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Tejal Rao Throws California "Luxury" Dining Under the Bus


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#1 joethefoodie

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 11:45 AM

In Tejal Rao's current NY Times article entitled California's Luxury Dining Circuit: Delicious and Dull, Rao bemoans the fact that everything is so wonderful, which I guess is to be expected (by Rao?), when one is dining in Napa (or Sonoma) County...for some reason? 

 

As Rao puts it:

 

The French Laundry, the Restaurant at Meadowood and SingleThread have much in common: amazing precision, sky-high prices and a sedating sort of predictability.

 

 

Now, based on our recent Sonoma/San Francisco trip (and yes, like Sneak's recent CA trip, it begs to be written up at some point), I can't opine on the predictability of TFL or Meadowood, but our dinner at Single Thread was not exactly sedating to me...then again, I don't get to dine in this type of fancy restaurant as often as Rao must.

 

While we didn't dine at Meadowood, their sister restaurant Charter Oak was great, utilizing many products from the same farm, but with lots of cooking over live fire, and in a pretty casual setting (the old Tra Vigne space, and I heard some stories...). 

 

And since a long weekend (?) away, on a drive from her home base in LA (now that's a schlep!) must've included a stop or two for breakfast or lunch, I wonder if those were predictable as well? Like, did she perhaps stop in San Francisco for an excellent brunch at our favorite place, Plow, up on Potrero Hill?  Or maybe take a little detour to Marshall, for great oysters plucked right out of the water at The Marshall Store?

 

Instead of lazing around the pool, spitting wine and getting sunburnt (as if there's not enough sun in LA!), she might've hopped into her car and headed to Santa Rosa for some great Mexican food at Taqueria Molcajetes. Or Boyes Hot Springs to El Molino Central. I mean, that's what I did, cause I'm not a pool guy, and we do not live by 13-course meals alone.

 

So yeah, I imagine eating three meals at the high-end places written about in the article might lead to a certain "predictability" (especially if done in rapid succession, which it appears they were), but who the fuck does that? I guess what I'm trying to say, and it's pretty much the exact opposite of what she says:

 

And what I knew about Napa was that it was someone else’s exorbitant fantasyland — yawny and pampering. It could be perfect, but in the way that falling asleep during a massage is perfect, and I had no plans to make a special journey back.

 

is that I always look forward to a return to Sonoma; because to us, there's really no other place quite like it - at least not in our own country.



#2 Adrian

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 07:31 PM

Is she wrong, though? There are two points that get mingled here. The first is that she's clear that these places are technical and delicious, but also not her thing. I have no idea whether Taqueria Molcajetes, but she's sympathetic to the idea that people may travel for such things: "I know people who have driven hours for a bowl of fresh rice noodles, for two loaves of sourdough, for a particular crop of peaches, for a fried birria taco that leaves the fingertips slick with grease. These journeys are devotional, too."

 

This could not be more right. We wouldn't be quick to disparage someone who traveled to CBGB's in lieu of travelling to La Scala, though both love music, the same way we are quick to disparage someone who seeks out the birria taco over the three Michelin star joint (it doesn't help, however, that the person seeking the taco will often assert that somehow their experience is superior or the Michelin restaurant is a rip off, but Rao doesn't suggest that).

 

The other point is the more fundamental critique of these kinds of restaurants which is also, I think, right. They are technically precise and delicious but they are long tasting menus and the everything is local except for some high luxury things that are not (unless they are belligerently local), the structure of the meal is the same, there is likely a bread course, you leave with a gift, etc. Like my wife said after Maaemo - it almost feels like a chain restaurant. Is that dull? I don't know, but it seems reasonable to say that you find that dull. Note that this is hardly a new complaint, and this is one that usually comes from the other end of the dining spectrum - old curmudgeons complaining that no except for Bernard Pacaud knows how to roast challons duck a la minute anymore. In each case, I do think that this is the most salient critique of international fine dining restaurants, as perfect as they all are. 


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#3 Sneakeater

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 07:40 PM

Good one from your wife.


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#4 joethefoodie

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 08:29 PM

My issue with the piece is more because of who the fuck goes away for a weekend to Sonapa, or perhaps for even a little longer, and then specifically eats at these 3 places. And apparently only these 3 places, when she's not out getting sunburnt while spitting wine by the pool. Just the thought of that is nuts to me. I hope she at least had some snacks.

 

I mean, of course you're gonna get bored. To say nothing of being sick of sitting in 3 different restaurants, for 3+ hours at each.



