Tag Archives: restaurant

Delmonico’s: It’s All About The History

Delmonico's circa 1902

If ever there were an example that gave insight into my own character, this is likely it. Here I am, a week or so from heading to New York City, a city filled with world renown restaurants, and me with the resources to choose which one I could go to. My decision?

Delmonico’s.

Why? Because for a history geek like myself, Delmonico’s is chock full of the ghosts of the past. I get giddy just thinking about it.

Delmonico’s, as a name, has been around for a long time. It  is older than the city in which I currently reside – Seattle. It is older than the state of Washington, older than organized baseball, and older than the American Civil War.

Yes, yes, I know. The current incarnation is a mere recreation, trading off of the name. It is not the original, or even the second coming. If my math is right, the current version of Delmonico’s is actually the fourteenth version, if you count the initial pastry shop that the brothers Delmonico founded in 1827. But it’s the idea that’s grabbed me.

Why? Because Delmonico’s brought restaurant dining to New York, and later the rest of America. I talked before about the culinary landscape of New York City at the time Delmonico’s came into being, and it’s important to understand just what this new type of business added to the city. It was (supposedly) here that  à la carte ordering made its debut in America, as well as the ability to eat your own table, unshared by strangers.

Think about that for a moment – a New York City without restaurants, without a place where you can sit down and be both separate from yet intrinsically part of the food scene of New York City.  The restaurant scene of the Big Apple is a direct descendant of the legacy that Delmonico’s at least inspired, if not outright created.

It was a restaurant visited by the like of Charles Dickens, and the place where Mark Twain celebrated his 70th birthday. It was the place where (purportedly) the Lobster Newberg was invented, along with the Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedict, and, of course, the Delmonico Steak. Delmonico’s is a name weighted with the past, and carries with it the authority of tradition and quality. Why else would the name last through nearly two centuries, with the past 90 years being without an actual Delmonico on site?

I recognize that today’s restaurant is merely trading on the name. But for me, that is enough. It knows its past. And if I can have a meal that connects me to the New York City of 1837, even loosely, then I’m okay with that. I will be there with my friends and loved ones, and for a moment or two, I’ll get to think about what it must have been like to eat at Delmonico’s at its heyday.

The Death of Molecular Gastronomy?

Okay, death is likely too harsh a word. Perhaps Fading from prominence is a better descriptor. Over the past few years it it seemed to me that Molecular Gastronomy, like most trends, was more fad than revolution. Lisa Abend over at slate, presents the case for exactly this:

..from the beginning, some critics have scorned a mode of cooking that relies, in their opinion, too heavily on technology (as if an oven weren’t a machine) and often chooses form over substance. Twenty years into (Ferran) Adria’s revolution, those criticisms have only grown. In a recent e-mail, Gerry Dawes, an American expert on Spanish food and wine, wrote, “I am getting a little weary of the Catalan-driven techno-cuisine. Many of these ‘experiments’ would be better off if they didn’t show up anywhere but at chefs’ conferences.” His words sum up the critical attitude: It was fun at first, but enough with the chemistry kit! I’d like some real food now, please.

I always get a little skeptical when people talk about how revolutionary anything is, let alone food. And while I thought porcini cotton candy and raspberry foams were interesting, they felt more of a novelty to me, than something that an average eater would be enthralled with.

The other aspect here is the “Been there, done that”, which Lisa infers in her article. From my own point of view, unless a food is both amazing and readily accessible, I’m simply not going to eat it that much when there are so many other options in dining available. I’ve never been to the top tier places, so perhaps there’s there’s a dish or three that I’ve missed that better represents this genre. But even this implies that it’s the skill of the chef, and not the food itself which is important. This is hardly a lesson that’s new to anyone.

This is not to say that I think that this type of cooking is going away. As the conclusion to the article states, parts of it will take their place into restaurant culture. In the end, it will simple become another option available to consumers, no better, no worse.

What these kinds of food have done is cemented my theory that there is a huge divide between the fans and purveyors of upscale restaurant dining and…well…everyone else. While many people knew and loved the food of Adria and his disciples, exponentially many more have never tried nor even heard of the foods.


The Disconnect of Five Star Dining

Alone on the stage stands a violinist. It is dark, save one lone spotlight casting down upon the musician, which serves to cast them as the singular point of focus for the audience, as well as to create a subtle air of menace.

The violin in brought to the chin, the bow is raised, and Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major begins.

