The Best Restaurant(s) in the World

Image(Restaurant Guy Savoy, Paris)
If you take it as a given that French restaurants are the best in the world, it only stands to reason that the best restaurant in the world will be in France.
Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I’m not here to dismiss the cuisines of entire countries — only to point out that, like sushi, Mexican street food, and pasta, the places where some food was invented are generally where you will find the highest elevation of the art. And Paris, in case you’ve forgotten, is where the modern restaurant was born in the latter half of the 18th Century.

Of course, the “best” of anything is a conceit and highly subjective. Measuring a “winner” or “the best” of anything — from wine to women — is a nice parlor game, but ultimately a waste of time unless there’s a stopwatch involved.

Whoever wins these accolades usually comes down to who got fawned over the most in a few influential publications — not who objectively gives diners the best food, drink, and experience. Anyone who thinks the several hundred voters who weigh in on these awards have actually eaten at the places they vote for as “the best restaurant in the world” (as opposed to forming their opinions based upon reading accounts of the few who have), has rocks in their head.

“Awards” of this sort are simply a way to give a deceptively false measuring stick to those who don’t know much about a subject. Subjectivity disguised as objectivity, all in the name of marketing to the wealthy with more money than taste. Same as with wine scores and Oscar nominations. The rich need these adjudications to convince themselves they’re doing the right thing, and “The “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” is there for them. As Hemingway puts it in “A Moveable Feast”:

The rich came led by the pilot fish. A year earlier they never would have come. There was no certainty then.

Back when El Bulli was garnering these awards (and I was voting on them), I heard from several colleagues who ate there, and what they described was more of a soul-deadening food slog (an edible marathon, if you will) than an actual pleasant experience.

A close friend (who also happens to be a chef) told me he stopped counting after 40(?) courses of (often) indecipherable eats, and was looking for the door two hours before the ordeal ended. (The trouble was, he said, there was literally no place to go — El Bulli being, literally, in the middle of nowhere.)

But Feran Adrià (like Thomas Keller before him and Grant Achatz and René Redzepi after), was anointed because, as in Hollywood, a few influential folks decided they were to be christened the au courant  bucket list-of-the-moment, and woe be to anyone in the hustings to question these lordly judgments. In the cosseted world of gastronomic beneficence (and the slaves to food fashion who follow them) this would be akin to a local seamstress suggesting Anna Wintour adjust her hemline.

Because of this nonsense, we’ve been saddled with the tyranny of the tasting menu for twenty-five years (Keller, Achatz, et al), disguised foods and tasteless foams (Adria), and edible vegetation (Redzepi) designed more for ground cover than actual eating.

As far as I can tell, neither molecular cuisine nor eating tree bark and live ants has caught on in  the real world — beyond trophy-hunting gastronauts, who swoon for the “next big thing” the way the fashion press promotes outlandish threads to grab attention.

Which brings us back to France. More particularly, French restaurants and what makes them so special. Let’s begin with food that looks like real food:

Image(Surf & Turf: Langoustines au Truffes La Tour D’Argent)

….not someone’s idea of playing with their food, or trying to turn it into something it isn’t. This cooking philosophy alone separates fine French cuisine from the pretenders, and gives it a confidence few restaurants in the world ever approach.

For one, there’s a naturalness to restaurants in France that comes from the French having invented the game. Unlike many who play for the “world’s best” stakes, nothing about them ever feels forced, least of all the cooking.  With four-hundred years to get it right, and French restaurants display everything from the napery to the stemware with an insouciant aplomb that is the gold standard.

You don’t have to instruct the French how to run a restaurant any more than you have to teach a fish how to swim. Or at least that’s how it appears when you’re in the midst of one of these unforgettable meals, because, to repeat, they’ve been perfecting things for four hundred years. Everything from the amuse bouche to the petit fours have been carefully honed to put you at ease with with being your best self at the table.

Image(Gruyère gougeres have been around longer than America)

Having been at this gig for a while, I’m perfectly aware that the death of fine French dining, and intensive care service accompanying it, has been announced about every third year for the past thirty.