#5 joethefoodie

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 08:30 PM

Although, to be frank, I found nothing (never having been there before, mind you) wrong with anything about our meal at Single Thread.  It was far from predictable to someone like me.



#6 Adrian

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 08:51 PM

My issue with the piece is more because of who the fuck goes away for a weekend to Sonapa, or perhaps for even a little longer, and then specifically eats at these 3 places. And apparently only these 3 places, when she's not out getting sunburnt while spitting wine by the pool. Just the thought of that is nuts to me. I hope she at least had some snacks.

 

I mean, of course you're gonna get bored. To say nothing of being sick of sitting in 3 different restaurants, for 3+ hours at each.

 

I think the article was structured around the "special journey" to eat at the restaurants, per the Michelin classification. That was the framing of the piece.


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#7 joethefoodie

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 09:12 PM

So...fiction?

 

'Cause who does that other than some times reporter trying to get a millennial to read the paper?



#8 Adrian

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 09:27 PM

So...fiction?

 

'Cause who does that other than some times reporter trying to get a millennial to read the paper?

 

Not trying to get millenials with this one. 

 

Travel for three stars? Plenty. I think people have written that piece since the 1970s.

 

Multiple long tastings/3 stars/SP 100 best restaurants on consecutive days? I've done it. I know lots who have, some of them post here.

 

It's a strange criticism that she ate at too many places to have real authority, but the critique works on a single meal basis regardless. Like I said, on one level, this is someone who is not an opera lover going to multiple operas, recognizing that it's not for them, but still acknowledging the quality of the performance. On another, it's an articulation of an entirely valid critique of this class of restaurant. 


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#9 joethefoodie

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 09:52 PM

 

Multiple long tastings/3 stars/SP 100 best restaurants on consecutive days? I've done it. I know lots who have, some of them post here.

 

Without any palate fatigue. Amazing.

 

I'm in awe.



#10 Adrian

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 10:03 PM

 

 

Multiple long tastings/3 stars/SP 100 best restaurants on consecutive days? I've done it. I know lots who have, some of them post here.

 

Without any palate fatigue. Amazing.

 

I'm in awe.

 

 

Would you feel palate fatigue if you ate a la carte at L'Ambroisie, L'Arpege and Guy Savoy on three consecutive days? Ishikawa, Saito and Matsukawa? Three Basque coast ingredient temples?

 

That's exactly the critique. 

 

The perfectly executed and immaculately plated series of small bite novelties strung out over the course of three hours, that could get a bit dull, and doesn't that make you question something about how interesting that cuisine is and whether it succeeds as food?*

 

*Maybe it doesn't! Maybe the answer is that these restaurants should be visited sparingly but, if you do so, you fully enjoy a spectacular big screen performance of trained artisans practicing their craft. That position is totally okay. Maybe it's not even inconsistent with the above position. 


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#11 Sneakeater

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Posted 18 September 2019 - 10:08 PM

But if you're on vacation in a place you don't get to often, what are you gonna do?  Takes a lot of forbearance to do the mature thing.


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#12 joethefoodie

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Posted 19 September 2019 - 12:52 AM

But how did the "critique" help anyone?

 

Because she's bored by the predictability, will that stop people from doing just what she's describing?

 

How about throwing us readers a bone?  Where should we go to not be bored out of our fucking minds by being in Sonapa?



#13 Adrian

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Posted 19 September 2019 - 01:02 AM

But how did the "critique" help anyone?

 

Because she's bored by the predictability, will that stop people from doing just what she's describing?

 

How about throwing us readers a bone?  Where should we go to not be bored out of our fucking minds by being in Sonapa?

 

Because not everything has to be a consumer guide telling people where to go. Criticism is fine. I would argue better. And criticism doesn't have to help anyone. 


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#14 joethefoodie

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Posted 19 September 2019 - 01:05 AM

In that case, she succeeded.



#15 Orik

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Posted 19 September 2019 - 01:07 AM

But how did the "critique" help anyone?

 

Because she's bored by the predictability, will that stop people from doing just what she's describing?

 

How about throwing us readers a bone?  Where should we go to not be bored out of our fucking minds by being in Sonapa?

 

I get better caviar than some of the places mentioned with little effort. 

 

I think that's a problem.

 

And I've eaten the same micro-season kaiseki meal at six places in a row, and it was terrific (I mean for a feinschmecker - same score by six top orchestras, how great?), but even one meal at TFL sounds like something boring I'd rather not do (I think Single Thread is probably much better as the article sort of indicates).

 

The playground for the rich and bored aspect is separate but really why would it be different from any heavily touristic European rural area? 


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