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Is formal dining holding its own?

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The bridges to Brooklyn were all backed up so we headed to Harlem to sample Marcus Samuelsson's, at what is now considered to be his Formal Temple of Gastronomy, Red Rooster. Everything was delicious including the Deviled Eggs with Chicken Skin Mayo, Pork Belly with Beans and a Fried Egg, probably the best Shrimp and Grits I ever had and a New Orelans worthy Oysters Rockefeller with fried oysters. Place was packed including three deep at the bar. And it was still early.

 

I'm posting this here becauce the fact that this is Marcus Samuelsson's only restaurant is all you need to know about whether "Formal Dining is Holding its Own."

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In a sort of related blog entry. u.e. points the finger at the food media and uneducated diners and chefs.

Sort of related because it's not really about a decline at the high end (if I had my druthers, I would pull this out into another thread because I think the good stuff would get bogged down here). There's a lot in there worth talking about and a lot that I think is right, regardless of changes in the distribution of ambitious restaurants. The main ideas are:

 

1. Not ready for prime time chefs using showy technique in lieu of good ingredients and without a solid technical foundation.

2. How ingredient provenance has become a marketing gimmick.

3. Whether technique should follow ingredients.

 

All three are undoubtedly true to one extent or another.

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This thread is "about" half a dozen things at this point, many of them unrelated. It's worth noting in particular that UE gives Saison a shout-out, but that restaurant doesn't have a particularly good reputation in these parts. (Incidentally, did I make a mistake booking Coi as the one high-end restaurant I'm doing in SF on this trip? Manresa wasn't an option due to scheduling issues. It's too late to cancel the reservation now.)

 

And I do agree that u.e. is talking about rather different things - for one thing, most of the restaurants that he points to are definitely relatively "new", by the standards of this discussion.

 

Maybe one other way to summarize what is going on more broadly is this -

 

1) Produce and other ingredients of high quality have become more easily available relative to traditional luxury ingredients of high quality, and restaurants correspondingly emphasize such ingredients. To the extent that traditional luxury ingredients are still "better", this is a bad thing. Manresa with Love Apple Farms is a better restaurant than it would be without, but it's not as good a restaurant as L'Ambroisie.

 

2) Broadening popularity of food biases entry-level restaurants toward more accessible cooking that hews closer to tweaks to vernacular food rather than traditional fine dining, to the detriment of the latter (and to the overall quality of food, under certain sets of beliefs). No matter how much you dress it up, fried chicken is still just fried chicken. Good fried chicken isn't strictly either a complement to nor a substitute for haute Modern French - it's not clear which direction things run, net.

 

3) Modern celebrity culture makes the media venerate the chef, not the cooking.

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It's worth noting in particular that UE gives Saison a shout-out, but that restaurant doesn't have a particularly good reputation in these parts.

 

Why does Saison suffer "in these parts?" (I assume you're referring to Mouthfuls?)

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It's worth noting in particular that UE gives Saison a shout-out, but that restaurant doesn't have a particularly good reputation in these parts.

 

Why does Saison suffer "in these parts?" (I assume you're referring to Mouthfuls?)

 

Orik doesn't like it.

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This thread is "about" half a dozen things at this point, many of them unrelated. It's worth noting in particular that UE gives Saison a shout-out, but that restaurant doesn't have a particularly good reputation in these parts. (Incidentally, did I make a mistake booking Coi as the one high-end restaurant I'm doing in SF on this trip? Manresa wasn't an option due to scheduling issues. It's too late to cancel the reservation now.)

 

And I do agree that u.e. is talking about rather different things - for one thing, most of the restaurants that he points to are definitely relatively "new", by the standards of this discussion.

 

Maybe one other way to summarize what is going on more broadly is this -

 

1) Produce and other ingredients of high quality have become more easily available relative to traditional luxury ingredients of high quality, and restaurants correspondingly emphasize such ingredients. To the extent that traditional luxury ingredients are still "better", this is a bad thing. Manresa with Love Apple Farms is a better restaurant than it would be without, but it's not as good a restaurant as L'Ambroisie.

