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?

Book Review: My Life in France by Julia Child

A good friend and fellow foodie loaned me her copy of My Life in France by Julia Child and recommended I read it. I was a little skeptical because the front cover of the paperback included a picture of Meryl Streep in her role as Julia Child in the upcoming (or perhaps already released) film "Julie and Julia." Personally, I do not have a great deal of interest in seeing the film about a young woman who undertakes the seemingly Herculean quest of cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking cover to cover. However, if someone I deem to be a credible source reports that a good dose of the movie is more about Julia than Julie, I might reconsider.

At any rate, My Life in France begins at the end of World War II, when Julia Child's service with the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA ended and her relationship with Paul Child began. After the war, Paul Child remained a member of the US foreign service and was assigned to Paris. Julia was not content to remain a member of the somewhat cloistered group of fellow Americans in the foreign service in Paris. Although she didn't speak a word of French, she had a strong hunger to immerse herself in the culture of France and Paris. And, as anyone should know, a large part of the culture of Paris and France involves every aspect of food and cooking. This eventually led her to enroll in classes at Le Cordon Bleu. My Life in France provides heaping helpings of Julia's thoughts and insights as she took the first steps that would eventually lead her to the status of a living legend and icon of cooking and cuisine.

The book also explains in considerable detail the toils, triumphs, and frustrations of developing and writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking and seeing the book published. My Life in France is required reading for any dedicated foodie.

Reading the book caused me to reflect on Mastering the Art of French Cooking and to realize just how truly ahead of its time it was. In order to put the book in perspective, one has to reflect on the history of America and its cuisine in the Twentieth Century. Right up to and following World War II, especially during the years of the Great Depression, in many parts of the United States, putting food on the family table was a considerable task. One doesn't have to look very far back in their family history, especially here in the Great Plains, to find a time when almost everything that appeared on the table was produced and prepared within the 80 acres or so where the farmhouse was situated. Animals were slaughtered and meat preserved. Vegetables were grown and canned. Eggs were gathered. Cows milked. Loaves of bread were baked several times a week. Sure, there were trips to a market to buy things that simply could not be produced, but the trip to the grocery store as we know it today just didn't exist. Daily life and things we take for granted today required hard, relentless work. On top of those daily challenges were heaped the hardships of the Dust Bowl and the rationing and sacrifices of World War II.

After the war, things got better. The country experienced a boom, not only in terms of the economy, but also in technology. The era of modern conveniences was upon us. Great minds turned their attention to making daily life easier and more convenient. Besides being able to produce and ship all sorts of foods all around the country and the globe, the country was also introduced to things like cake mixes and all sorts of pre-cooked foods that could simply be popped into the oven, or eventually, the microwave. As automobile travel expanded and the average American became more affluent, things like fast food and an abundance of restaurants followed. In short, food and eating simply became a heck of a lot more convenient. Not necessarily better, but certainly a lot "easier."

The United States was in the midst of the Space Race and the Cold War when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was first published. My Life in France details the skepticism of publishers about the likelihood of success of the tome about French cooking, something to this day the average American is likely wont to describe or define. (Just ask someone what they believe to be French cuisine. Snails? Emphasis on sauces? Lots of cream and butter? French bread? French fries? Try it. Ask some non-foodie friends.) Nevertheless, the book sold better than expected. In my opinion, however, it still remained far ahead of its time.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is not a work for the faint of heart and it is decidedly not the go-to source for simple little recipes to whip up something a little different for the next dinner party. I can think of no better example than the recipe for French Bread found in Mastering, Volume II. The bread requires four very simple ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. Nevertheless, the recipe covers something like 10 pages and describes in great detail how to develop the dough, form loaves, and bake them to get as reasonably close approximation to the real thing as one can expect using everyday equipment and everyday ingredients. (Hint: the story of how this recipe was developed is one of the highlights of My Life in France.)

