but I have to be honest with you, I am normally just as stoked on Tacos or Thai from a grimy little hole in the wall…not only is it cheaper, but frequently, it’s more satisfying, at least to me. Of course, there is something seductive about eating someplace really nice every once in a while, but still, you can’t go wrong with a bunch of cheap cabeza, lengua, carnitas tacos. And of course for that, the best match is probably beer.

  4. The things that pin my enjoyment meter (food-wise) are a great cheeseburger, a great pizza, and a great breakfast. No meal I’ve ever had, no matter how fancy/expensive the restaurant, provided more pure pleasure than a great version of one of the big three. And BTW, the best breakfasts I’ve ever had were ones I cooked myself.

  5. You won’t get wine, but if you haven’t been to Yamo in the mission and had Tea Leaf salad, you haven’t lived…

    And Brown Sugar Kitchen! Even though Tanya Holland trained at La Varenne, she knows how to bring home the soul. Her food makes me feel like the whole world could explode and I wouldn’t care. Great selection of wines & beer that work with the food, tough neighborhood, but so worth it.

  6. So what you are saying if that I become a wine writer….I’ll get to go to these awesome restaurant free of charge?? Now that sounds like a plan…where do I sign up?? :) In all seriousness, this just goes to show that with food and wine, your palate is the most important judge of quality (e.g. if you like white zin, then white zin is a great wine) and fancy/expensive do not always equal good or “worth it”

  7. I’d also like to point out that there are ways to enjoy fine dining experiences without the trappings of a place like Ame. Head over to Mission Street Food (heck, maybe the Chinese spot you went to was Lung Shan, in which case you already know where to go) and enjoy an inventive tasting menu for cheap and bring your own wine (just $5 corkage). Or head to Woodward’s Garden where the food and wine menus are just a page each and the owner’s bound to be your waiter- no pairing problems there. Or try one of dozen’s of other inventive, interesting and often more frugal options all around the bay area that serve amazing food without the pomp of the big names. We’re blessed in this area, and it’s not just because of the many great ethnic places. There are lots of places that serve some inexpensive classic, locally sourced, “american” cuisine as well. Some other quick hits- Chow, Sauce, flour & water, Trattoria Contadina, Emy’s, Weird Fish, Suppenkuche… all amazing and easy to get out of for two under a hundo.

  8. I guess it is a bit more disappointing that we are worshiping the high end restaurants in the first place. They rose and fell with the same gusto of many cult cabs over the last 15-20 years. It all had much less to do with the place or the wine as it did to be seen in the place with “that” bottle of wine on your table. To be fair I think some of these restaurants have are great when they truly understand service and you feel attended to from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you step in your car wile enjoying a few hours of wonderful food with great guests it can be fantastic. The sad part is every restaurant is trying to be the high-end. More restaurants should strive for excellence on the middle tier. You do not need granite bathrooms and Riedel stems to make a wonderful dinner just someone who understands solid service and inspired food for the price.

    Too often the chef dumps that glob of foie gras on the plate to justify that this is a high end experience- not all chefs appreciate the less is more theory.

  9. On another note to chefs. Lay off the Foie Gras, truffles and caviar in general. All of these items are fantastic, but it really becomes lipstick on a pig in many occasions. Shaving a pound of white truffles on your can of spaghetti o’s will not make it fine dining!

  10. I completely agree with your points about exploring local restaurants and those of different cultures. However, your thoughts about high end restaurants sound an awfully lot like people we all know who state “I don’t understand why anyone would spend $50 for a bottle of wine.” Well, people spend that kind of money because they are passionate about something and are always looking to try something different and partake of the art from the masters. Are all, or even maybe the vast majority of expensive restaurants worth it? Maybe not, But to experience the cuisine of the top chefs of our country, to experience food in a way not only that you couldn’t make at home, but have never thought of before? I would say that’s worth it to those who are interested in food that way. I would go further, and argue that they need to be protected, as examples of American Culture.
    I understand that the nature of blogs and news forces people to take sides, but I don’t understand why you couldn’t write a glowing tribute to the great hole in wall restaurants, instead of complaining about a bad meal at one expensive one.
    P.S. I totally concur about industry dinners.

