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Can any meal possibly be worth $498?

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Before we consider this interesting question, we have to ask ourselves if any wine can possibly be worth $750, or $3,000, or–gasp–$168,000, as that bottle of Penfold’s 2004 Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon just went on the market for. [Before you open the link, know that the advertisement preceding it is really annoying.]

I think all of us, possessing common sense as we do, would agree that $168,000 is too much to pay for a bottle of wine. But $750 for Screaming Eagle? Maybe. Where you stand, as they say, depends on where you sit. Here are some other expensive wines, courtesy of the wine-searcher website, which each of you will have to decide is worth the price of admission.

That $498 dinner, by the way, can be found at Saison, a restaurant in San Francisco (and in the Mission District, which those of you unfamiliar with San Francisco should know was, until relatively recently, the divier part of town). Saison recently announced a 22 course, 18 drink din-din. Josh Sens’ account, in San Francisco Magazine, is a good read (and the magazine itself, in its latest iteration, is gorgeous and always worth spending time with).

The most expensive meal I ever had was at French Laundry. A friend called me one day: he had a friend, a Brazilian investment banker whose hobby was dining at the world’s greatest restaurants. (I guess that’s more fun than collecting chia pets.) He, the Brazilian guy, was going to be in the States for a two-week window. He’d tried to get 3 seats at French Laundry, but couldn’t. My friend said if I could get 4 seats, the banker would include me as his guest. This was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I pulled a few strings [rank hath its privileges], got the requisite 4 reservations, and so one fine evening we drove up to Yountville and did the Laundry. (That’s how I imagine Michelin devotees talk. Or maybe it’s “did Keller.”)

We opted for the chef’s special tasting menu. It was pretty good, but, being 14 courses or so, I can’t say that everything knocked me out. I also thought some of the wines were just so-so, or not all that cleverly matched with the food. The night’s denouement of sticker shock came when the servor brought the bill. We all discretely hushed as the banker looked at it. I swear I saw his chin drop down to his chest. It was $2,400, before the tip. A lot, even for a Brazilian banker.

Well, that came down to $600 per person, more even than Saison, and I didn’t think it was worth it, at least, food-wise. The experience itself, as sheer existentialism? Sure. Now I can boast I’ve eaten at French Laundry. (Actually, it’s been three times over the years.) But I eat at restaurants for gustatory pleasure and socializing, not bragging rights, and one of the dreariest conversations I can conceive is when people start babbling about all the Michelin palaces they’ve dined at around the world.

Readers of this blog know that I generally eschew snobby things. Not the things in themselves: the wines and the foods, which I love, but the attitudes that so often contaminate their consumption. (We live in a very poor world that’s getting poorer in many ways and conspicuous consumption turns me off.) Still, would I refuse an invitation to dine at Saison? No, and here’s proof: I just accepted one. (No, I won’t be paying for it.) It won’t be Chef Skenes’s full 22 course extravaganza, but it will be a dozen courses, with ten wines. My interest is part gustatory, but the reporter in me wants to know what all the fuss is about. The dinner is tomorrow, Wednesday; I’ll blog about it, probably on Friday, unless I can stumble home to Oakland late Wednesday night, sated and sloshed, and pound something out for Thursday morning. Probably not.

  1. My wife and I were lucky enough to snag a 2-top reservation at the “Laundry” while in Napa for our honeymoon in 2009 (actually through OpenTable). I will never forget that experience and it was wonderful to be able to experience it with my best friend and wife. We too did the Chef’s tasting menu and I agree that not every course blew me away, those that did however, really blew me away. Chef Keller deserves all the credit and fame given to his Oysters and Pearls dish as that is the single best dish I’ve ever eaten. The “deconstructed” Cesar salad was a close second. Two tasting menus, a glass each of white wine (don’t remember the sommelier’s suggestion) and a bottle of 95′ Ridge Dusi Ranch (deliciously layered and still young tasting) came two a whopping $770. Price-wise, I knew what I was getting into so there was no sticker shock; it isn’t like they hide the prices. Would I go again? Only if I wasn’t paying. But do I think the price was too high or regret going? No way, wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

    These prices may seem a bit elitist, but my perspective is that those that boohoo such things simply have different priorities. I don’t drive a brand new car that carries a $400/month payment; instead I drive a 97′ Altima with 150k miles and no payment. I will likely never drive a brand new car because I think the cost is too high and would rather reserve that money for unique (and largely one-time) experiences like the French Laundry. That is just my perspective on things.

  2. It’s not just that I find these tasting menus embarrasing and silly, I have a problem with the attitude of a restaurant toward their customers which requires a certain number of diners per table. It is the same attitude that was directed toward a wealthy friend of mine brought five guest to the Laundry for dinner. He told the sommelier to choose the wine and bring a different wine with each course, keep his guests glasses filled, but keep the wines under $150 a bottle. Later, and after they had already opened six bottles of wine, when a certain dish came out, the sommelier came to the table and said, “I know you are on the ECONOMY PLAN for wine tonight, but this course deserves something special.” Where upon he suggested a much more expensive wine. One of my friend’s guests quipped, ” Maybe we should stay on the economy plan when we tip the sommelier.”

