Surely we don’t want BoomerCafé to be known for screaming “Bah humbug.” But we couldn’t resist this one hilarious scream from a friend of ours in the San Francisco Bay Area, former ABC News editor Bruce Hall, who just can’t cotton to the fact that when he spends a lot of money for dinner out, he’s likely to be told, Tonight You’ll Be Having The Haggis.
Have you noticed recently that the more expensive a restaurant is, the less likely it is that you will have any say about what you have to eat? I’m talking about “fixed menus” and they’re yet another thing that has changed since we were kids and frankly, I don’t like it.
Fixed menus have been around for years, of course, but usually in simple, inexpensive places. They probably got their first boost in upscale restaurants, as so many things have, like the venerable Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. I remember the first time I went there, the starter course was duck giblets in goose fat with tomatoes. It was okay, but not what I would have ordered. As I left, I looked at the menus for the week and realized that if I had come on different nights, I could have had different parts of the duck.
Owner Alice Waters preaches what she practices, which I find tedious, but at least Chez Panisse is a good restaurant that offers excellent, if smugly presented, ingredients well and imaginatively prepared at prices that seem quite fair for a world-famous high-end restaurant. Three to five courses run $75 to $125, depending on the night of the week. Now, however, more and more places are charging two-hundred, even three- or four-hundred dollars for a meal chosen completely by the chef. This approach makes sense for the restaurant, of course. It is much more efficient and economical. But the end result can be a business which exists to serve the management rather than the customer.
They make up for the lack of choice by offering many small courses, usually twenty-two. This started, I believe, with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry up in the popular Napa Valley, but has now taken off across the country. Mr. Keller has said that a few bites provide the essence of a dish, and the palate soon loses interest, so it is best to move on. The trouble is, I am not so sophisticated/jaded/decadent as Mr. Keller. A conventionally sized portion is fine with me. I have never been very fond of smorgasbord, and to me a twenty-two course meal is just a serial smorgasbord.
Another thing you may have observed since you came of age is that restaurant critics have been swooning over offal. This is perhaps understandable for people who eat out professionally every night and have grown bored with the usual dishes, but I don’t find it helpful when they are raving about the tongue, hearts, kidneys, or sauces made from blood or “the bitter jolt of beef bile.” I have always avoided the more anthropomorphic meats, agreeing with Alfred Hitchcock that “Innards are out.” After reading some quite favorable reviews, I am often left wondering if there is anything on the menu I would want to order.
Chefs may serve these items because they too are bored, or they may feel pressured to innovate, but for those of us who eat out only some of the time, they needn’t bother. But they haven’t asked me so it seems to be a current trend, and it is only a matter of time before some desperate chef remembers haggis. This is the Scottish national dish. For those of you who don’t share my Scottish heritage, it is the lungs, heart, and liver of a sheep, minced and mixed with oatmeal and suet and some spices and served in the sheep’s stomach. No, don’t go back and reread the sentence, you read it right the first time: the sheep’s stomach. They pour Scotch whisky over it to numb the taste buds, and a bagpiper marches around the table playing as loud as he can — I’ve actually never heard it any other way— to drown out the screams of the diners.
Our American chefs will want to tweak this, of course, perhaps using quinoa instead of oats, duck fat instead of suet, and monkfish liver, served on a bed of kale. For a $150 supplement we might be able to have it made with foie gras, and they will pour Pappy van Winkle twenty-three-year-old bourbon over it. The accompanying music might be Tibetan chants. Now, haggis isn’t in fact quite so awful as it sounds. It is basically tripe and sausage, reminding one of Bismarck’s observation that no one should ever know what goes into his country’s treaties or its sausages. Still, is this what you want presented as your de facto main course? Surely it should only ever be offered as an option.
The pursuit of novelty has brought other disappointments too. I have long accepted that there are things today that are salad that in my youth were weeds. Now we are expected to eat trees, with Douglas fir and spruce showing up not as decorations but food. In California I imagine I can look forward to redwood turning up on my plate, since we prefer local ingredients. There is also the arbitrary addition of contrasting flavors. Personally, I don’t need salt in my caramel, pepper in my chocolate, vinegar or basil in my cocktail, or trout in my dessert.
My favorite fancy dining spot in San Francisco is Restaurant Gary Danko. They have set prices for three, four, or five courses, but you choose whatever you wish. They assure you that you are welcome to have five desserts or three appetizers and two fish courses if you like. The atmosphere is hospitable, and their clear goal is for you to have a delightful evening having what you want. I think that the fourth star in a restaurant’s rating should be for putting the customer first.
In many of these welI-reviewed establishments, in exchange for our money and our obeisance to the chef, we are expected to enjoy not just a superb meal, but an extraordinary artistic, emotional, even spiritual event. I realize I am getting old and crotchety, but I find myself usually less interested in having a transcendent culinary experience than just dinner.