  11. Amen, Steve! “You don’t need to spend up the wazoo to enjoy your wine or food” is a refreshing recurring theme on your blog. I’d love to read recurring features from you focused on terrific wines under $10 and others focused on terrific wines for under $20, esp in light of some of the ridiculous “expose” writing of late from Keith Wallace (like yesterday’s “How Wine Became Like Fast Food”) on the widely read Daily Beast. As we in the industry know, the overall quality of the average bottle of wine in the US is pretty darn high.
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-11-03/how-wine-became-like-fast-food/

  12. Steve: Not that I mind a good rant — I’ve got one up on my blog right now — but I think you’re going a little far to say one disappointing wine pairing at an upscale restaurant means none of them are worthwhile.

    That said, I’m with you on the sommelier. Geez, if you can’t pair wine with the restaurant’s signature dish, maybe it’s time to move on.

  13. I don’t agree. I’ve had some truly memorable meals in high end white table cloth restaurants. Red wine risotto at Cyrus, tuna tartare at Boulevard and aged ham served with goat butter and peasant bread at the Publican in Chicago. I love Foie Gras, anything with truffles or verjus… they all have their place. Tacos in California, pizza in NY and BBQ in Nashville… all delightful and all experiences to remember. Everything in moderation (except maybe shoes), even moderation in moderation…

  14. I have never purchased a bottle of Romanee-Conti in my life. But I love those that I have tasted. I have never purchased a bottle of D’Yquem in my life, but I have loved those that I tasted.

    I do own a few bottles that have cost me over $100, but most of what sits in cellar cost a lot less.

    I think a great piece of smoked salmon (lox) on a slice of brown bread with sweet butter is delicious, and a great corned beef sandwich is a wonder to the palate.

    I like all kinds of ethnic foods that are available by the bushel basket from Pho to Dim Sum to Thai to Indian.

    But, liking those things does not mean that I cannot enjoy a meal at Cyrus or The French Laundry or Guy Savoy. OK, so the meal that my wife and I had at Paul Bocuse was a gyp in our opinion. And I agree with Steve about Ame and specifically about the Alaska Black Cod in shiso.

    So, the question has to be asked in this rather august company. Why in the world are you dumping on food that is delicious and also happens to be expensive. I cannot get Squab stuffed with wild rice and foie gras at Pho 84 in Oakland. I can get it at Gary Danko.

    The notion that the wine world is bringing us every widening choices does not deny that Romanee-Conti is truly wonderful stuff. The notion that the SF Bay Area has lots of great and inexpensive choices does not deny the brilliance of meals at Chez Panisse or Cyrus.

    And a less than stellar event at Ame does not mean that all expensive restaurants are to be avoided. Who could eat in them all time? But, this mass condemnation of fine food makes no sense. It is as if greatness is no longer of value. Most of us eat good, simple fare most of the time. Why should we deny ourselves great fare from time to time?

    I am not going to stop buying Williams-Selyem Westside Road Pinot Noir, and I am not going to stop eating at Cyrus. But if enough folks stop going to places like that, maybe I will be able to get reservations without calling six to eight weeks in advance.

  15. I agree about the high end restaurant. I don’t like to pay for the “ambiance” I prefer to eat good afordable food that is not as dressed up.

  16. Steve, Sounds a bit like “biting the hand that feeds you” to me. You get to go into these great restaurants and eat and drink for free, then turn around and say that you are “disappointed” in the food and pairings that you recieved. These types of restaurants are normally independent business people that are working hard to be creative and provide an experience above the normal evening dinner fare. They should be supported and treasured. Sure it cost a bit more than the corporpate Applebee’s or local Thai restaurant down the street, but maybe your expectations are out of whack. I agree that you occasionally can run into some famous places where the “celebrity chef” is no longer cooking each night and the people under him/her do not possess or display the talent that got you to come in to the place or that made it a “famous must experience” restaurant. Often, they are resting on their laurels, these situations exist and that sounds like what happened to you Ame. Very simple, if the food is below a certain standard, people will stop going there and they will OOB. Besides, I thought you were a wine-writer and not a food critic. Stick to what you know or just have a beer with your cheap chinese meal and stop your belly-aching. You are never disappointed in those cheap ethnic places because you have no expections of having a fantastic meal or spending very much money.

    Corked wine should always be returned, I do not care where you are, otherwise how will people ever learn to never serve it. For God’s Sake, there is no meal that pairs well with wet dog smell. Just like your bad meal at a fancy high end restaurant it should have been returned. If it is not up to a standard of excellence, then they should know about it so that they can correct the situation. IT’s YOUR MONEY!!! They are not above criticism especially in today’s world where spending money is a luxury and should be appreciated.

