Do Tasting Menus Show Us at Our Worst?

I like Pete Wells’s populism, his shudder of conscience against the sudden flare of $250 tasting menus at elite restaurants in New York and San Francisco (“Nibbled to Death” in Tuesday’s New York Times).

Wells (he's the Times' restaurant critic) says expensive tasting-menu-only restaurants are spreading “like an epidemic.” High-end restaurants are always going to be expensive, but Wells sees the upper limit rising with a trajectory as steep as modern executive pay. Your WD-50s, your Alineas, your Eleven Madison Parks—they’re increasingly roped off from the middle class. Showing up to order the cheapest entrées on the list and a shared dessert is a thing of the past, like a pension.

“Tasting menus have made some of the country’s greatest restaurants into luxury goods,” Wells says. And—pity the rich—it's a rare chef who can self-edit, sending out 12 exciting courses rather than 20 dreary ones. Talk about first-world problems.

Wells is in a funny position. Since his employer picks up the prodigious tabs at places like Atera and Noma, he’s a kind of middle-class mole, burrowing into Matthew Lightner’s charred leek with hay ash, say, for the benefit of the rest of us.

A publication I worked for once sent me to review Christopher Kostow’s food at the Restaurant at Meadowood in the Napa Valley. I felt like Ethan Hawke in Gattaca, a man genetically unsuited to sit among the elite. Nobody seemed alarmed that they were about to drop $195 for food, and another $195 for wine (the price has since gone up to $225). Diners laughed or looked serene; a famous network anchorman was there. I slid my feet, clad in my only pair of dress shoes (unpolished), deeper under the table.

Kostow’s plates were the most beautiful ones I’d seen. They’d been carefully composed, but nothing looked staged, as if the food had casually assembled itself from the woods and gardens. My companion skipped the wine pairings so I could taste them—he stealth-sipped from my glass until the waiter took pity and brought him a glass of something, on the house. It was a class move.

But Kostow’s food—I wished kids who aspired to be chefs could come look at it, like kids on field trips in art museums. My dad grew up in public housing but took my brother and me to the finest restaurants my parents could afford; he considered it civilizing. Of course, the places we had to dress up in suits and ties to eat in were the huge fish houses on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, or “Continental” restaurants with maître d's in tuxedos, where we’d pick at veal cannelloni and be reminded to keep our elbows off the table. None of these restaurants was anywhere as rarefied as Meadowood, but perfection of the food wasn’t the point.

The point was to make us sit before unfamiliar dishes, learn how to do things like lift the bones from a petrale sole fried in butter, and be polite to waiters. A workingman himself, my father respected the work that other men did, when they did it well. He wanted his boys to learn to respect it, too.

The crazy-ass perfect food that exists at the highest level now, fetishized, conceptualized to the point of abstraction: Would it have a civilizing power over kids? Could picking at tiny portions of roast duck with rose hips somehow be a bad influence? Of course, it's only a small subset of the one percent who'd subject their young to a tasting menu. But if the highest expression of food is something we wouldn't subject a 12-year-old to, what does that say about our food culture's aspirations? What have we lost when the restaurants we admire most are no longer even marginally democratic?

Photo of Meadowood’s smoked toro and caviar by Flickr member cplbasilisk under Creative Commons

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