Saturday, August 29, 2009

Really High End Fine Dining: What, Where and Why It Matters

In this neck of the woods, very few people are ever exposed to truly high-end dining. I am not talking about a trip to one of the legendary steak houses, such as Lawry's, Ruth Chris, Murray's or Manny's in Mineapolis, or ever Sparks or Peter Lugar in New York. I am not talking about a meal that simply costs a lot of money. (Even though this type of eating does cost alot. A whole lot.) I am talking about once-in-a-lifetime culinary experiences designed and executed by extremely talented chefs. I am talking about meals in establishments such as The French Laundry in Napa, Gary Danko in San Francisco, Everest, Charlie Trotter's or Alinea in Chicago, and, even closer to home, La Belle Vie in Minneapolis. These are places where, for the mere price of a car payment or (more likely) a house payment, you can indulge in culinary delights beyond your imagination and step into a rarified world of cuisine that very few will ever experience or imagine.

The menu in these sorts of places is not divided into sections such as "appetizers, salads, entrees and deserts." There is no salad bar. In some cases there is actually no menu. More often than not, the menu is divided into courses. When it is possible to "order" diners are confronted with making a series of selections from various courses. This is an option at Gary Danko and La Belle Vie, for instance. However, the real treat and the piece de resistance is the "tasting menu" or menu degustation that has been carefully crafted to showcase exquisite ingredients and the talents of the chef who painstakingly engineered the ingredients into an unforgettable experience. These menus are generally presented through 5 to 15 (or more) courses, each consisting of portions that are literally three or four bites. These courses look a lot like what is presented to the judges on television programs like Iron Chef America or Top Chef. Each course is literally a work of art to be enjoyed by all the senses.

I am not forking with you about the price of these meals. For most people, this isn't a one a month or even an annual experience. Prices can literally run from just under one hundred dollars per person to nearly three hundred dollars or more. And, that's before you have a cocktail or consider the wine options.

The places of this caliber that I have had the privilege to visit have cellars that boast some of the finest and rarest wines on the planet. Fortunately, if you don't have the foggiest idea which vintage of Chateau Moulton Rothschild will pair with the third course of a braised Kobe short rib in an ancho-cocoa sauce, or the third course consisting of Idaho steelhead trout paired with salmon caviar and some sort of foam (hmmm, the vintage 1945 or perhaps the 1968), the diner can elect for wines that are paired with each course.

The Japanese call this sort of dining omikase, which literally means to put oneself in the hands of the chef. That is basically exactly what one does on these occasions. Forget about whether a particular item sounds "good" or not. Chances are the average person wouldn't dream up some of these combinations in a million years and sourcing ingredients would be impossible. Sit back and indulge your senses.

Besides the extreme talent and imagination of the chefs who design these experiences, another thing that places this sort of dining in a league of its own is the sourcing of ingredients. In many of these places, the menu chages on a seasonal basis- it is a matter of what is very good during a particular season, although in some cases the menu can change due to what is the best that very day. In some cases, these ingredients are sourced down to an individual producer. For instance, if you find yourself enjoying a particular piece of fish at Charlie Trotter's, chances are it was swimming in a stream in Idaho, or in the South Pacific a matter of hours before it landed on your plate.

So, where does one experience this sort of dining? Well, as it just so happens, I have had the extreme pleasure of dining at several of the temples of degustation, and having visited this rarified world, have developed a short list of other places I hope to someday visit. If you ever have the opportuinity, try these places.

Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco

Gary Danko on Urbanspoon

We ended up at Gary Danko in San Francisco because we failed to secure a reservation at The French Laundry in Napa. (Important lesson- you have to get reservations for The French Laundry at least, and almost exactly 60 days in advance.) Even though we ended up at Danko as a second choice, the experience and the food was first rate. Danko allows a diner to custom build their own experience by selecting three, four, or five courses and then choosig among various offerings for each course. For instance, Glazed oysters with Osetra caviar, zucchini pearls and lettuce cream; horseradish crusted salmon medallion with dilled cucumber; and, for dessert try chocolate souffle with creme anglaise and warm Belgian chocolate.

Although the food was etherial, the service at Danko definitely took the experience to a higher level. Each staff member was impeccably and identically dressed in a designer suit. Dishes were unobtrusively, if not stealthily, whisked away after each course and new place settings delivered. The wine servers were knowledgeable and happy to answer questions about each selection. Overall, an outstanding experience.

