The Tasting Menu

Dining experiences come in many forms, from the unexpected "taco truck" at the right hour of the night (usually well past midnight and often dangerously close to dawn) to 3 or 4-star (depending on the measurement) restaurants from name-brand chefs. Taco trucks tend to exceed our expectations because one's expectations of quality are tempered in the wee hours. But those other places? They come with certain expectations.

I spend what some could easily call an unconscionable amount of money on food in a year. However, it's been awhile since I'd spent such an amount on a single meal.

The number one slot expense belongs to a meal in Monte Carlo at an Alain Ducasse outpost (Louis XV). It was an unexpected opportunity and I was fine spending what I did knowing it would be unique. Below that, plenty of meals in New York caused me to wince one the bill was tallied along with Hong Kong, Tokyo, and London.

Tonight's meal at Benu took the #2 position.

A 12-course meal is an experience which is tough to explain. You really do get swept away by it all; the attentiveness of the servers (who know not just what is on the menu, but why it's there, what it's made of, and why it all works together), the pricey decor, and the inevitable surprise pairing of food and smoke or sound or light or even fire. You need to do it at least once. Maybe twice. Three times at most.

And then stop.

Benu comes from grand breeding, an offspring of The French Laundry. Unlike "The Laundry", you don't need to book centuries in advance and you have more than 14 seconds on the first full moon on a Tuesday to PHONE them when a tide is 1/4 high to beg for a table; like phoning a radio station to win concert tickets when you were 16. (The ├╝ber-rich will always want to out-reserve each other and that is why The French Laundry and its ilk will always exist.) The rest of us riffraff are forced to go elsewhere, if not the galactic center of dining experiences, then to one of its orbiting moons. We get tempted by the prodigy of Keller starting something new and amazing, in an easier location and with slightly better odds of getting a reservation.

Before I go much further, if you've never been to a place like Benu, then stop reading and go. You owe it to yourself to experience such a meal unwearied by what follows. It'll cost you an arm, leg, and kidney, but you'll learn something and more importantly, you'll be surprised.

Write down the number of pleasurable, memorable meals for which you spent more than, say, $200 per person. You looked forward to the meal, enjoyed every moment of it, left feeling both full and satisfied with food, wine, and service. Do not write it down if you left the restaurant feeling like bloated whale which has beached itself.

Now write down the number of memorable meals for which you spent between $75 and $120 per person.

In my case, I'm struggling to put down any of the first variety. In Monte Carlo, I was feeling sick part-way through the meal. Course after course kept hitting me, wave after wave of food. At Coi in San Francisco, the food was interesting but hardly earth-shattering; unlike the bill. At WD-50 (hardly stratospheric but 8 courses was a challenge), the food was novel but in stark contrast to the other meals, I left... not "hungry" but "unsatisfied". I wanted another meal, not due to hunger, but the satisfaction receptors in my brain seemed independent of my stomach. Something similar happens when eating in an airport; you eat because you have to and rarely brag about it later. The food at WD-50 is innovative for sure, but the mental challenge of each dish gets a bit tiring. Maybe it's a mood thing, which I liken to sushi. If you're not in the mood for sushi, it's a little difficult to eat.

On the other hand, I can name probably 20 memorable, delicious, and truly satisfying meals for 1/3 those prices.

My first meal at Gotham Bar and Grill in New York comes to mind (and a meal or two thereafter, which is a long story), Chanterelle, also in NY, nearly every meal at Zuni in S.F., ditto for Water Grill in L.A., Blackbird in Chicago, Vong in London, and 2 dozen tiny, unexpected jewels along the way. In many cases, it would cost the same to travel to these places dine and return with positive memories than to eat at a "flagship" restaurant. Odds of getting a reservation increase as well.

As for Benu, seating was early; 5:45 to be exact. That table was targeted for turnover and the pace of the courses made it feel that way. There was barely time for consultation of either server or sommelier about what was being consumed before the "air traffic" behind them quickly piled up. As usual, the arrival of each course came with a presentation recited with the clarity and assertiveness of a potential "Miss America" citing her intended goals if crowned.

Most importantly, I experienced (once again) what I have come to fear in all "tasting menus" - dreading the next course. Not because it's likely to be bad, but because my hunger was satiated 4 courses ago. It's like grocery shopping when you're full or the smell of beer as you clean up from a party the night before. It's not fun. Regardless of how small the portions are, if there are 15 of them, you're going to over do it and you're going to hate yourself for it.

That night, sleep was restless, fitful, and dreams were bizarre and haunting. It was as if my body was reminding me of something which 1 out of every 20 fortune cookies will tell you: too much of a good thing can be bad.

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