I’m not buying any of it. When you go to France (be it Paris or out in the provinces), the food is just as glorified, the service rituals just as precise, and the pomp and circumstance just as beautifully choreographed as it was fifty years ago. The fact that younger diners/writers see this form of civilized dining as a hidebound, time-warp does not detract from its prominence in the country that invented it.

Whether you’re in Tokyo or Copenhagen, the style and performative aspects of big deal meals still takes their cues from the French. Only elaborate Mandarin banquets or the hyper-seasonality of a kaiseki dinner  match the formality and structure of haute cuisine.

These forms of highly stylized dining follow a path straight up the food chain. There are rules and they are there for a reason, usually having to do with how you will taste and digest what is placed before you. Light before heavy; raw before cooked; simple before complex — you get the picture
You usually begin with something fished directly from the sea. Oysters and other shellfish are a natural match, as is a shrimp cocktail. (A good old-fashioned American steakhouse has more in common, with high falutin’ French than people realize.)  Their natural salinity stimulates the appetite without weighing you down.
Man’s evolution into a more cultivated forms of eating is represented by bread, as is the domestication of animals by the butter slathered upon it. (If you want to stretch the symbolism even further, look at olive oil and the fermentation of wine and beer as representing mankind’s earliest bending of agriculture to his edible wants and needs.)
Image(Early man struggled with the whole pommes soufflé-thing)
From there things get more elaborate, depending on whether you want to go the seafood, wild game, or domesticated fowl route. Vegetables get their intermezzo by using salad greens as a scrub for the stomach to help digest everything that precedes them. (The French think eating a salad at the start of a meal is stupid, and it is.) You finish of course with cheese (“milk’s leap toward immortality” – Clifton Fadiman), and then with the most refined of all foods: sugar and flour and all the wonderful things that can be done with them. A great French meal is thus every bit the homage to nature as Japanese kaiseki, albeit with a lot more wine and creme brûlée.
As I’ve written before, French food is about the extraction and intensification of flavor. Unlike Italians and Japanese, a French cook looks at an ingredient (be it asparagus, seafood, or meat) and asks himself: “Self, how can I make this thing taste more like itself.” All the simmering, searing, pressing, and sieving in a French kitchen is as far a cry from leaving nature well enough alone as an opera is from the warble of a songbird.

With this in mind, we set our sights on two iconic Parisian restaurants: one, as old-fashioned as you can get, and the other a more modern take on the cuisine, by one of its most celebrated chefs. Together, they represent the apotheosis of the restaurant arts. They also signify why, no matter what some critics say, the French still rule the roost. Blessedly, there is no chance of encountering Finnish reindeer moss at either of them.

LA TOUR D’ARGENT

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If experience is any measure of perfection, then The Tower of Money should win “best restaurant in the world” every year, because no one has been serving food this fine, for this long, in this grand a setting.

A restaurant in one form or another has been going on at this location since before the Three Musketeers were swashing their buckles. What began as an elegant inn near the wine docks of Paris in 1582 soon enough was playing host to everyone from royalty to Cardinal Richelieu. It is claimed that the use of the fork in France began in the late 1500s at an early incarnation of “The Tower of Silver”, with Henry IV adopting the utensil to keep his cuffs clean.

Apocryphal or not,  what is certainly true is that Good King Hank (1553-1610) bestowed upon the La Tour its crest which still symbolizes it today:

