Thursday, November 5, 2009

On insanely expensive meals

Regular readers will note that I write frequently about food, particularly about insanely expensive restaurant meals. Ticia asked recently how I got into the hobby of "collecting restaurants," as I often put it, and suggested that others might want to know. So, I'll do my best to explain.

I didn't grow up with fancy food; far from it. I was a very shy and conservative diner for quite some years. Over time, though, business travel took me to cities with restaurants far better than I had ever sampled before, so my palate grew both more discriminating and more adventurous.

A group of us began eating out most Saturday nights and trying different local places, and that helped me expand my dining horizons.

What really pushed me over the edge, though, was a meal at Minibar in Cafe Atlantico many years ago. Minibar, for those who don't know it, is a six-seat restaurant-within-a-restaurant that sits on the highest level of Jose Andres' Cafe Atlantico. Andres worked at Ferran Adria's El Bulli in Spain, and while there he learned a great deal about molecular gastronomy. The meal we enjoyed on that first trip (we've since gone a second time) involved many of Adria's now widely known techniques, including caviar made from the essence of peas, various deconstructed classic dishes, and so on.

The presentations were like nothing I'd ever seen--and they were all delicious and whimsical and fun. Like many types of literature, and like SF in particular, these dishes were more than food, they were the works of artists in conversation with their field's past and contemporary artists. I know that sounds pretentious, but it's true; a chef who deconstructs a classic dish, such as Caesar salad, into a new but tasty concoction that captures the essence of the classic in a new way is both commenting on and honoring that previous dish.

I finally got it: the meals were not just sustenance, and not just delicious, they were also art experiences, performance art of a very special type.

When you eat at The French Laundry or Alinea or Robuchon in Las Vegas, to name but three, you are not simply feeding yourself; you are experiencing the art of a chef and a style of dining that the chef has created and refined. You have the opportunity to learn and experience new things--even as you stuff your face.

A true foodie, I believe, is not just in it for dinner at these fancy places, of course. A true foodie should also love any food that tastes good or is inventive or is otherwise interesting. So, I'll happily enjoy a hot dog or macaroni and cheese, but I'll also crave these more adventurous offerings, even if they cost a small fortune, and I'll enjoy them both as meals and as the art experiences they truly are.


vampi said...

I love when you restaurant reviews, and really when you have the crazy ice cream flavors.

I tend to feel overwhelmed when there is too much going on in the dish. I like well made simple food, that isn't pork. i haven't ventured to any of the holy grail restaurants because of my pork phobia. I don't like the flavor of pork so i stopped eating it a few years ago, so i'm afraid of all pork menus.

Is there anything you will not try?

Mark said...

I used to prefer simple dishes, but when the complex ones blend perfectly, they are awesome.

I love pork, so I can't help you there.

There are tons of things I would prefer not to try, with natto topping the list. That said, if Thomas Keller prepared natto, I'd give it a try.

Ticia said...

I'm glad I asked. What a great blog. I love hearing about people's passions and what motivates them.

Have you ever had a disasterous foodie experience?

Mark said...

No disasters, but lots and lots of disappointing and over-priced meals.


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