 

2) Broadening popularity of food biases entry-level restaurants toward more accessible cooking that hews closer to tweaks to vernacular food rather than traditional fine dining, to the detriment of the latter (and to the overall quality of food, under certain sets of beliefs). No matter how much you dress it up, fried chicken is still just fried chicken. Good fried chicken isn't strictly either a complement to nor a substitute for haute Modern French - it's not clear which direction things run, net.

 

3) Modern celebrity culture makes the media venerate the chef, not the cooking.

Yes, and they exist at all levels. The problem is twofold and beyond what you mention:

 

1. Mediocre vernacular restaurants marketing poor ingredients as being better than they are.

 

2. An even bigger problem might be restaurants dumbing up. Restaurants that excessively use the modernist toolkit without the chefs having much underlying skill. It's not about fried chicken here, it's about fancy Nordic dishes before you're ready for prime time (The chef staged at Noma!). This is why I really disliked the visceral reaction to Luksus here.

 

3. Lobster's like three bucks a pound but still costs more than almost anything else on a typical menu. Caviar was a bar snack in NYC in the 19th century. Didn't you linger upon a fantastic meal at L'Arpege that had little foie? I had a tremendous meal at Manresa earlier this year and I can't say that deliciousness necessarily related to cost across the menu (though the caviar course was pretty dope). I don't think Manresa is worse than L'Ambroisie because it doesn't serve more luxury ingredients - it serves those, though those aren't the focus in the same way they are at L'Ambroisie - it's because Pacaud is a singular talent. You should hear Orik talk about the broccoli there.

 

Anyway, I think one and two are really worth discussing since we've dead horsed three.

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Maybe one other way to summarize what is going on more broadly is this -

 

1) Produce and other ingredients of high quality have become more easily available relative to traditional luxury ingredients of high quality, and restaurants correspondingly emphasize such ingredients. To the extent that traditional luxury ingredients are still "better", this is a bad thing. Manresa with Love Apple Farms is a better restaurant than it would be without, but it's not as good a restaurant as L'Ambroisie.

 

2) Broadening popularity of food biases entry-level restaurants toward more accessible cooking that hews closer to tweaks to vernacular food rather than traditional fine dining, to the detriment of the latter (and to the overall quality of food, under certain sets of beliefs). No matter how much you dress it up, fried chicken is still just fried chicken. Good fried chicken isn't strictly either a complement to nor a substitute for haute Modern French - it's not clear which direction things run, net.

 

3) Modern celebrity culture makes the media venerate the chef, not the cooking.

This is good.

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The problem is twofold and beyond what you mention:

 

1. Mediocre vernacular restaurants marketing poor ingredients as being better than they are.

 

2. An even bigger problem might be restaurants dumbing up. Restaurants that excessively use the modernist toolkit without the chefs having much underlying skill. It's not about fried chicken here, it's about fancy Nordic dishes before you're ready for prime time (The chef staged at Noma!). This is why I really disliked the visceral reaction to Luksus here.

 

3. Lobster's like three bucks a pound but still costs more than almost anything else on a typical menu. Caviar was a bar snack in NYC in the 19th century. Didn't you linger upon a fantastic meal at L'Arpege that had little foie? I had a tremendous meal at Manresa earlier this year and I can't say that deliciousness necessarily related to cost across the menu (though the caviar course was pretty dope). I don't think Manresa is worse than L'Ambroisie because it doesn't serve more luxury ingredients - it serves those, though those aren't the focus in the same way they are at L'Ambroisie - it's because Pacaud is a singular talent. You should hear Orik talk about the broccoli there.

This is also good. (I WANTED to like Luksus. I was surprised I didn't.)

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Compliments all around!

 

Still, I think the ingredient discussion should probably be spun out into its own thread (which of course will kill it). What constitutes a "luxury" ingredient and what determines willingness to pay is only partially related to what tastes best, it's also related to history, supply, demand, rarity and culture. How much is which is an interesting topic.

 

I'm also not sure that we should be so willing to say that these more idiosyncratic restaurants that aren't as reliant on traditional luxury ingredients would be made better with the addition of more foie. I think about Manresa and it's not like Kinch scrimping on ingredients or costs. My meal there earlier this year contained abalone, caviar and black truffle; it also contained brussels sprouts in a prominent role in what may have been the best dish of the meal. At the best levels - and this is independent of any cynical cost saving moves or the "decline" of fine dining - chefs like Kinch, Barber, Passard, Brock, Redzepi, I think, really believe that ingredients that are, in the western culinary tradition, "lesser" can create dishes that taste as good as dishes made with more traditional luxury ingredients. I think that there's some truth to this.

