The spring issue of Gastronomica includes an essay titled "Economy, Gastronomy and the Guilt of the Fancy Meal." It's by Benjamin Aides Wurgaft, a Berkeley graduate student.
Wurgaft wrote the essay after dining at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller's famous restaurant in Yountville, Calif. His bill was $300, a figure that so shocked him, he had to struggle to remember the flavors over which he rhapsodized while he was eating.
I've had the same experience a few times. I don't think of myself as a Calvinist, but paying hundreds of dollars for a single meal does offend me. There's the part of me that, like Wurgaft, feels guilty about spending that kind of money when millions of people in the world don't get enough food to survive healthily.
Wurgaft also has the disorienting realization that something so expensive has no eventual substance other than as a memory – a story that can be told, if anyone's interested. His realization is an extreme version of what was implicit in my mother's reply whenever I requested she cook something complicated: "Why cook it? You'll just eat it."
But, basically, what such meals demonstrate is the dramatically increasing stratification of our society. Taste, literally, has always been an expression of social and economic station. Now, in our consumerist economy, where everyone thinks he deserves everything, the rich are reminding the rest of us more than ever that they do indeed occupy a different level of existence.
All this came to mind as we drove up to luxury hotel and residences the Mansion on Peachtree to eat in its Italian restaurant, Neo (3376 Peachtree Road, 404-995-7545). This development, just south of Lenox Square, will also be home later this year to Craft, sister to the hot New York restaurant.
First warning: Don't dress in your usual Sunday afternoon bum-around garb. While two valets fuss over you, while you walk on the utterly gorgeous black and white marble floor, while you eye the classic architectural detail, while the restaurant staff, looking like lords and ladies of the Armani court, greet you like a prince, you'll really wish you had not dressed like a pauper.
We dined on a Sunday night and only two other tables were occupied (by well-dressed people) in the 95-seat dining room, which provides one of the best views I've ever had in a restaurant. It overlooks a fastidiously landscaped, huge English courtyard garden behind which soars the development's slender skyscraper. The dining room is likewise elegantly designed, with none of the gimmicky drama we see in most upper-end restaurants these days.
But here's the rub. Chef Eric Chopin's menu – fairly expensive but certainly not off the charts – is rather prosaic, reminding you that, for all the luxury, this is still a hotel restaurant that serves three meals a day, along with Sunday brunch. Chopin was most recently executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, where he was in charge of overall food operations.
This raises something I think Wurgaft missed in his essay: Wealth guarantees access to expensive dining, or dining amid luxury at the least. It guarantees the security of the wealthy by keeping out the riff-raff for the most part. But, despite Wurgaft's experience at the French Laundry, wealth does not always guarantee good taste, only exclusivity, illusion and, perhaps, artfulness of presentation.
For example, we ordered a beautiful take on caprese salad. The menu promised organic tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, aged balsamic and grissini sticks. It was presented on a white plate as a whole tomato stuffed with the mozzarella, pierced with something more like lavosh than grissini. There was one leaf of basil and a swipe of balsamic on the plate.
I had ordered the dish because you can tell a lot from an Italian restaurant's fresh mozzarella. Our server had assured me it was high-quality, from Italy. Perhaps. If it was, it had aged to tastelessness. Worse, the tomato itself was mealy and equally tasteless. Say bye-bye to $15 and head to Sotto Sotto.
For a pasta course, we split an order of gnocchi. The little dumplings were turned pale green by crème fraiche infused with chervil, and topped with a few gratings of Asiago cheese. This was better than the tomato but, honestly, the dumplings lacked the appropriate billowy texture and the sauce didn't communicate flavor nearly so much as color.
Entrees were better. I ordered veal osso buco. Here, the chef serves it as three small portions of the shank, along with three pools of delicious celery puree, which tasted almost minty in its sweetness. Also on the plate was a cup with some buttery baby vegetables. The veal itself was just as buttery and tender. My only complaint, and I don't blame the chef: The little fork given to dig out the marrow was pretty useless, certainly not productive enough to spread anything on bread.
Wayne ordered a regional dish of pork tenderloin with green apples, smoked bacon and red cabbage. The plating made me laugh aloud. The chef served two hunks of the tenderloin stood upright, traversed by a strip of the bacon. It looked like the London Bridge. The pork was as flavorful as the veal, also tender. The sweet and vinegary cabbage was served in a little iron skillet.
For dessert we split three little tarts made with two cheeses, a Parmigiano-Reggiano and the famous Laura Chenel chevre. We got confused because the menu misspelled Chenel as Chanel and included a comma after the name. Whatever, it was a nice conclusion. The plate was well-landscaped like all others. This time, cookies broke up the space.
Service was generally terrific. Wayne didn't finish his entree and asked to take it home. As we walked out, we realized it had never been delivered to the table and our server explained that it had been given to the valet who had already put it in my car. Oh, well, um, of course. Doesn't every restaurant do that?
We didn't spend enough to feel guilty. We've had far worse meals for more money. But the experience, dining in such a luxurious context, did remind us that although the rich are indeed different, they do not always eat better, even if they enjoy greater theatrics.
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