06 September 2008

A Tale of Two Dinners

Manna from Heaven or colossal bomb: two restaurant reviews in and around New York City. Both restaurants had been rated 4 out of 4 stars by the New York Times and topped the Zagat charts, yet only one lived up to its billing. It made me wish restaurant reviewers were more anonymous in this town...

Per Se: Subjective Memories of an Objectively Perfect Supper

After a year of stashing away our change inside an old Glenmorangie scotch box, my boyfriend Marcus and I took our savings to the most expensive restaurant in town, Per Se. Zagat’s concise review, “you’re worth it”, definitely piqued our interest. Their tasting menus were to be the ultimate indulgence of our enormous and curious appetites, and a peek into the lives of the fabulously wealthy who unlike ourselves, did not need to crack open their piggy bank for their dinner. It was hard not to be intimidated the night of our reservation as we dressed up for the evening. A student and a young professional were about to blow a quite substantial sum of money for one night’s experience, and we feared disappointment. Could it possibly live up to our hopes of unadulterated gastronomic bliss?

We held hands as we walked through Keller’s famous blue door, into a cavernous entryway. A dark, Zen-like interior immediately cooled us down from a sticky summer’s night: a sophisticated décor appealing to men in expensive suits. Marcus immediately loved it. The hostess and wait staff greeted us as if they had been expecting us for a long time – I suppose not so surprising given the mandatory 2 month advance notice on the booking. Our worries started to melt away once seated at our centrally located yet private table on the lower level, offering a panoramic view of the southwest corner of Central Park. To our right sat three generations of a family celebrating with tasting menus and many, many bottles of expensive wine. The elderly gentleman who paid for the evening seemed to enjoy it the most. On our left a table of four regulars flitted in and around, greeting each other and the staff with air kisses and laughter. They seemed to hardly taste their meal.

Marcus and I, on the other hand, were eating it all up. The evening started with a vintage year Rosé champagne served from an old-fashioned, wide-bottomed bottle, followed by their signature hors d’oeuvre that I feel epitomizes Keller’s dining experience: a miniature savory ice cream cone presented on a custom, solid silver tray that held the cone upright, like you might find at an ice cream parlor. Ethereally fresh smoked salmon minced and formed into a tiny scoop rested on whipped crème fraîche encased in a thin and crispy brioche cone. It’s been almost a year since I’ve tasted it, and I forget now whether it was chives he mixed in with the salmon, but I’ll never forget its cool, crisp, and creamy texture and the way it melted and then evaporated in my mouth. Yes, food in a three star Michelin restaurant is highly conceptualized, but it doesn’t have to stop being fun at the same time. There is no way anyone could eat this dish with a knife and fork. Keller was like an indulgent uncle, allowing us dessert before dinner.

Full disclosure before heading onto the next course: my last piece of seafood had been a fish stick at age seven. However, going into this meal I knew that if I was ever to overcome my phobia of seafood, it would only come from one of the most extraordinary kitchens in the world. Thus, although I opted out of the show stopping “Oysters and Pearls” with Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar, I devoured with relish the kitchen’s milder play on another caviar classic. They served me tender slices of the sturgeon itself, wrapped up in tiny, light blinis, accented by the smallest dollop of crème fraîche. I hardly allowed Marcus a taste I enjoyed it so much. In fact, and to my great surprise, by our unanimous vote of two the best dish of our entire four-hour meal was the “Crispy Skin Fillet of Royal Dorade” served with sungold tomatoes, summer squash, cipollini onion and marble potatoes with banyuls vinaigrette. I still dream of it. The flesh flaked off into substantial chunks that simply dissolved after a couple chews. The skin had not an excess drop of grease, with the texture of a very thin potato crisp possessing an innate sea salt flavor. It’s an accomplishment that I even remember the vegetable side, which I attribute to the intensity of its pan-roasted flavor.

We both had the “Peach Melba” Foie Gras, which served with peach jelly, glorified Rice Krispies and Melba toast, transported me back to childhood breakfasts of charred bread slathered with butter and jam. A succulent piece of lobster tail meat poached in butter followed. It was the first time I had ever enjoyed this crustacean, and the counterpoint of barely steamed baby peas and carrots served as the perfect counterpoint to highlight the meat’s inherent sweetness. The next plate of duck breast with slow baked beets, red current, jelly, and bulls blood greens in juniper wood aged balsamic vinegar sunk deep into our bones after this lighter fare. It was a pleasure to have a meat I could chew on as I sank even deeper into my hedonistic trance. Marcus and I went our separate ways on the next course, as I had roast lamb with corn, fava beans, polenta, and a fig and truffle sauce, and he couldn’t resist upgrading to a pan roasted sirloin of Blackmore Ranch’s Wagyu beef. We each insisted that our respective dishes won that round.

The five courses of dessert might have just passed me by, save by the sheer stunning skill of their pastry team. They left us with a goody bag of the most decadent, fudgy brownies of my life, which Marcus and I rationed well enough to last for a whole week of dark chocolate paradise. The evening, the meal, was a stunning leap above even what we had fantasized about the past year, to which my limited word allotment cannot do justice – never to be surpassed, except, perhaps until we go back again.

