The $150 snacks

jkom51August 17, 2013

We have so many restaurant reviewers in this area I have a hard time keeping track of all of them, despite the fact I'm retired and spend on average 6 hrs/daily on the computer!

This is related to a previous discussion on this forum where some folks wished they could afford to do an expensive Modernist tasting menu, and others (like me) who had no interest.

Modernist to the core, with tasting menus only and holding 2 Michelin stars, Saison is currently one of the hotter restaurants in San Francisco (we have a lot of them, especially if you count the rest of coastal Northern CA). Their move to new, larger quarters came along with a substantial price increase to $248/pp.

Remember, this is a tasting menu-only restaurant. They will accommodate medical allergies but they are not interested in your likes or dislikes.

Tasting Table does enjoyable short, pithy reviews that include one or two photos. They did one in early July 2013 that covered Saison's new Bar Menu plates menu. The Bar Menu started because so many people, even in SF, didn't want to spend $250+/pp for dinner. Please don't forget, we charge sales tax on restaurant food: 8.75% extra, not including the Healthcare Surcharge (some restaurants include the additional 3% and some don't).

Tasting Table included a couple of photos so you get the visuals. You can decide for yourself whether you would pay $150 for a few plates (but also a couple of drinks, at least) that still leaves you hungry for a Big Mac.

Enjoy the read, it's fun:

Here is a link that might be useful: Review: Saison's bar snacks

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Funny you should say "Big Mac."

The first time I ate at a "tasting menu place" was 1999, at a restaurant in Evanston, IL that is no longer there. I didn't know quite what to expect, but very early in the meal I couldn't believe the miniature "courses." Most of my time was consumed with annoyance at how little I was getting for my money. A couple courses before dessert I said to my wife with disgust, "After this we're going to McDonald's."

As we walked out of the restaurant I said to her, "I've got to sit down," and we plopped down on a bench by the front door. I was beyond stuffed. I remember thinking I'd have enjoyed the meal a lot more if I had known what to expect.

I don't think I'd ever spend $20 on an individual bite, but put together as a "flight" of food where some thought is put into the sequence and pairing I think it can be a fun experience. If done well. What I said on the other thread was that I didn't think the prices are outrageous if you're experiencing the best of the best in the world.

I can totally understand if it doesn't appeal to some folks. There's a lot that doesn't appeal to a lot of people.

    Bookmark   August 17, 2013 at 3:44PM
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I have posted this link before, to Pete Wells' hysterically funny "Nibbled to Death" column in the NY Times (he's their primary food critic). What you won't find in the original article is the followup he did a couple of weeks later, saying that he had never had such a heavy and overwhelmingly positive response from readers.

There were 248 Comments. I read most, not all of them. The following are the ones I found the funniest:

Reader comments to Wells' column:

- "Rodger Lodger"
A couple of years ago I ate Per Se's tasting menu. I recommend it as a technique to get Guantanmo detainees to talk.

- "TonyaNew York"
I went to Atera and this is my yelp review:

I feel like all the people who like Atera are the same people who saw "The Master" and pretend like it was a good movie. It's pretty to look at and you go in not knowing what to expect, but with high expectations. However, in the end it's boring and you have no idea what the last 2.5 hours were really about. Then you try to make sense of it all, try to interpret what it all meant (because there must be a reason everyone likes it) and finally give up because you realize nothing is wrong with you, and that when it comes down to it, it just sucked.

The service was awesome and the space was fun and the courses were plenty. But the food was not good. There is nothing enjoyable in eating what seems to be the contaminants of the soil in your garden. I felt like we were on candid camera and any minute someone was going to come out and say JUST KIDDING !! Don't eat that dirt, you silly goose.

- "CAS115"
Thank you for this!

I recently had a celebratory dinner - a tasting menu, of course- at one of these restaurants, where my partner and I found that we did not get to talk to each other for more than 5 minutes at a time until the end of a 2-hour meal. We were constantly interrupted by a phalanx of servers who were intent on explaining our meal to us, negotiating complex serving rituals, making sure our table always looked immaculate, and asking us how it was.

The food was great, the service impeccable. But the dominance of the food and service sadly made us feel like we, as people, and our desire to connect to each other, were unimportant. It was more like attending a performance than sharing a good meal with someone you love.

- "Jen in Astoria"
I've had the good fortune to have many different tasting menus at some very good places in NYC, including Aureole, Del Posto and WD-50 (all for very special occasions). However, I agree with the general tone of the article. These tend to be REALLY expensive, and at the end of the night you have no recollection of what the standout items were.