History, of course, provides the foundation, and the setting continues to provides a “wow” factor unmatched by all but a handful of restaurants in the world. No place but here can you dine with the ghosts of Louis XIV, Winston Churchill and Sarah Bernhardt, all while seeming to float above Paris on this open door to the city’s past — all of it available to anyone with the argent to book a table.
But the proof is in the cooking — that has been, on our last two visits, as awesome as the view. It’s no secret that the glory had started to fade twenty years ago, and that Michelin — the arbiter of all things important in the French food world — had taken notice, and not in a good way.
A reboot of sorts was announced over five years ago, and by the time we visited in 2019, the kitchen was performing at a Michelin two-star level at the very least. Independent of the view, the service, and the iconic wine program, the cooking (and presentation) was well-nigh perfect. It was all you want from this cuisine: focused, intense flavors put together with impeccable technique and an almost scientific attention to detail.
When we returned this past winter, things seemed be have gotten even better. This time we showed up with a party of six. It was a busy lunch, filled with local gourmets and some obvious big business types, but also a smattering of tourists who (like us) had to keep picking their jaws up off the table as spectacle of Paris and its finest French food was spread before them.
I have never been to La Tour at night, but for my money, lunch is the way to go. The food is unchanged (lunch specials are offered, but you can order off the dinner menu and we did), and the sight of the Seine River stretching beneath you and Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite in the distance are worth the admission all by themselves.
I suppose the ideal time to dine here would be arranging for a table at dusk, so you could see the lights of Paris come alive in all their blazing glory. But as I’ve argued before, lunch has always been the ticket for us when we want to eat and drink ourselves silly in a fine French restaurant.
There’s nothing silly, of course, about the food. This is serious stuff, but there’s nothing stuffy about it, despite its pedigree — French service having retired the snootiness thing decades ago. Meaning: if you show up and are well-behaved, they are friendly to a fault.
(Canard au sang with a side of burns, coming right up)
Credit for that has to lie with owner André Terrail, the third generation of the family to be at the helm. (The Terrails have owned the restaurant since 1911.) Since taking over a few years before his father Claude’s death in ‘o6, Terrail has kept all the historical provenance of his venerated birthright intact — upgrading the cuisine while still managing to keep the whole operation true to its roots. No easy feat that. We don’t know what the problems were twenty years ago, but on our last two visits, we didn’t see any missteps, either on the plate or in the service. And what appeared before us was every bit as stunning as any Michelin 3-starr meal we’ve had…in Paris or elsewhere.
You take good bread for granted in Paris, but even by those lofty standards, this small baguette was a stunner:

Image(Face it: you knead this)

Perfect in every respect: a twisted baguette of indelible yeastiness — perfumed with evidence of deep fermentation — the outer crunch giving way to ivory-pale, naturally sweet dough within that  fought back with just the perfect amount of chew. It (and the butter) were show-stoppers in their own right, and for a brief minute, they competed with the view for our attention. We could’ve eaten four of them (and they were offered throughout the meal), but resisted temptation in light of the feast that lay ahead.

Soon thereafter, these scoops of truffle-studded foie gras appeared, deserving of another ovation:

Image(Home cooking this is not)

From there on, the hits just kept on coming: a classic quenelles de brochet (good luck finding them anywhere but France these days), Then, a slim, firm rectangle of turbot in a syrupy beurre blanc, or the more elaborate sole Cardinale:

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….followed by a cheese cart commensurate with this country’s reputation.

The star of the show has been, since the 1890s, the world-famous pressed duck (Caneton Challandais) — served in two courses, the first of which (below) had the deepest-colored Bèarnaise we’ve ever seen; the second helping bathed in the richest, midnight-brown, duck blood-wine blanket imaginable. Neither sauce did anything to mitigate the richness of the fowl, which is, of course, gilding the lily and the whole point.

Image(You can never be too rich or have too much Béarnaise)

We could go on and on about how fabulous our meal was, but our raves would only serve to make you ravenous for something you cannot have, not for the next ten months, anyway.

Yes, the bad news is the restaurant will be closing today, April 30, 2022 for almost a year — until February 2023 — for renovations. This saddens us, but not too much, since we don’t have plans to return until about that time next year. In the meantime, the entry foyer probably could use some sprucing up (since it looks like it hasn’t been touched since 1953), and we have confidence Terrail won’t monkey with the sixth floor view, or this skinny little pamphlet he keeps on hand for the casual wine drinker:

Image(Not found: 2-Buck Chuck)

If the measure of a great restaurant is how much it makes you want to return, then La Tour D’Argent has ruled the roost for two hundred years. (Only a masochist ever left El Bulli saying to himself, “I sure can’t wait to get back here!”) Some things never go out of style and La Tour is one of them. We expect it to stay that way for another century.