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is experiencing a major revival thanks to the book Julie and Julia and the movie. There is no doubt that the country is re-discovering food and cooking. Although we continue to enjoy many modern conveniences, people have discovered, or rediscovered, the older more labor-intensive ways of producing and cooking food. The difference is that it is now somewhat of a luxury to cook this way (wanting to do it versus having to do it). In addition, people have learned that mass produced, processed foods are not necessarily the best foods or the best for us. It seems more people than ever are interested in cooking and have the desire to purchase the tools and commit the time necessary to master the type of skills that are necessary to produce truly great food. Just look at the sort of equipment that is available to the average cook today, let alone the highly specialized equipment available to those who can afford it (induction cooktops, ovens that inject steam, etc.). If Mastering the Art of French Cooking has a time, that time is probably now, 40 years after its publication and several years after Julia Child's own death. It seems that just now people are interested in the nuances of good food- where it comes from, who brought it to us, how it is made, and how to make it ourselves.

Read My Life in France. It's not only a good read, it's a great glimpse into the life of a truly remarkable woman. I encourage you to read the book and reflect on how much of your own relationship with good food and good cooking has been influenced by Julia Child.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Urbanspoon- give it a shot

You know those cool iPhone ads where they display a slot machine looking app that randomly finds you a place to eat in almost any community? It's part of Although you cannot get an iPhone in South Dakota, yet, urbanspoon is reviewing restaurants. Give it a look.

Callaways Menu Change

Earlier this past summer I had an opportunity to stop by Callaways for dinner. I was really looking forward to a good, somewhat upscale meal, accompanied by a reasonably-priced wine in the nice setting. Opening the menu I frantically searched for an interesting special or some old favorites, but none were to be found. Confused, and concerned that some philosophical shift in the menu had occurred unbeknownst to me, I asked the waitress what was up with the menu. She confirmed my hypothesis and, unfortunately, my fears: Callaways had homogenized its menu with the offerings in The Pub. In other words, they dumbed-down the menu, shifting from more formal dining to more "casual" fare.


Well, the food was fine and the service was great, but I left unsatisfied, lamenting the loss of the Callaways of old.

Callaways is located at the rear of the CJ Callaways complex at Prairie Green Golf Course. The space is beautiful with very high, open ceilings. Even though the seating areas are fairly open, it has a nice, private sort of feel. The old menu offerings included steaks, chops, seafood, and other standard, South Dakota-esque "fine dining" choices with some interesting twists here and there. For instance, Callaways used to offer a killer spinach salad with a warm bacon dressing. Personally, I always thought the dressing was a little heavy on Dijon mustard, but it was still pretty darn good. They also had (and still do, I guess) offer a side of roasted white and sweet potatoes. At one time, I think when Amy Warren was the Executive Chef, they offered an awesome-looking rack of lamb. I never had a chance to try that, but it looked phenomenal. Why the hell doesn't anyone serve a decent rack of lamb around here? I might have to look into that.

Another thing I really liked about Callaways was their wine list. It wasn't really extensive, but had a good variety of wines at a good variety of prices. The other thing I appreciated was that the wines were priced better than at restaurants owned by the same group, particularly Foley's. I actually had an argument about this with one of my friends who was then a server at Foley's. This argument surrounded two points: (1) That Foley's overpriced their wines and (2) That Callaways offered a lot of the same wines at better prices. But I digress . . .

I think what I liked most about the old Callaways was that it provided a great alternative to other Sioux Falls dining choices. When I didn't feel like going downtown to Minerva's and didn't want to venture out to Foley's (which I confess I rarely do for a number of reasons), Callaways provided a great option. I've enjoyed several good meals there with good friends and good wine. And I miss it.

I sincerely hope the new menu is not just a trip around the drain in a death spiral. I can see how Callaways could become a victim of an economy where people eat out a little less and when they do they spend less money. Maybe it's just an effort to drive old Callaways fans to Foley's or even Tre (the other restaurants owned by the group). Whatever the reason, I hope it changes because I want the old Callaways back.