A Meal from Hell: Sinking my teeth into Xavier’s at Piermont

“This will be the perfect romantic weekend!” Marcus was so hopeful. We both desperately needed a break – him from his job, and I from the confines of the city. He pored through guidebooks, train, and bus schedules, using all of his networks and resources to surprise me with the perfect plan. Eventually he settled on Peter Kelly’s restaurant, Xavier’s at Piermont. We had watched Peter Kelly win on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” reality television competition, and the Zagat review couldn’t have been more complimentary, with a food score higher than Per Se! An extremely rare score of 29 out of 30 for food! Not only was this a sure bet for a candle-lit dinner, but he also had found a cute B&B within walking distance so that we could turn it into an overnight trip. He could hardly believe how both clever and thoughtful he was.

When he had made our reservation for Friday evening, he had already requested the nine-course tasting menu with an accompanying wine pairing. We found it strange, then, when we sat down at our table in the tiny dining room, that the waiter and sommelier audibly whispered, debating whether to check our IDs. We should have known better at that point than to leave ourselves in these tactless and incompetent hands, but we were young (an over-21-type young I might add), and naively assumed the wait staff at such a fancy and expensive restaurant would have our best interests at heart.

Turns out they should have checked our liver function instead of our IDs as they increased the pour count on our wine and cognac with each grimace we made at the food. We were incredibly drunk by the end of the meal as glass after glass was pushed on us. Service could not have been more bored and indifferent. Our waiter could not be bothered to pay me any attention. He turned and walked away from our table in the middle a question I was asking him – twice! He showed up only to rush us into each successive course and glass of wine, urging us to gulp down the last dregs of the previous glass so that he could get on with the next. We were slurring our observations on a remarkably disappointing meal when we stumbled our way to the hotel that night. However, as is often the case with suffering through a traumatic event, we learned some valuable, practical lessons on fine dining:

1. When ordering a tasting menu, always specify your tastes and dislikes ahead of time and send back any dishes that do not cut muster.

Both Marcus and I prefer robust, savory flavors that pair well with red wine. After the meal began with 3 relatively interesting fish courses, we were excited to get to the main, hearty elements of the tasting. Yet the dishes grew progressively more forgettable and tasteless. A piece of steamed cod encrusted in plain, black poppy seeds was followed by a blanched chicken breast that had hardly even been seasoned with salt and pepper. I bit my lip to stop from laughing out loud when the waiter proudly announced, “This is the finest Murray chicken!” We buy Murray-brand chicken at our local store because they are the cheapest humanely raised birds available. The idea that his chest would swell with pride while serving me an unimaginative dish I could have cooked better at home was ludicrous and epitomized this failed dinner. At least that taste of my lipgloss temporarily woke up my bored taste buds.

I had previously assumed that I would always follow the kitchen’s lead with a tasting menu, using the opportunity to expand my palate and try dishes I wouldn’t normally. However, after suffering through 5 fish courses even after mentioning that I wasn’t too fond of fish or seafood, I have decided from now on to take a much more active role in deciding my next tasting menu. Any restaurant worth its grey sea salt will welcome feedback to create an unique menu.

2. Read reviews of restaurants outside of the New York metropolitan area with a skeptical eye.

While I am sure that there are some wonderful destination restaurants outside of New York City, I have yet to meet one. I was shocked at the disparity between the several reviews we had read and the reality of our evening at Xavier’s. I have come to realize that the only way to ensure the quality of a restaurant is the presence of vibrant competition. Xavier's would never have gotten away with such a substandard experience in Manhattan. It would have been more recently reviewed, its substandard quality exposed, and pushed out of the market by much more reliable competitors of the same bracket, such as Jean Georges or Gramercy Tavern.

I also have to consider the possibility that Xavier's does live up to its reviews – but only for special guests, including reviewers who must find it hard to be anonymous and drop by for a surprise repeat visit in such a small, out-of-the-way town. I sincerely hope this is not the case, and that Peter Kelly would never intentionally gamble his reputation while swindling a young couple of both their savings and a valuable Friday night.

3. Choose your dinner partner wisely

Peter Kelly’s magnificently underwhelming dinner would have been unbearable had I not had so much fun rolling my eyes, nudging, and whispering to Marcus about the surprising mistakes we endured at the hands of the wait staff and kitchen. The restaurant seemed frayed at the edges with lack of attention to details: no one folded our napkins when we got up to use the restroom, and we were given the wrong cutlery for a course. Since Marcus enjoys the pampering and attention to detail of a fancy restaurant as much as I do, we could marvel at this evening’s incompetencey together, turning it into an extraordinarily funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-expensive joke. We laughed about each different observation as we supported each other all the way to our bed. Dining and food is ultimately a social act, and although I still feel gypped out of a great meal, at least I didn’t waste my time as well.

[These and future restaurant reviews can be found on http://www.at-largemagazine.com/]

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