Charlie Trotter's, Chicago

Charlie Trotter's on Urbanspoon

Charlie Trotter's Restaurant has been a pinnacle of fine dining in Chicago for over 20 years. Trotter's is a much more rarified experience than Danko. You better like your dining mates because at Trotter's you probably aren't going to be chit-chatting with the folks at the table next to you, as you might at Gary Danko. Also, at Trotter's you are not going to be presented with a choose your own sort of menu. You will have two to choose from, the Grad Cuisine menu or the Vegetarian menu. Rather than hear me describe the items, go look for yourself at You will also be confronted with several beverage options. when we were there, one could select from two different "grades" of paired wines, which can be referred to as the good stuff and the REALLY good stuff. (For instance, Perrier Jouet champagne vs. a 1996 Dom Perignon.) Ironically, unless you are REALLY into wine, waaay beyond the sorts of wines you can get and experience here, you aren't probably going to recognize any of it. If wine isn't your thing, you can also have the beverage pairing which consists of teas or other infusions designed to accentuate and accompany each course of the menu.

Then there is the kitchen table. At Charlie Trotter's there is a table in the kitchen. It takes a huge degree of luck or patience to get a reservation for the kitchen table. There is no menu at the kitchen table, it is a matter of whatever the chef thinks is the best that particular day. Wow!

If you dine at Trotter's you are going to get a tour of the kitchen, and there is actually a chance that you will see Chef Charlie Trotter there. He was when we visited. Kitchens at places like this are rather like magic science labs. They are fairly quiet and the actions of each chef almost choreographed. Think about it, these aren't places where the waiters are walking in yelling for steaks cooked to three different degrees of doneness, or that table six is still waiting for its appetizers. The menu is set, it is just a matter of concentrated, flawless execution.

At Charlie Trotter's you will also get a tour of the wine cellars. Wine museum is more like it. Again, jump on line and go look at the list. Ever wondered what a magnum bottle of a 1945 bordeaux looks like? Here's your chance.

Another really neat thing to do at Charlie Trotter's is to use the restroom. Seriously. It's jsut a restroom, but while you are in there attending to the usual course of business, take a look at the decor. In the restroom adjacent to the main floor dining room are a number of framed menus from very small, private dinners hosted by chefs, for chefs, and many of them are autographed. You'll find names like Emeril Lagasse, Ferran Adria, and others who you have probably only seen on television. Truly amazing.

If there is one drawback to Trotter's, it is the service, which I found to be a tad on the snooty side and seemed to go out of their way to make you feel that you were the one who was lucky to be forking over major cash for the experience. Case in point was the sommelier. This guy was not going to make any effort to stoop to our level to engage in a conversation or attempt to educate us to some degree about the wines. He was happy, though, to talk about procuring extremely rare vintages and recently stocking Charlie's cellars at his new venture in Las Vegas. I have never given much consideration to the rare wine trade or how one locates cases of very special and rare wines. I do know enough, however, to know about things like corks that can fail or "corked" wines. I wanted to know how one knew that a particular old rare wine was really any good. The asnwer: It better be. Allllrighty, then.

La Belle Vie, Minneapolis

La Belle Vie on Urbanspoon

One need not travel to the bay area, Chicago, or New York City to experience this rarified sort of dining. La Belle Vie, in the Loring Park area of Minneapolis, near the Walker Art Center, offers very big city experiences close to home. Take a look at the menu at The service was an absolute joy when we visited a few months ago.

Of course, for a lot of people the question is how do these places survive, especially in this economy, and why do they matter. Good questions. They survive because as long as there are people in this world who are so very interested and intrigued with cuisine, there will be people who are willing to spend the money necessary to have this level of experience. This is similar to other aspects of the art world- people who are willing to fork over thousands of dollars for an original painting instead of purchasing a ubiquitous print for a fraction of the cost.

This cuisine is important for the same reasons the space program has been important to so many aspects of daily life. Just as space technology spun off and trickled down to so many aspects of daily life (velcro, microwave ovens, electonics of all sorts, etc.) innovations in the culinary arts trickle down. That molten chocolate cake you enjoyed at Applebees last week was probably first presented in a high end restaurant years ago. Places like El Bulli, The French Laundry, and Charlie Trotter's provide the places where chefs can pair first-rate ingredients with their wild imaginations in places where people will gladly pay a premium to sample the product. Who knows what sorts of flavor innovations and inspirations await?

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