  17. I’ve never spent more dough at dinner than when my ex passed the bar exam and we splurged at Healdburg’s Cyrus. It was over the top and worth, imho, every cent. Having the house wine guy Jim Ralston (casually familiar) there was definately a plus as he poured us ’82 this and ’74 that’s. We were served by no fewer than 16 staff, each one explaining their task with perfect clarity. It was almost like we were in an operating room and the staff pulled off surgcal percision. Having sid that, this was the exception to my fine dining experiences and would probably never do it again.

  18. Joanna Breslin says:

    Charlie,

    Well said! I happen to have had several excellent meals at Ame, as well as Cyrus. I readily admit that they were on someone else’s dime.

    I too love little ethnic places and mid-priced neighborhood hangouts. But I believe there is a place for superfine dining where successfully executed.

    As to getting a reservation at such places, if enough people stop eating there you will not be able to get reservations because they will be closed.

  19. How about a round up of the best Taco Trucks in the Bay Area! A true crossroad of culture and food. Corkage is generally not a consideration.

  20. wine dinners are a lot of work both to those executing it and those attending. and the return ride home is fraught with hazards, especially the cops who don’t understand that a Premier Cru high isn’t illegal in the culinary world. wine dinner food is usually carefully planned and often times better than the regular fare. and if that soupy looking concoction shown as black cod costs anything over $8.95, i too would complain. if the sommelier hadn’t a clue about which wine to serve, he hasn’t a clue about what good food is either. every restaurant has the same ingredients. it’s what the restaurant does with those ingredients that sets them apart. and if you are impressed with foam, flowers, and fawning, then an expensive restaurant is for you.

  21. I never knew about your martial arts background, Steve. What belt level are you now? I couldn’t agree any more with your statement regarding food and wine help. Its no less awkward for the customer than the waiter, to go back and forth in successive disappointment. And, at that price, you should come to expect a certain level of quality to the overall dining experience, not just the food.

  22. Gee, I love this topic. I got into wine via my interest in food. I grew up in a meat and potatoes family. The most exotic dish ever to appear in my house was my mother’s slow-cooked brisket. Sauces? Well, yes, the brisket had a sauce, but that’s because it produced its own.

    But, somehow, I had the taste gene, and the further I got into good food, the more I appreciated that wine went with it. So, when this wine blog turns to food, I am all ears.

    I wanted to respond to Mark about sending food back in restaurants. Steve did not like the preparation of the Alaskan Black Cod at Ame. But, that was a preference issue. The menu clearly describes the dish, and he ordered it. He would have been way out of line sending that dish back. There was nothing wrong with it technically. And I know this for a fact because I had the very same experience with the very same dish in the very same restaurant. I will say that our wine service was better than what Steve received. The restaurant manager is also an advanced MS or MW candidate (I don’t remember which) and when we showed up with a couple of older bottles that needed special handling, she showed up at our table. We also bought of the list both by the bottle and by the glass and also tried some Sake at her suggestion (complementary pour–and she did not know who we were, by the way).

    Not all restaurant events are going to be perfect. A particular set of relatives came out here recently. Big time foodies, and they went to Gary Danko and did not like it. I love Danko, and it is rated higher in the latest Zagat than French Laundry, Chez Panisse and Cyrus. Too bad, but it happens.

    Comment to Randy: Two comments actually. Jim Rolleson, my nominee for the best sommelier in the business, has left Cyrus, which is a damn shame because my wine experience there (he did know who I was because he had my book and recognized the name) was the same as yours. But, Randy, Cyrus is worth every cent, as you say, so why not go back from time to time. I certainly will.

    And one final note. I said above that I do not get all this dumping on great restaurants. But, I probably eat in one no more than a few times a year, and on special occasions. I love Pho 84 in Oakland, but I don’t go there on my anniversary or when my wife and I celebrate birthdays that fall within five days of each other. There are times when a great meal is not only worth everything you pay for it, but is also simply an experience beyond simply the food. We all work hard in this life. I think we deserve special treats now and then. I know I do.

  23. Morton Leslie says:

    I never really appreciated or enjoyed the French Laundry or other high end restaurants because the atmosphere was too much like church with everyone paying homage to fussy little things on a plate in hushed tones. I never aspired to be one of those people. Often meals in these places were associated with selling or promoting wine, making it work, not pleasure.