À Bientôt!

RESTAURANT GUY SAVOY

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If La Tour represents the old guard of Parisian dining at its finest, then Guy Savoy — both the man and his restaurant — provides the connective tissue between haute cuisine’s past, present, and a future where new chefs will take up this mantle and teach the world what elegant dining is about.

The Adam Platts of the world may decry the “irrelevance” of the “old gourmet model”, but I stand with Steve Cuozzo in maintaining that the call for luxury and refinement in how we eat (admittedly at rarefied levels of expense), will never go completely out of fashion. Quoting our friend Alan Richman, Cuozzo writes:

As critic Alan Richman eloquently expressed it in the Robb Report a few years ago, fine dining is more than “a demonstration of wealth and privilege . . . It is an expression of culture, the most enlightened and elegant form of nourishment ever devised. Without it we will slowly regress into the dining habits of cave people, squatting before a campfire, gnawing on the haunch of a bar.”

All I can say to the Adam Platts of the world (and younger food writers who echo the same sentiments) is: If you think “the old gourmet model” is dead or dying, plan a trip to France, where formal restaurants are poised to come roaring back, indeed if they haven’t already done so.

Put another way: get your goddamned head out of that bowl of ramen or whatever Nigerian/Uzbekistani food truck you’re fond of these days and wake up and smell the Sauvignon Blanc.

Or just go to Guy Savoy.

(Savoy at his stoves)

If the world’s best restaurant can’t change your mind, nothing will. Before you accuse me of bandwagon-ing, let me remind you that I’ve been singing the praises of Savoy’s cuisine since 2006, and have even gone so far as to travel between Vegas and Paris to compare his American outpost with the original. Back then (2009), the flagship got the nod, but not by much.

Since its move to the Monnaie de Paris (the old Parisian Mint) in 2015, Savoy’s cuisine and reputation have attained a new level of preeminence (which is all the more incredible when you consider he has held three Michelin stars since 1980).

With mentors like Joël Robuchon and Paul Bocuse having departed to that great stock pot in the sky, and Alain Ducasse having spread himself thinner than a sheet of mille-feuille, Savoy now rules the French gastronomic firmament as a revered elder statesman. The difference being that he and his restaurants haven’t rested on their laurels, but are every bit as harmonious with the times as they were thirty years ago. To eat at Guy Savoy overlooking the banks of the Seine from a former bank window, is to experience the best French cooking from the best French chefs performing at the top of their game. There is something both elemental and exciting about his cooking that keeps it as current as he was as the new kid on the Michelin block back in the 80s.

Dining in the dead of winter can have its challenges. Greenery is months  away, so chefs go all-in on all things rooted in the soil. The good news is black truffles are in abundance; the bad news is you better like beets.

The great news is: in the hands of Savoy and his cooks, even jellied beets achieve an elegance unheard of from this usually humble taproot:

Image(Savoy heard we hated beets, so he tried to hide them from us)

As mentioned earlier, a French chef respects an ingredient by looking at it as a blank canvas to be improved upon. Look no further than this beet hash (Truffes et oefus de caille, la terre autour) lying beneath a quail egg and a shower of tuber melanosporum, both shaved and minced:

Image(Beet-i-ful)

Neither of these would I choose for my last meal on earth. Both gave me new respect for how the French can turn the prosaic into the ethereal –food transcending itself into something beautiful.

Which, of course, is what Savoy did with the lowly artichoke so many years ago, when he combined it with Parmesan cheese and black truffles and turned it into the world’s most famous soup.

There’s no escaping this soup at Guy Savoy, nor should you want to. Regardless of season, it encapsulates everything about the Savoy oeuvre: penetrating flavor from a surprisingly light dish, by turns both classic and contemporary:

Image(Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen)

We may have come for the truffles, but we stayed for the filet of veal en croute (below), once again lined with, you guessed it, more black truffles.