At this point, members of the audience will surreptitiously and unknowingly divide into several groups. Some will listen to the sum of the performance, ignoring the musician’s technique or skill and base their perceptions of the evening on whether they were in a good mood, , how pleasant or unpleasant the auditorium was, how the audience responded, or whether they knew the musician from previous performances. The music, if enjoyed, will be appreciated from a very personal perspective

Some will pay careful attention to the music, ensuring the musician does the piece justice. Questions such as “Does the performer have the requisite skills to perform the piece?”, “Are the performer’s fingers heard as they press upon the fingerboard?”, “Does their technique result in unintended noises?”, and “Do they understand the piece they are playing?” are all asked and answered as the piece progresses.

And still others will remain ignorant of the music or musician, unable or unwilling to understand the history of the music, nor will they be able to appreciate the skill and talent needed to perform the Concerto. The music will be heard the same way that some people hear foreign languages – unintelligible. Their response to the music will most likely be frustration or indifference, due in large part to their inability to understand what they are listening to.

Then there are those who were unable to get tickets to the concert.

* * * * * * * * * *

Some variation of the above is what goes through my mind every time I pick up an issue of Bon Appetit, read an article about Thomas Keller, or listen to someone talk about molecular gastronomy, nouvelle cuisine or any of the other genres of 5 star restaurants out there.

Over at Ruhlman.com, commenter Maura left the following note in response to Michael’s most recent post about Molecular Gastronomy:

The days of putting a piece of protein in a hot pan are almost over. Observent cooks will continue to incorporate tools and techniques from other professions into the cooking arena.
I’m not so sure about this. I hope it’s not true. And it leaves behind millions of people who are neither insiders nor attuned to trends in cooking. It leaves behind people who barely have enough food, or don’t have the resources to engage in these techniques. It leaves behind people who aren’t looking for an exisential experience. To suggest that this will be the only acceptable way to cook and eat is elitist.

For now, let’s leave aside the notion that “molecular gastronomy” can be defined in several ways (I see it as both a process/philosophy and separately as a ‘cuisine’). Instead, let’s focus on the larger question of whether 5 star restaurant culture affects the more general food culture.

Quick quiz – when in the kitchen, do you use any techniques made popular by Haute Cuisine? Do you intentionally seek to combine foods and techniques from two or more cultures in order to create a single meal? Is presentation equally important as taste?

My guess is that a handful of you answered yes to some of the above, less than a handful answered yes to all of the above, and a fair majority answered no to all of the above, with the caveat being that some of you didn’t know what the heck haute cuisine was, nor that presentation is actually a big deal.

Of course my quiz was full of generalizations that disregarded the many subtleties that may have affected the way some of you cook. But my general belief is that 5 star dining affects regular everyday cooks very little, if even at all.

The reason is basic economics. Can an average person afford to acquire the tools, product and skills necessary to produce meals equivalent to those found in 5 star restaurants? Unless they have a high income, a fair amount of free time, and the resources required to take care of other responsibilities (such as cleaning the house, raising the kids), then the short answer is “no”.

If these tools, products, and skills are unable to make it into the core repertoire of home cooks, then it’s unlikely to have a major effect upon the larger food culture.

So then why the big deal surrounding Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, et al? Jumping back to the violinist, those who have spent a great deal of time understanding cooking techniques and studying tastes and cuisines have found these guys to be exceptionally talented and innovative when compared to others in the restaurant industry. Their influence can and will be felt throughout the restaurant industry, especially in regard to upscale dining.

However, their effect upon the food culture as a whole will be minimal. Those of us are unable (or unwilling) to hear the violinist and the music they are playing are unlikely to be moved by it. Anyone who claims otherwise speaks primarily from hubris.


Food Envy

This is an unexplainable and crippling phenomenon that happens whenever going out to restaurants. Here is how it usually plays out, you spend minutes pouring over your menu asking your dining partner what he/she is having,what they think you should get and trying to decide what sounds the most appetizing. So many options! After sending the waitress away two or three times you think you have finally decided on your fare for the evening. You place your order first and spend the rest of the time glancing at your menu making sure you ordered exactly what you wanted. Then you hear your dining partner doing the unthinkable – changing their order from what they had told you they were going to get. The nerve! You think frantically about your order making sure once again that it is what you REALLY want, wondering how bad the waitress will hurt you if you decide to change your order.

Too embarrassed to interrupt the waitress to tell her you have changed your mind you leave your order as is and secretly hope that it is better than then other person’s meal. When you finally get your food you realize your intuition was right, you should have stopped the waitress and had her change your order. Your partner’s food looks so much better than your own. You find yourself salivating at every bite they pick up and place into their mouth, silently cursing yourself all the while. You are leaning in, staring as they eat and are hearing only every third word in the conversation, concentrating only on their food. Some people are mean too. They know they have the better meal and make a point to close their eyes, sigh “Mmmmmmm…” and lick their lips. Every bite is watched in slow motion from cutting to placing in the mouth, chewing and finally swallowing. All of this while you are on the other side of the table drooling like one of Pavlov’s dogs.Oh man are they cruel, why are you even friends with someone like this?