 

Anyway, more of a plea to split this one out, because I think the interesting parts of this could get tied to the prior discussion, which strikes me as a bad way to approach the discussion.

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The problem is twofold and beyond what you mention:

 

1. Mediocre vernacular restaurants marketing poor ingredients as being better than they are.

 

2. An even bigger problem might be restaurants dumbing up. Restaurants that excessively use the modernist toolkit without the chefs having much underlying skill. It's not about fried chicken here, it's about fancy Nordic dishes before you're ready for prime time (The chef staged at Noma!). This is why I really disliked the visceral reaction to Luksus here.

 

3. Lobster's like three bucks a pound but still costs more than almost anything else on a typical menu. Caviar was a bar snack in NYC in the 19th century. Didn't you linger upon a fantastic meal at L'Arpege that had little foie? I had a tremendous meal at Manresa earlier this year and I can't say that deliciousness necessarily related to cost across the menu (though the caviar course was pretty dope). I don't think Manresa is worse than L'Ambroisie because it doesn't serve more luxury ingredients - it serves those, though those aren't the focus in the same way they are at L'Ambroisie - it's because Pacaud is a singular talent. You should hear Orik talk about the broccoli there.

This is also good. (I WANTED to like Luksus. I was surprised I didn't.)

 

Right, but I don't have a problem with that. Just because you follow the right process, doesn't mean that you get the right result or produce a restaurant to everyone's taste.

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It's worth noting in particular that UE gives Saison a shout-out, but that restaurant doesn't have a particularly good reputation in these parts.

 

Why does Saison suffer "in these parts?" (I assume you're referring to Mouthfuls?)

 

Orik doesn't like it.

 

 

It's a perfect example of what UE is complaining about, but they pay him :D . I really can't stress how eating some of the exact same dishes at Saison and Manresa on consecutive evenings made it clear that what we thought about it was right. But to put it in perspective, Saison is not (based on one visit) good at what it wants to be, rather just an okayish me-too joint, but it's still much better than most restaurants. I don't think they're particularly at fault of not understanding the ingredients to the degree under discussion, they're just kids and they don't know much, I guess, so they serve the wrong kuromaguro and can't tell the difference, and they offer dishes from other famous restaurants, assuming nobody will know, no big deal. Some of his other examples are much, much worse, but I don't really mind - I can see how he's excited about some of them and he's trying to make a complex point in too short a piece.

 

Anyway, I understand what UE is talking about. For example, one of the few bad meals I've eaten these past three+ months was at a place called Masa Ueki. This is a sort of French+Kaiseki fusion joint in Ginza that uses very good ingredients, as far as I can tell, cooking them perfectly right, as far as I can tell, and then uses a spicing scheme that only someone with the palate of, I dunno, a camel, would use. The first course - too salty lavender scented tofu, topped with uni that might as well been socks. Something with vanilla and again too much salt, something with coconut... a barrage of sweet spices, salt, and Caribbean influences inflicted on the poor hamo, ayu, foie, abalone... It's like bad chef-ness has moved away from overcooking salmon and onto just having an incorrect sense of what good food is.

 

I blame DSLR carrying bloggers. ^_^

 

p.s. regarding ingredients, Japan has this magical cool flight system that brings ingredients from all over the country to your door with a guaranteed refrigerated path, for very little money (think zero to $5 mostly, $10 from the edges). I can't tell you how much I've learned about the various provenances of Uni (not just Hokkaido vs Kyushu, but also particular islands near Hokkaido proper) and about the gigantic gap in quality between uni that was harvested the night before at the right spot at the right time and sent over in raw brine and the tray stuff. I can imagine a handful of chefs in the US have had this experience, and this is just one ingredient, so UE is setting the bar quite high - maybe that's a weakness of the ingredient availability situation - someone in Spain can spend 20 years grilling ten things, but a chef five years into his career is expected to know that some esoteric French root vegetable needs five months in the cellar to be any good, and to serve composed dishes with twenty components just to be in the game... is it bad? I dunno, mostly the results aren't that good right now.

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