Image(Filet de veau et truffes cuits en croûte is French for: the most delicious meat dish in the history of the world)

From there we progressed through a salad of roasted potatoes and truffles, a bouillon of truffles served like coffee in a French press, then a melted cheese fondue over a whole truffle:

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…and even something that looked like a huge black truffle but which, upon being nudged with a fork, revealed itself to be a chocolate mousse. All of it served by a staff that looked like teenagers and acted like twenty-year veterans.

Suffice it to say the wine pairings were as outstanding as the food, all of it meshing into a seamless meld of appetite and pleasure — the pinnacle of epicurean bliss — high amplitude cooking where every element converges into a single gestalt.

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We then went nuts with multiple desserts, including a clafoutis (above) and the petit fours carte (like we always do), and rolled away thinking we wouldn’t be eating again for two days. This being Paris, we were at it again later that night, taking down some steak frites at Willi’s Wine Bar

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I write these words not to convince you that Guy Savoy is the greatest restaurant in the world, or even that such a thing exists, but rather to persuade you of the transcendent gustatory experiences you can have at places like it. Until I’ve been to every restaurant in the world, I won’t be able to proclaim one of them “the best.” Even then, the best would only be what best fit my mood, my likes and my expectations at the very moment I was there.

Adam Platt was right about one thing: “the best restaurant in the world” doesn’t have to be fancy. The best restaurant in the world can be something as simple as a plat du jour of boeuf bourguignon , studded with lardons and button mushrooms in a run-down bistro smelling of wine sauces and culinary history. It can be at a tiny trattoria on the Amalfi Coast or a local diner where everyone knows your name, or that little joint where you first discovered a dish, a wine, or someone to love. But your favorite restaurant, no matter where or what it is, owes an homage to the place where it all started.

Emile Zola’s “The Belly of Paris” describes the markets of Les Halles as “…some huge central organ pumping blood into every vein of the city.” Those markets may be gone, but their soul lives on in the form of Parisian restaurants, which remain, one hundred a fifty years later, its beating heart. To eat in the great restaurants of Paris is to be inside the lifeblood of a great city, communing with something far bigger than yourself. To be in them is to be at the epicenter of the culinary universe and the evolution of human gastronomy — where the sights and smells of the food, and the way it is served, reflect the entire history of modern dining.

33 Things I Now Know About Mexico

Image(This isn’t even the half of it, or the quarter of it)

Ed. note: We recently returned from a short vacay to Mexico. We went to escape the craziness that is America, and because it is the only country on earth that is accepting American tourists these days. As usual, when we have a great time in a foreign land, we like to share.

Mexico City is so big it makes Vegas look like Boulder City.

They used to call Mexico City D.F. (Distrito Federale), but that’s now as dated as the Frito Bandito.

Trying to see Mexico City in a week is like trying to tour the Louvre in an hour.

If all you know of Mexico are its border and beach towns, then you’re missing the real deal.  Diving in to where it all started is a cultural eye-opener.

Mexicans eat better and cheaper than we do.

They are more vigilant than Americans about Covid protocols as well.

CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico, aka City of Mexico) is a walk-able city, but the distances are vast.

As with Tokyo (and most huge, international capitals), it is best to pick a neighborhood (Centro, Reforma, Polanco, Roma, etc.) and spend a day getting to know it.

Roma is tree-lined, peaceful, and filled with places eat — a nice antidote to the crazy cacophony of the city surrounding it.

There are more museums in one park (Bosque de Chapultepec) than in the entire state of Nevada.

Image(The Polanco at 2:00 am)

The air there is so lousy you can’t see the stars at night, none of them. (That little dot in the picture above is a helicopter.)

The air may be terrible, but I didn’t notice. The Food Gal®, however, was starting to complain of an irritated nose and throat by Day 4.

Uber is über-cheap – there is no reason to take any other form of transportation.

Speaking of cheap, food and drink are a serious bargain: from superb street tacos to modernist cuisine meccas, prices are laughably low.

Service with a smile is also the universal rule. The language barrier is also no big deal. To figure out the price in dollars, divide everything by 20.