You spend the rest of the meal disgusted or at the very least disappointed by your failure to choose the better meal. You are secretly hoping that they will have to get up and go to the bathroom so you can steal a bite of their fare without them knowing. While in the restroom you can plan the next scam. You can try to tell them that their dinner looks absolutely fabulous and could you pretty please with sugar on top have a bite? Another option is to hope they leave leftovers when you can inconspicuously tip the waitress to change your doggie bag for theirs. You have to be sneaky with some people. All is fair in love and food.


Mexican Restaurants in Seattle

Picture in your mind two Mexican restaurants somewhere in America…Seattle, for example.

Place 1 serves housemade refried beans, tacos, enchiladas and offer both green and red salsas for your corn chips. The food is competently done. but often not remarkably so. Their idea of an entree means that the burritos come with beans and rice. The floors are tidy, but worn from years of foot traffic. The walls are decorated as if someone had decided to go to a Tijuana garage sale at the last minute and had only twenty dollars to spend. The cost for a dinner at this place? Seven dollars…nine, if you include a tip.

Place 2 also sells tacos, enchiladas and burritos, but dresses them up a bit. Instead of shredded beef tacos, they sell carne asade tacos. Names like Habenero enchiladas and Chipotle smoked Prawns dot the menu. Entrees are sold with a side of black beans and rice. The restaurant itself is presented in soft light, and candles pepper the space like a Roman Catholic Church on Lent. A fireplace is prominent in the center of the room. The walls are a soft wood paneling, and the skulls of several bulls can be found, giving the place the earth

The price for a dinner at the second place? Seventeen dollars on average, including tip.

If someone were to ask me which place I would prefer, I’d have say the first, for reasons I can’t quite put my fingers on.

Part of it is the fact that Mexican food as we Americans know it, is so blessedly effortless. My favorite place for Mexican in Seattle is a little place called El Puerco Lloron, and the food is simply marvelous. You order one of ten dishes from the board, pick a drink from their choices of beers and sodas and then you have a seat at a card table on folding chairs that appear to have been last used a church social. The meat (mostly pork) that comes with what ever dish you have chosen is so moist that it falls apart in your mouth without the aid of your teeth. Their pico de gallo sings upon the tongue. With a bottle of cold beer, this meal is near perfection. That’s all that is really needed.

Places like those similar to the second restaurant mentioned above try to impress with atmosphere, yet seemingly have done nothing in the way of proving why one should pay twelve dollars for tacos. They have a fully stocked bar, over 50 beers to choose from, several tequilas and yet have added nothing food-wise beyond what I could get at El Puerco Lloron. There’s no mole, no pozole, not even an arroz con pollo upon the menu.

I know that perhaps my expectations are too high. This is Seattle after all, not San Diego, or Albuquerque. There are also many fine upscale Mexican Restaurants in the area that either offer more than burritos, enchiladas and tacos, or bring something additional to these standard recipes.

What we have is a new “Kate’s Law“. Let’s call it Kate’s Law of the Proportional Cost of Burritos. This law states that the more money spent on a burrito, the higher probability of disappointment in the dish. This law can be applied to many Mexican Standards, including enchiladas, tacos, etc. etc.

You folks can have your Fifteen dollar Enchiladas. I’ll stick to the ones in the four to eight dollar range.

Technorati Tags: Food, Mexican Restaurants, Restaurants


DC Foodies vs. Carole Greenwood

Now this here is a bit o’ interestingness…

It seems as if Jason at DC Foodies has had a run in with Buck’s Camping and Fishing chef and owner Carole Greenwood. While eating dinner, he took some pictures of the food (as food bloggers are wont to do), which caused the chef to come out during dessert and discuss the legalities of picture taking. Aside from that, it appears as if Jason enjoyed the meal.

That is, until Carole Greenwood’s Lawyer sent a cease and desist letter. From the letter:

Dear Sir:

Please be advised that my client, Buck’s Camping and Fishing, has requested that I contact you with a demand that you cease and desist from showing any pictures that you may have taken of the food and facilities of the said restaurant.

Carole Greenwood can be a pain in the tuckus to her customers, or at least so says Washington Post writer Tom Sietsema, so this outburst should not be that big of a surprise.