C J Callaway's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Market On Phillips

After a bit of a hiatus, our old friends from Food & Fermentation, Doug and Laurel Lather, are back and managing the newest venue on the local food and wine scene, The Market On Phillips. TMOP for short. You might have seen some stories in the local daily newspaper about it- in the last of which Doug was identified as "Dan." More great work from the folks at the AL.

TMOP is strictly retail, unlike Food & Fermentation which also offered Laurel's culinary creations. I am sure Laurel is enjoying the hiatus from the kitchen. Although Food & Fermentation may not have proved an economic success (at least post-move) there should be no doubt that from a purely epicurean standpoint, the place was an enormous success. Laurel's knack for pairing fresh, interesting foods, with great wines truly pushed local dining in a direction it desperately needed (and still needs) to go. Running a commercial kitchen, however, takes its toll, both physically and mentally. The good news is, Laurel is still around and will be more than happy to use her talent and experience to guide TMOP customers through the great wines and food products available at TMOP.

The wine selection at TMOP is about as good as you will find in Sioux Falls. These folks have some serious wine inventory featuring many varietals, producers, and price points. As an aside, I have heard on several occasions a criticism that the wine selection at Food & Fermentation trended to price points somewhat north of what the average wine buyer around here likes or wants to spend. Personally, I think that observation may be a bit misguided.

Quick aside on wine prices. Wine is a funny thing in that the price on the bottle sometimes has absolutely no relationship with how much the consumer may enjoy its contents. Great wines can be had at bargain prices, but this is usually the product of a great deal of knowledge and research or is the result of a lucky buy. Also, I find that the enjoyment of wine is also dependent on the circumstances of its consumption, i.e. paired with a great meal, drank in celebration of a special event, or spontaneously shared with great friends. Too often, I think people especially enjoy wine under certain circumstances, declare it to be their new favorite and make a point to buy more, only to find it is not as good the second or third time around. That being said, interesting wines, from smaller producers, from interesting areas, or that are generally critically acclaimed, tend to cost a little more than a bottle of Covey Run Riesling or a Bota box. If cheap wine is what you want, there are plenty of places to buy it. Just don't bitch because every wine retailer in town cannot meet your expectation of "value." End of aside.

When it comes to cheap bottles of wine, if that is what you want, my advice is to head to your favorite cheap wine purveyor. If you are looking for something different or more interesting, however, my advice is to stop down at TMOP and talk to Laurel about what you are looking for. She can help you pinpoint a wine to pair with a special meal or to drink at a special occasion. You might also want to have Doug pour you a glass at the tasting bar- you might discover something new to try that way.

In addition to the wine selection, TMOP has a great variety of highly specialized food items. Think escargots and varieties of sea salts specialized. Granted there are other "high end grocers" here, such as Look's and Cleaver's and even Hy Vee is carrying things you would find here years ago, but I think TMOP may have managed to top them all with a few of their items. For instance, Laurel, has located an artisan pasta maker that offers nearly a dozen specialized dried pastas featuring flavors such as chocolate, roasted garlic, and others. In the freezer cases, one can locate fois gras and Maple Leaf Farms duck breasts. Another great feature is fresh produce from the folks at Seedtime, so if you just can't make it to the Saturday farmers market, you can swing in TMOP. I'd even bet Laurel and Doug would be able to help with a special mid-week request.

Next time you are downtown, stop in at TMOP and check it out. Say hello to Doug and Laurel and make sure you sign up for email updates so you can receive notices of sales or other special offers. Or, better yet, find TMOP on Facebook and make yourself a friend.

Long TIme No Post

Things have been super crazy with the old super stressful day job, so I haven't been able to post much lately. Lots to talk about here in Sioux Falls and the area.

Look forward to more posts and tell your friends to visit and leave a comment or two.