A Dissection of Fine Dining
June 26, 2012 in Food And Drink
Fine dining is an almost blessed event. The ambiance, the richness of the flavor, the inevitable sticker shock for two scoops of ice cream or a cup of coffee – when done correctly, all the elements blend together to create an unforgettable experience of satiety. When done incorrectly, it is a painful lesson in economics and indigestion.
“Would you like to hear the specials?”
The dance begins.
Invariably the list will include at least one fish special. This is, of course, nonsense and should be ignored, although the waiter will go through great pains to describe how amazing it is. Under no circumstance is trout ever special. Or flounder or bass or any fish whatsoever. This is why most “special” fish concoctions feature the aquatic bastard stuffed with something or thickly glazed with something else in order to make it taste less like fish.
To be honest, I’m always a bit hesitant with the specials, because you have to wonder exactly why, if the dish is so spectacular, that it’s not a regular offering? And what was the inspiration for this supposed special? Did the chef watch an old rerun of Julia Child? Did his homosexual lover scream “mango salsa” at a particularly intimate moment? Perhaps both…?
One glance at the wine list and he’s at it again. “I noticed you are looking at our wine list,” he observes and repeats aloud. “Would you like me to send over our wine steward to help with your selection this evening?”
“No, that will not be necessary,” I say. “I can read and have noted your exorbitant pricing structure.” I don’t say that last part, but I think it really, really hard in case he is telepathic.
With regard to the wine list, it is important to take a moment and establish that most people wouldn’t know a “good” wine if an oak barrel full of the stuff fell on top of them. Sure, there are a handful of folks out there who can tell you the history of vines across the world and the reasons why certain regions are better for certain grapes. This may be more useful than my former hobby of collecting comic books, but only just slightly.
Once, in a side-by-side comparison, I distinguished between two different Rieslings produced by the same vineyard, and I actually preferred the taste and complexity of the more expensive wine. This should impress you, because mine is a palate refined on Combos and the occasional box of Cap’n Crunch. Also surprising was that the better wine was only two dollars more, which brought the price up to a whopping nine dollars a bottle. I purchased two.
Unless you are trying to impress someone by ordering an expensive bottle of wine, make it easy on yourself. Go to a wine tasting or two, try a bunch of different wines, and write down the names of the types of wine you prefer, along with years and vineyards, if possible. Chances are that an inexpensive or reasonably priced wine from California or Washington will do quite nicely. Then, when you’re at the restaurant, if you like Chardonnay, order Chardonnay.
True story: I was at a fancy restaurant with a large group of coworkers. One guy was looking intently at the wine list, no doubt trying to find just the right bottle of wine (read: much more expensive than he’d ever buy himself, but not so expensive that the boss would shame his gluttonous ass in front of everyone else). Before he could embarrass himself by reciting important sounding wine terms to anyone within earshot, I ordered two bottles of a relatively inexpensive California red for the table (I recognized the brand). Everyone complimented me on my choice.
You can also ignore the “pairing” nonsense. A Cabernet Sauvignon can be particularly appealing with bone-in ribeye – unless you don’t like the taste of Cabernet Sauvignon. Then, you’ve wasted at least $15 on a glass of stuff that’s just going to sit there when you order up a Sprite chaser. The best wines in the world are the wines that you enjoy. Everything else is just overpriced grape juice.
Back to the restaurant. “I’ll have the petite filet,” I decide, bracing for the inevitable follow-up questions.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer our king cut, sir?” This is no doubt a passive aggressive dig at my, shall we say, non-slender appearance.
“No, the petite is fine, thank you,” I respond.
“And what temperature would you like?”
By temperature, he is asking how I would like my steak cooked, not whether I think it’s a bit nippy in the restaurant. The problem here is that chefs can’t quite seem to agree on the definitions of rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, and well done. You and I don’t seem to have a problem grasping the concept, but there is a distressing lack of consistency in this regard in fine dining establishments across the country.
“Medium well,” I say, figuring it will actually come out medium, which is what I really want.
“Very good, sir,” he says, noting my decision. “Would you like your steak butterflied?”
“Do a lot of your patrons order butterflies on their steaks?”
A blank stare. Not everyone appreciates steak humor.
There is a cloud of suspicion throughout the rest of the ordering process. He braces with each side order, each question about soup and salad options, waiting for more comedic references he will not understand. But I do not have an endless supply of fine dining quips, and the rest of order is completed without incident.
Then comes the waiting. Fine dining is not meant to be shoveled in like a microwaved pot pie; it is to be savored. Once the initial rush of water and bread is complete, there is a measured, almost lackadaisical pace between courses. Granted, meals prepared from scratch using the finest ingredients and often complicated procedures take time to prepare. But let’s be honest: They stretch out the courses by at least an extra ten minutes to see if any of their ADD-afflicted customers will crack.
The courses come and go. The waiter pulls out what looks like a folded straight razor between them to clean the crumbs from the table. Crumbs on white linen, of course, are a horrid reminder of the enjoyment during the previous course and must be removed.
I want to risk a joke about ketchup when the meal arrives, but I realize that some heretics actually put ketchup on steak. Others will cover their steak with bleu cheese or béarnaise sauce. They think it is elegant, but it is a travesty and must be discouraged. I don’t even like to order steak fries on the off chance that the ketchup (a perfectly appropriate condiment for fries, no matter the venue) catches a corner of my filet and taints the experience. My steak remains untarnished, my joke remains unspoken.
By the time the final bill is presented in its glorious Corinthian leather holder, any effort to fit into high society has been scuttled. I slouch in my chair, delirious in my caloric overload, trying ever so discreetly to unclip my belt buckle and release the growing intestinal pressure. It is only in this bleary-eyed, semi-catatonic state that a bill so high, complete with a built-in twenty percent gratuity, can be dismissed with a credit card without pause. The waiter hopes that in my stupor I will overlook the exorbitant tip and add a second. Alas, he has no cleavage, so there is still part of my mind clear enough for simple math.
I tip the valet (his gratuity was not included on the bill) and I leave content, despite the fact that my car seat has been moved forward to the point where I nearly sit on my testicles as I wrench my bloated body into position. I know there are Crunch Berries waiting for me in the morning, but at least for tonight, life is a celebration of perfectly seared cow flesh, expertly crafted mashed potatoes, and a gratuitous slice of cheesecake.