But it does beg the question, should a restaurant patron be able to take pictures of the food in a restaurant? Or is the mere look of the food proprietary, as Chef Greenwood would claim?
Of course, the folks at eGullet are all over it, with the best answer so far coming from writer cdh:

Copyright law is pretty clear that the pictures you take are yours and only yours. If the chef has any copyrightable subject matter that you took a picture of, then you might need rights, but I really doubt that the composition of a dish on a plate is copyrightable subject matter… (probably too utilitarian, though it might be artistic enough, and consequently a potentially very expensive issue to litigate… if she can afford the fight herself…)

So, you, as an invitee on the restaurant’s property are licensed to be there subject to their conditions, one of which might be that you don’t use a camera. If your license to be on the property expires because you use your camera, you might be liable to the owner of the property for trespassing on their land (damages are usually minimal)… but the pictures are still yours. You definitely own the copyright to the pictures, and unless you agreed to a nondisclosure agreement you can probably do with them as you please.

Personally, I have no issue with taking pictures at a restaurant, as long as I don’t ruin other people’s eating experience (I no longer use flashes on my camera at a restaurant). But I’m also biased, because word on the street is that I’m a food blogger.

Can anyone provide better information on this?

Technorati Tags: Food and Drink, Food Blogs, Ethics, Carole Greenwood


We get Letters v.12 – Where Does Olive Garden Go Wrong?

Seth sends me the following missive:

Kate:

First of all, let me tell you how much I have enjoyed perusing your site since I found it on Tuesday. I’m doing research for a Marketing class project and am therefore searching out articles/reviews primarily on Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden, but also on Buca di Beppo and The Old Spaghetti Factory. I found your comments on Buca di Beppo very helpful in getting my head wrapped around the different styles of Italian food.

Secondly, I am in need of help as far as finding out what Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden do wrong. This is one of the most important parts of my project, and I am discovering that nobody can give me any substantial complaints about either restaurant beyond, “there were water spots on my knife.” Do you have any tips as to where I should look for those slight inadequacies in either restaurant?

Warmest Regards,
Seth

Thanks for the kind word, Seth. I’ll see if I can help you out.

The issue in your e-mails surrounds the phrase “What do Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden Do wrong?” The problem is in how are your defining “wrong”? Financially, both restaurant chains do quite well. Olive Garden locations average $3.9 million dollars in revenue per year. Macaroni Grill reports similar numbers. So by that account, there’s nothing wrong with these restaurants, as they make money, which is what they are designed to do.

So let’s presume a different interpretation of how they go wrong: with their cuisine. I’ll say it direct and I’ll say it loud…these companies take advantage of our ignorance of Italian food. They don’t go out of their way to do it, nor do I believe it is intentional. But they do it.

There are three behaviors that they employ to go about doing this. The first two are philosophical behaviors, the second is a business decision.

The First philosophical: Any one who has worked in a franchised restaurant can tell you, one of the major items that permeate the kitchen is consistency. Management requires, or rather, demands that a product served in Boston is similar to one served in Phoenix.

The problem is that this is almost the antithesis of Italian food. Not only are there variations in ingredient quantities from recipe to recipe, but often there are differences in the ingredients themselves. Gnocchi found in Rome is far different from the Gnocchi found in Milan.

What this means is that these restaurants standardized recipes which were never meant to be standardized. Whether or not this is a bad thing probably depends upon how much you like these kinds of corporate restaurants.

The Second Philosophical: Generally speaking, corporate restaurants are risk adverse. Introducing new dishes to a menu is a long process. This process includes various people within corporate hierarchy making projections of sales and their relations to cost. If a restaurant can’t make x% of profit from any dish, it’s not going to get put on the menu. If they can’t promise y amount of the dishes being sold, that dish won’t be put on the menu. So lesser known dishes will never get a chance to be sold in the marketplace.

The Business Decision: Corporate restaurants are famous for shooting at the lowest common denominator. Never has this philosophy been better demonstrated than on what does make it to the menu.

The next time you go to one of these places, count how many of them deal with a tomato product of some sort. One get’s the impression that the Italians love tomatoes, especially with pasta. But consider that there are Italian sauces that have nothing to do with tomatoes,; sauces based on walnuts, basil, lemons, mushrooms, vermouth or Marsala wine. Why aren’t they on the menu?

Keep in mind that a restaurant has finite resources. And if people are going to come in and expect lasagna, ravioli, marinara, and the like, it means one less space for another dish.

And that’s just the pasta. I won’t even touch upon the lack of rice or polenta dishes. And lordy lord, the dessert menus simply make me cry with lost opportunities.

There are other,more specific reasons I could point to, but these seem to me to be their biggest sins.

What this all means is that they sell the same risk adverse dishes everywhere across the country. They market dishes they know will sell, and present it in a way that appeases as many people as possible, at the lowest cost possible. What this all boils down to is that these places don’t celebrate food, they package it and sell it.

Now — whether that’s wrong is entirely your perspective.