Image(Pujol)

Modernist cuisine — as exemplified by hyper-local, multi-course, fixed priced menus — is alive and well. We hit the two biggest names (Pujol and Quintonil) and both were jammed with Rico Suaves and their lovely ladies. As I’ve said many times, the whole tasting menu thing has run its course, but as long as the World’s 50 Best nonsense is around, there will always be gastro-tourists (with more money than taste) keeping these things afloat. For this reason, the next time we’re here, I expect to be at the Taco Omakase at Pujol, or ordering a la carte from Quintonil.

You don’t see/hear many American accents (we counted three); this is a good thing.

You don’t see many fat people either (even among the mobs at Mercado de Merced).

People have asked me if it’s “clean.” Yes, cleaner than the human toilet that is downtown Los Angeles; more pristine than San Francisco. In many ways, CDMX reminded us of an Hispanic Chicago: spotless streets, wide boulevards, nice people and a remarkable lack of trash.

Image(Roma)

It is also safe. There is, literally, a cop car on every corner.

Crossing the street can be take-your-life-in-your-own-hands endeavor, however.

Beggars are a nuisance, but not an issue. Sit or stand anywhere for more than ten seconds and someone will approach either asking for a handout or to sell you some junk. You learn the words “no, gracias” very quickly, and will say them about fifty times a day.

Image(Anyone for an Orthopteran?)

They take their insects seriously here, at lunch and dinner.

As impressive as Pujol and Quintonil were, the first meal I’d revisit would be Guzina Oaxaca — a chic, casual spot in the Polanco specializing in Oaxacan cuisine in all its glories.

Image(Holy mole!)

Mexican wines were also a nice surprise. They use a lot of European varietals, to varying degrees of success. Pro tip: this is uncharted territory for even serious oenophiles, so let your sommelier guide you. No matter what you buy, it will probably be under $50. Pro tip #2: They’re doing better with their reds than their whites, but this is only based on a very limited sample.

La Merced is a zoo, a labyrinth, a maze of shops: a tangle of warren after slithering warren of alleyways and side streets selling miles and miles of junk. There’s also a food section (our real reason for going), but we never found it. Pro tip: Don’t go on a Saturday morning. Pro tip #2: Don’t let your Uber driver drop you off blocks from the main market — you’ll never find it, no matter how much you look at Google maps. Pro tip #3: Sign up for a tour, unless you enjoy being swallowed up by a sea of humanity seemingly enthralled with miles and miles of plastic junk. One of our companions remarked how ubiquitous and similar these “street markets” are around the globe — selling cheap clothes and toys to tens of thousands every day. “The one in Istanbul is even worse,” he sighed as we struggled to find an exit ramp from the human highway that enveloped us.  It was almost enough to make us miss Walmart.

Mercado Roma was as disappointing as Mercado de Merced was frustrating — it being little more than a glorified food court.

Image(Cochinita pibil tacos at Turix)

The tacos are insane, but I already knew that.

Even the bad tacos in Mexico City are good tacos. The tacos at El Turix (a hole in the wall in Polanco) are some of the best of all.

Image(Sensational seafood at Contramar)

Mexican seafood is its own thing, treating fish in ways that would have a Frenchman crying sacre bleu! Like most of the country’s cuisine, it emphasizes strong flavors over delicate technique (see above).

That said, the better restaurants know how to treat fish right. Contramar (in the Roma neighborhood) is such a restaurant (reservations essential).

There is no such thing as a bad trés leches cake.

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Muchas gracias to foodie friends Greg and Deanna, and JB and Kathy, for setting up so many fabulous meals and acting as interpreters for the trip. All of us can’t wait to return, because….

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It’s Not You, Jose Andres, It’s Me

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The hottest love has the coldest end. – Socrates

We’re done, José.

It’s over.

It’s not you; it’s me.

Time to move on.

I’m not good enough for you.

I need space. (So do my trousers.)

Breakups can be sad, but sometimes tears are the price we pay for the freedom we need. (And boy do I need my freedom from the tyranny of tasting menus.)

Breaking up can make you a better person. This might be good for both of us.