    A meal at any price in a restaurant with this attitude is not worth it.

  3. Here’s the simple truth: “Value” and “worth” are abstract concepts and can only be assessed subjectively.

  4. There is a common thread between the expensive “dining experience” and the outlay of finding complexity in rare and costly wines. In the former, it is more than just nourishment, and in the latter, it’s more than “just a beverage.” There is, it seems, a kind of spiritual bliss that results from either experience.

    Both of those experiences, of course, are in the eyes of the beholders, and it damn well depends on one’s financial comfort range. We’ve done Michelin’s and expensive wines, and the “emotional payback” just seems to diminish as time goes on.

    Sometimes a basic Barbera and a savory pizza create all the spititual bliss that one could possibly ask for.

  5. Morton: I have to agree that I too would be upset if the restaurant had such a seemingly indifferent view of their guests and that would’ve changed my opinion significantly. Our experience was certianly much different as my wife and I only purchased 1 glass each and one bottle for the entire meal and the sommelier was all too happy to chat at length with us about the list and the various as well as his career and how he came to work at the French Laundry (the latter topics brought on by my curiosity). The 1 bottle we did buy was under the $150 mark and I didn’t even name a price limit or range when looking for suggestions.

    The one part of or meal that I actually chuckled at the waiter about was when I seemingly took too long to eat my foie gras and brioche. At some point the waiter came up with a new, still warm piece of brioche and simply stated, “at this time, I would like to replace your brioche as it has gone cold.” My wife and I still laugh about that and mention it anytime things seem overly indulgent.

  6. @tom barras: let’s hear it for pizza, barbera and good friends!

  7. Morton: that waitron should have been fired for rudeness. The customer is always right, even at French Laundry!

  8. GrapeRGreat: Room temperature brioche! Worst thing in the world!

  9. Kurt Burris says:

    I have only eaten at the French laundry once (and I was not paying). It was more a performance art piece than a dinner, but a beautifully performed piece. However, in my mind, it was not a meal that truly nourished. No vegetables to speak of and so much butter I had a butter hangover. All I wanted the next day was a big bowl of greens with no dressing. The wine list was pretty light in anything under $100 and they were out of the first three wines I ordered as well. For my final meal I would far prefer Chez Pannise, but if anyone wants to foot the bill I would be happy to “do The Laundry” again.

  10. george kaplan says:

    498 bucks doesn’t buy what it used to. I think there’re some places where that’ll get you a pretty nice piece of superfresh uni. And MAYBE a nice hit of Sake.

  11. “Babbling about Michelin Palaces” reminds me of a pair of boorish british hoteliers who were dropped in my lap to entertain for a day. Their insistence on only being shown Relais and Chateau properties to potentially eat and stay at was a challenge. At the time I didn’t know what R and C was. It was only later that I learned the sordid details of why they were summarily jettisoned by their hosts. A story for the campfire…

  12. while the actual price doesn’t bother me, I must admit that my best dining experiences have always come in more simple settings. While I do enjoy a fancy restaurant a couple times a year with my lady, I find those multi-course chef’s pick menu’s to be a bit gluttonous for my taste. Would I do it if offered for free? Of course! But I would honestly prefer 3-5 courses with 1-2 bottles of wine.

  13. gabe, you’re my kind of guy.

  14. I like the French Laundry. I liked it when the Schmidtt family owned it. I like it under Keller.
    Is it too expensive? Who knows. It is up to the buyer and the desire. It has nothing to do with the argument that one can find something cheaper. Of course, one can. As to service, ratings are as reliable as wine scores – good, whatever the price, if you like it.
    In the meantime, I want to check out Fagiani’s Bar at The Thomas (not Keller) restaurant in Napa; opens tonight. If you don’t know Fagiani, you’re not a Napan. Look it up.

  15. I think it’s always worth it when someone else is paying of course! I recently enjoyed a $900 approx experience courtesy of friend. I took flack for eating such expense. Who am I to rob someone of a blessing by imparting me kindness? Besides the great part of America is we allow people to spend how they wish. The artistry and creativity at meadowood is thé signature of unique dedicated and passionate people who deserve to charge what the market will allow. I happen to know the same wealthier folks who took me to dinner and this not so much yet wealthier than some -give substantially to the poor. The persons who took me are generous and can’t seem to outgive the many blessings they receive in return though they try. I am thankful for superb wines and food expensive included. I am thankful for the dedicated talents that make them. I thankful for those who have blessed me with their generosity and whom have taught me that being blessed with money means you have the opportunity to bless so many more. That’s my 2 cents!

  16. For that much, I would go to Speisekammer in Alameda 10 times.

    Regarding the attitude issue that often creeps in to play, I wish more restauratuers, somms, and wait-staff would remember they are in the HOSPITALITY business.

  17. Steve – you are right about the ad – how in the world does a fem-care product ad lead into a story about the worlds most expensive wine? – #fail

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