I was reading this morning about someone being asked about what was their best restaurant meal in a particular city. It got me thinking as I am not a regular restaurant fiend to start with, as most of the time the food is better at home than in most restaurants, and there is more to the dining experience than the actual food. I have the same problem answering the question ‘what is my favorite food’, as it always depends on my mood at the moment I am asked, how hungry I am, the phase of the moon, and velocity of the wind, and other more esoteric factors.
I have eaten in revered restaurants where the cooking was so good that there is no hope in this lifetime that I will ever be able to attain this perfection in my kitchen, in overrated restaurants living only on their reputation and/or ‘inness’ factor, in restaurants that serve solid-but-uninspired food, in fast-food joints, in food stalls on the street or in markets where I ended up with food poisoning, and in places that fit anywhere in or out of this spectrum. What makes the dining experience is not the food itself, though it is a major part of it, but it is a combination of food, service, atmosphere, and who you are sharing the meal with.
By nature I tend to stay away from the new ‘Trendy’ places as from past experiences they seem to rely on glitziness, gimmicks, and at times shock food to generate their often undeserved reputations. I know that it is difficult to differentiate yourself from the crowds, but spending millions in decor and nada in the kitchen does not make for a nice restaurant. Also the noise level in a lot of trendy places makes enjoying even the best food in the world very difficult. I also dislike the fact that most of the times you have to reserve a long time ahead to get in. Since most of the time I have no idea what I will be doing in the next hour, let alone in 3 months time, and if I will even be in the mood to go out for that type of food that night. I normally go the reservation route only when I am traveling out of town and I know I will be in need of a restaurant on such and such dates, thus reserving is a no-brainer at those times.
Back to the subject of the dining experience, I have noticed that to have an exceptional experience you need to first have well prepared and presented good food that is pleasant to eat. If for shock value the chef is into weird combinations of food, just for sake of being different, I tend to stay away from their place. The same is for experimental cooking, I am all for experimentation, but if you cannot find focus in a dish you should not serve it to paying clients until you finish playing with the ingredients. I have seen chefs bringing you small serving of dishes they are working on to get feedback, and I am all for that, but I would not build a menu with untried recipes, just as I would not serve untried recipes to guests at home. I have ranted already about dishes that are presented for the ‘picture’ look, but that are difficult to eat and enjoy, so I will not go there today.
I also tend to stay away from the cult of the ‘Star Chef’. Some of their restaurants are stunning and serve sublime food, but a lot tend to lack in the personal touches. If they are at the head of a culinary empire, chances are that they are not the ones supervising the daily running of their restaurants, and whoever is doing a stellar job at it does not get the recognition they deserve, and normally stays in the background as not to take the stardom from the ‘Star Chef’. It is nice to think about your favorite TV Chef preparing your meal for you in the kitchen, but they are probably at some cocktail party, on the set of their TV show, or on another continent when your visit their restaurants. That does not mean that I have not had exceptional dining experiences in their restaurants…
Now that we have a nicely prepared meal on our plates, we now need good service. The staff should be attentive, and not overbearing. They also should know about the food and the chef’s philosophy. There is nothing more annoying than asking how a dish is prepared, or what an advertised ingredient in a recipe is is, and seeing the staff running to the kitchen to ask. If the menu specifies an ingredient it would be good idea to let the staff know what it is before letting them loose on the public. That is, as long as it does not go to the other extreme and they start pontificating about the type of salt they use, or refuse to bring you salt because the chef does not want you to ruin his dishes with it.
Where was I? A plate of nice food, attentive-but-not-overbearing staff… Next on the list is atmosphere. I tend to prefer a quiet relaxed atmosphere, to a frantic noisy one. That is in my nature, as I abhor noise and hyperactivity. If you have to shout to your dinner companions to get heard, it is does not make for a nice dining experience. I’m not really crazy about church-like atmospheres either, as they make you uncomfortable about having any conversation during the meal. I used to be more tolerant of this in the past, as before I met Normita, I used to travel the world on business alone, and dine in the best places by myself. I could concentrate more on the food, at the detriment of not sharing the experience in those days, but I would not go back to them. Your preference of atmosphere may vary, but you have to be comfortable to enjoy the meal.
Dining companions are important too. I find business meals, especially with new business acquaintances, to be normally strained, as you do not know the people, their tastes, and their ideas. It is a great way to get to know people, and it is one of my prime factors in doing business with anybody. I need to share a nice meal with them so that we can appreciate it together. I tend to stay away from doing business with people who do not share my love of food and wine, and the few times that I have not done so in the past, I paid for it dearly in the long run. Dining with loved ones and close friends is a rewarding experience, and it is one of the nicest things in life.
So, when faced with a question like ‘The best restaurant meal you’ve ever had in…’ my answer might disappoint the Trendy Foodies, as the place would most likely not be the latest trendy place or the place to be seen by the proper Foodie crowd. It would likely be a place where I had great food and service, in a relaxed atmosphere, with the people I love. I tend to collect restaurant experiences in my mind as the whole experience, not just the badge of being at the right address. I have been in great restaurants on bad nights, some of my favorite places have also disappointed me at times, and I might have just made the wrong choice on the menu, so the right address is not always the best. The reverse is true and I have had exceptional meals in places where you would expect it the least. With all the ingredients that make a great dining experience put in the equation, the answer might be a big surprise even to you. It is just where you did enjoy yourself the most. What else is there?