Before we go into why this is necessary, a little history is in order.

What we now call tasting menus, used to be called degustation menus. They were the province of a certain level of high-falutin’ French restaurants, and they usually came on a little insert to the menu offering to let the chef decide what special courses he would feed you that night.

Tasting menus were an adjunct to the main, a la carte selections, and were of interest to mainly the most dedicated gourmands. You knew you weren’t in for the usual starter-main-dessert meal, and that the courses would be smaller, and there might be a couple more of them. Mainly though, you went the degustation route because it promised to show the kitchen strutting its best stuff.

This is the way things were from the late 1970s (when yours truly became seriously involved with cooking/food/restaurants), until the late 1990s.

Then, Tom “Call Me Thomas” Keller and Ferran Adrià came along and ruined everything.

Image result for French Laundry menu(This looks like 10 courses, but at the end of the evening, it was more like 15)

Gastronomy historians might have another take on this, but from my perch, the whole “you will be eating/swooning over 15 small plates of chef’s creations” really took off when Keller got soooo much press for his (mandatory, multi-course) feast at The French Laundry.

In 1997, I was in Napa Valley at a writer’s conference with Ruth Reichl, Colman Andrews, Corby Kummer, Barbara Kafka, and a host of others, and that’s all they could talk about. This talking eventually morphed into a gazillion raving/fawning articles about Keller in every major food ‘zine. Soon enough, the copycat race was on.

When Adrià made his big splash with El Bulli around the same time, the die was cast and high-end restaurants from Lima to London adopted the formula of wowing their customers with “techniques” over taste. A chef friend told me of going to El Bulli fifteen years ago and throwing in the towel….after the 44th course with more on the way.

No longer were a half-dozen specialties of the house enough, as you might find at Paul Bocuse or Le Cirque.  Instead, Keller and Adria started an arms race of escalating courses…where mutually-assured palate destruction was the result if not the goal.

These days, almost every restaurant in the World’s 50 Best centers its cooking around a bill of particular, itty bitty ingredients done by the biteful.

 

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It’s time to stop the madness.

Who really wants to eat like this? Answer: no one.

Watching chefs piece together teeny tiny pieces of food into dish after dish of edible mosaics no longer holds any fascination for anyone but jaded critics who constantly need to be dazzled while “discovering” the next big thing.

As Robert Brown elucidates in his excellent evisceration of the form, tasting menus have debased cuisine by turning it into an exercise in solipsism for chefs:

By tailoring his operation around it (essentially turning it into a glorified catering hall since most, if not all customers eat the same meal), a chef is able to run his restaurant with a smaller kitchen staff, determine with precision his food purchases, and enhance his revenue by manipulating, if not exploiting, his clients by exercising near-complete control over them.

Conceptually, the tasting menu is a losing proposition for the client even in the happenstance of an enjoyable dish. If and when you get such a dish, it is usually never enough, thus making you desirous of something you cannot have; i.e. more of the dish. When you have a dish that is less than stellar or just plain bad, the chef has foisted on you a dish you did not bargain for, thus debasing your meal in the process. The perfect or near-perfect meal is all but unattainable when your waiter brings you six or eight or twelve, sometimes even many more, tastes. Given the intrinsic hit-and-miss nature of tasting menus, I have never come close to having such a meal. As with great dramas, musicals, concertos, or operas, culinary perfection is almost always found in divisions of two, three or four.

I read this essay two years ago and agreed with it, but it took that much time (and several more marathon meals) for the lessons to sink in. (You might remember that I was also bored out of my gourd by Meadowood and Alinea a couple of years ago.)

If New York restaurants are any indication, the next big thing is a return to sanity: the classic catechism of appetizer-entree-dessert. The way you eat in good French restaurants and homey Italian trattoria; the way the human body was meant to digest food.

When I go to Spain in a couple of months, it’s going to be a challenge — since the Spaniards invented (or have at least expanded and exploited) this unnatural way of eating more than any other culture. One of my solutions will be to go at lunch (like I do in Paris and Italy), where the meals are shorter, more focused and more fun. Plus, you then have the rest of the afternoon/evening to walk off the calories.