I see these adventures as just that--an adventure not a meal. At least at Del Posto, I was full afterwards. While the tasting menu at WD-50 was fun--along with the backstage tour that Wylie Dufresne generously gave my group--I admit that after our dinner party broke up, I slunk off into the bowels of the Lower East Side for noodles because I was starving and tipsy (the wine pours were generous but the portions were not).

The tasting menu at Aureole was "just right," I wonder if it still is (did that back in 1996). What made it work? It was really more of an extended meal and not a "teeny tiny eensy beensy 247 "stains and crumbs" on 247 plates" affair. If I recall correctly, it was 8 or so plates paired with 4 wines (split into bunchings of 2), and a dessert trolley with just-right-sized dainties to go with an espresso. There was no time limit or other obnoxiousness, and the service was the best I've ever encountered before or since.

Let me also add that someone else has always paid for these tasting menus, which perhaps takes some of the sting out of the experience and expectations.

- "Nomadsheart"
Reading Mr. Wells' comments, I wholeheartedly agree. Chef's tastings have run amok. Chefs are too willing to create the obscure and the wonderously beautiful at the expense of the diner. I am of the school in which the meal is about the diner and not about the chef. A tasting meal has indeed become an endurance test; if there were a German word for this, it would be "Makenziebutthürten", which indeed it does. A great meal is a combination memories of conversation, friends, location and food; tasting menus are more often about worshiping the craftsmanship of the chef.

I have indeed experienced a moment at Daniel's in NYC (years ago) at which Daniel himself came to my table and asked me what I would like to have and how much time I had. It felt as if he cooked for my pleasure and it made him happy. We had a true tasting - 15 courses - that felt like a wonderful afternoon with a friend avoiding a blizzard outside. His hospitality and the graciousness of the moment linger with me; the courses do not.

Dining should not be about the "experience", just as wine should not be about drinking "only Parker's 90+s". Let's put the joy back in our food and remove the collective mentality of Chef Trophy Hunting.

- "Beatrice"
I worked in fine dining restaurants for 8 years, and I worked for some of the management groups mentioned in the above article. Let me tell you - the food in those restaurants is no better than a great, reasonably priced ala carte restaurant. What you PAY for in those restaurants is the precision in the execution of the food - which is unrelated to the actual flavor of each component. If your basil is a perfect half-inch chiffonade, it doesn't actually TASTE better, but it is more precise.

Ultimately, if you're looking for a sky-diving equivalent to eating (essentially eating as novelty) then you HAVE to remove the actual element of expecting to be full. No one sky-dives and expects feel rested when they get to the bottom - the point is to THRILL. Go ahead with the tasting menus - but remember that they aren't there to make you full, and the food isn't actually any better. It is more precise, it's there to amuse, to THRILL and for it to be an unusual once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's unfortunate that we may be losing great ala carte meals to this profit-driven trend of creating tasting-menu only restaurants.

But as all things - this trend too will pass.

- "moretolifethanfoodearth"
No problem. The rest of us can eat cake.

Here is a link that might be useful: Pete Wells: Nibbled to Death

    Bookmark   August 17, 2013 at 10:34PM
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Nice article, thanks for the link. I'm not sure what you found hysterical about it, I thought it was a well written opinion that demonstrates how difficult - yet apparently in his mind also possible - it is to pull this off effectively. It's not hard to come up with analogies in any art form such as visual art, music, architecture, etc. Overexposure and poor copycat renditions can cheapen the work of the masters.

The subjectivity of personal taste is perhaps the hardest obstacle to overcome. It would be futile to try to get my parents to appreciate heavy metal music, me to appreciate quilting, or, apparently, jkom to appreciate tasting menues. ;-)

This post was edited by foodonastump on Sun, Aug 18, 13 at 8:35

    Bookmark   August 18, 2013 at 8:22AM
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This “foodie” generation is very lucky that for the first time, we have a new kind of enjoyment which combines visual art, performance art and the enjoyment of eating.

This is made possible by the advancements in kitchen appliance technology and the vigorous training needed for the “chefs” for this class of restaurants. Ultra centrifuge, liquid nitrogen, digital PID sous vide, high vacuum, ultra freezer ---------.

There is not one recipe that you cannot duplicate, with some practice, from the best of traditional restaurants. But there are many items created by these tasting menu restaurants which you will find it impossible to try to make in your own typical home kitchen. I think you may find it very challenging to try to out do the pure artistic sculptural presentations these chefs are creating with everyone of their items.

Eating in these types of establishments has absolutely nothing to do with the gratification of hunger and the gaining of nutrition.


This post was edited by dcarch on Sun, Aug 18, 13 at 10:51

    Bookmark   August 18, 2013 at 9:19AM
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