    But then on a Mother’s Day years ago, I watched my 12 year old son’s mind being blown as he worked his way through an 8 course tasting menu. A kid who previously wouldn’t touch fish was downing caviar like it was Hagen Daz. He even washed his Beggar’s Purse down with a little Champagne when no one was looking. I literally enjoyed paying the $500 tab for the three of us. What a kick.

  24. I can still recall a memorable evening at the French Laundry nearly thirty years ago. That said, too many high-end dining experiences could leave one slightly jaded–although I’d be willing to give it a go just to be sure.

    Methinks the experience of staring into the economic abyss has caused consumers to re-think what’s really essential in their lives and re-prioritize things. Ya think so?

  25. Hi Steve,

    I’m very surprised the waiter responded that he could not match the food with the wine at Ame. I think that at such a high-end restaurant, wine education, and more specifically wine-and-food education is critical. That is a true failure and they should quickly address the problem.

    The problem with such high-end restaurants is that because they charge such high prices, our expectations go way up. If they don’t provide excellent food and excellent service, we are much more disappointed than if we had spent $15 on mediocre ethnic food.

    That being said, I enjoy eating out at nice restaurants occasionally, but lately I’ve found myself investing in excellent quality ingredients and cooking at home!

  26. David: I do think the economic abyss is causing people to re-prioritize. And I think it’s permanent.

  27. Dylan, I got my shodan (1st degree) and was about to take my nidan (2nd) when I had to hang up my gi. I still practice, especially my kata, which I love.

  28. Steve:

    I think it’s too early to tell whether this reprioritization is permanent or not. 2002 had a very similar feeling (from a wine sales standpoint) yet wine prices climbed dramatically until late last year.

  29. Steve, looking at the serving size of that cod in the bowl, reminds me of an experience at a very upscale restaurant on a very special occasion. I ordered “scallops in white wine w/ scallions and dill in a reduction sauce”, with one sliver of crab and shrimp, each laid artistically on the scallop . When my entree was placed on the table, I asked where were the other scallops…one not being what I ordered. “Oh, sir, would you like to order a second entree?” Had I had a scale, total food weight was in the high 1 oz. range. I don’t care how good it is, this ridiculous habit some of these “up-scale” restaurants have of serving a $32 entree that weighs slightly over an ounce is just pure unadulterated b.s. Thank God the wine we drank was our own, as they had the wines at 2.5 to 3 X the retail price. Food like that loses its flavor for me, and I don’t care if the King of England once ate there.

    It only happens because the customers allow it to happen. I since have gone mainly to really good ethnic restaurants, with great food that doesn’t need a microscope to identify dinner. In this economy there are plenty, and they are just delighted to see anyone who walks thru their doors. “Upscale” restaurants have worn thin with me, and I eat out now to get fed, not just teased. The food is terrific, needless to say, and the wines are only 1.5X, not “upscale” rates. Same wine, too.

  30. The black cod at Ame is bigger than that picture looks, but Steve did not like the presentation, and neither did I.

    But, on the same night that I did not like my black cod, my table mates have the best prepared piece of swordfish I have ever tasted and an absolutely ethereal piece of smoked sea trout (essentially the same color and texture but far more delicate than salmon).

    There are reasons why I have not rushed back to Ame, but the size of the portions was not one of them.

  31. I don’t have the ethnic options you do, Steve (I miss Oakland).
    Finding a consistently good high-end restaurant is like finding a good wine, season to season ya just don’t know-chefs come and go, suppliers come and go, servers and owners come and go…. but the prices don’t get cheaper because the kitchen or FOH is having a bad night.
    And….you can’t send the bill back.
    I like tasting truly great sauces, fantastic seafood, bone-in anything, and stuff that certainly doesn’t come out of my kitchen. And I like the conversations that flow with great wine and food (that’s assuming the table mix is good and that is my part of the deal.)
    But when the bill is high and the service is low, it drives me nuts (as my kids know – we took the kids and boyfriends to Villandry in London few weeks ago for a birthday and the service from beginning to end, including the fast-pour by the sommelier trying to sell another bottle, could not have been worse. It distracted me so much, I don’t really know whether I liked the food…oh yeah, my scallops were overdone. tragedy.)
    In NV, Don Giovannni is usually great food and service, as is étoile at Domaine Chandon. French Laundry was good under the Schmidts and was good last time I was there.
    Expectations. Taste. Service. Talk about a kamikaze profession…

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