As for my recent meal at é by José Andrés, below you will find the list of dishes, along with some tasty snaps.

For the record: almost every bite was a testament to intense flavors and culinary skill. It was my third meal at é in as many years, and the best of the bunch. Chef de Cuisine Eric Suniga and his crew orchestrate a perfectly-timed concert where everything harmonizes — with a staff busting their asses while never missing a beat or hurrying the customers.

It’s dinner and a tweezer show, a plating performance if you will (the actual cooking takes place out of sight), which almost makes you forget you’re paying $400/pp for a meal with strangers.

The only trouble is there’s both too much and too little going on. Too many dishes and not enough time to reflect and contemplate them, and not that enjoyable if you really want to savor the cooking, the techniques, or the food and wine matches (which are excellent).

Even with those criticisms, though, there probably aren’t five other restaurants in America that can match it.

Image(Suniga and crew are on it like a bonnet)

But for me, no màs. Never again.

I don’t want to eat 20 different things at a sitting. I realized some time ago that you quickly hit a point of diminishing returns with these slogs — your satisfaction being inversely proportional to the number of fireworks going off in front of you.

Three to six courses is all one’s brain and palate can absorb. Everything else is just cartwheels in the kitchen, the chef as baton twirler.

To be brutally honest about it, this type of meal isn’t about the food, or the wine, or the conversation. The point is to have you ohh and ahh over the production. There isn’t much time between courses to do anything else.

The great joy of going to a restaurant is deciding at the very last minute what you want to eat, not what the chef insists you eat. Tasting menus rob you of that singular pleasure, and for that reason alone, I must bid them adieu.

Here are the dishes:

Truffle Tree

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Morning Dew

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Beet Rose

It was small and and tasty but not that photogenic; let’s move on.

Stone

Image(The black and white thingees are actually cheese; the things that look like stones are stones. Don’t eat those.)

Spanish Pizza

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Wonderbread

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Pan Con Tomate

This was a small piece of the world’s greatest ham on an almost-not-there puff of bread. The only thing wrong was there should have been more of it.

Uni Y Lardo

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Vermut

Image(This dish fomented much mussel love)

Edible Sangria

Image(The description doesn’t lie)

 

Esparragos en Escabeche

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Txangurro a la Donastiarra

Crab served in its shell — deliciously crabby but unremarkable.

Foie Royal

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Platija

Image(Steak for 8? No problemo!)

Chuleta

A block of fluke that was no fluke…even if it was a bit boring. FYI: fluke is always boring. Sorta surprised they used it.

Empanada

Image(This started out as a ball of cotton candy the size of a small child)

Menjar Blanc

Image(White food, aerated)

Winter in Vegas

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Intxausaltsa

Image(Your guess is as good as mine)

Cherry Bomb

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More things…

By the time you get to “more things”, only the heartiest of soldiers is still ready for combat. Most have run up the white flag as they’re being politely herded off to make room for more cannon fodder.

That’s when it hit me and I mumbled, “I still love you, José; I’m just not in love with you anymore. Certainly not with this dining concept. Whatever flame you may have ignited in me 20 years ago with your wacky Spanish molecular manipulation is now but a smoldering ash — the charred remnant of a fiery passion that once had no bounds (or course or calorie counts), and is now as worn out as bacon-wrapped dates.”

You’re better off without me. You’ll be happier with someone who appreciates you more than I do.

And I’ll be happier dating your sexy siblings: the smoking-hot Jaleo or the bodacious Bazaar Meat.

You wouldn’t mind, would you?

I hope we can still be friends.

Our meal for 2 came to around $800, including tax, tip, and $120 worth of wines by the glass. Notably absent above is any consideration of price-to-value ratio. For aspiring gourmets, globe-trotting gastronauts, and culinary show-offs, it’s probably worth it. For a one-time splurge it’s absolutely worth it. There’s no more convivial way to experience the glories(?) of molecular gastronomy, accompanied by a great steak.

é by Jose Andres

The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino

3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.698.7950