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Dining "in extremis".


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#1 robert brown

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Posted 15 April 2003 - 09:19 AM

My recent excursion from Nice to Barcelona and the Costa Brava was extraordinary in the variety of dining I indulged in. From the unique and extraordinary El Bulli -- really as perfect a restaurant as one could hope to find -- to little places serving simple Catalan food such as Cal Pep in Barcelona or the somewhat more elaborate Restaurante Hispania in Arenas del Mar), the experience got me to thinking about what I call "dining in extremis".

"In extremis"as I am using it is a small distortion of the dictionary meaning, but I like the resonance of it. For purposes of our discussion, it means dining at one extreme or the other; i.e. at one end, indulging in the world-renowned abilities of a chef or, at the other end, revellng in the freshness and simplicity of the food, with the hypothesis that the extremes generally offer more than the middle.

What I find difficult about dining in the United States, and what some have told me about the United Kingdom, is that most restaurants fall between these extremes. Of course each country has a few world-class chefs, as well as a few times of the year and places where you can find impeccably fresh products, simply prepared. But most restaurants offer neither perfect ingredients, cooked with a minimum of adornment, nor pinnacles of technique or sobriety.

How often are you satisfied by restaurants "in the middle"?

When you travel do you limit your choices either to restaurants with renowned chefs or those that offer simple, perfect foods -- usually coming from the immediate region of the restaurant?

Do you agree with my hypotheses that dining "in extremis" offers the most consistent rewards?

#2 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 15 April 2003 - 09:21 AM

My recent excursion from Nice to Barcelona and the Costa Brava was extraordinary in the variety of dining I indulged in. From the unique and extraordinary El Bulli -- really as perfect a restaurant as one could hope to find -- to little places serving simple Catalan food such as Cal Pep in Barcelona or the somewhat more elaborate Restaurante Hispanica in Arenas del Mar), the experience got me to thinking about what I call "dining in extremis".

"In extremis"as I am using it is a small distortion of the dictionary meaning, but I like the resonance of it. For purposes of our discussion, it means dining at one extreme or the other; i.e. at one end, indulging in the world-renown abilities of a chef or, at the other end, revellng in the freshness and simplicity of the food, with the hypothesis that the extremes generally offer more than the middle.

What I find difficult about dining in the United States, and what some have told me about the United Kingdom, is that most restaurants fall between these extremes. Of course each country has a few world-class chefs, as well as a few times of the year and places where you can find impeccably fresh products, simply prepared. But most restaurants offer neither perfect ingredients, cooked with a minimum of adornment, nor pinnacles of technique or sobriety.

How often are you satisfied by restaurants "in the middle"?

When you travel do you limit your choices either to restaurants with renowned chefs or those that offer simple, perfect foods -- usually coming from the immediate region of the restaurant?

Do you agree with my hypotheses that dining "in extremis" offers the most consistent rewards?

Robert,

please do us all the service of recounting your el Bulli experience. we're frothing at the mouth....

#3 Wilfrid

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Posted 15 April 2003 - 09:35 AM

A sentiment with which I strongly agree, Robert (and I suspect one could extend it to elements of one's lifestyle outside of dining too). The gutter or the stars, please.

I did once advance a hypothesis which I thought might partially explain the broad failings of the middle section, at least as far as New York is concerned. I wonder if it has wider applicability?

First, the kitchen and service at high end restaurants ought to be well-trained, well-motivated and comparatively well-paid - in particular, one can expect an understanding of the cuisine being served. No mystery there. At the other end of the scale, aside from the fast food chains and other bottom feeders, one finds many inexpensive restaurants primarily concerned to serve home-cooking to a local community which grew up eating that home-cooking. The cooks grew up with it too, the servers eat it, and everyone knows what to order and what it should taste like. Fortunately, they tolerate they odd tourist who noses in; and in some cases such eateries maintain their standards despite tourists crowding the locals out.

What of the middle section? This is a generalization, but it doesn't take much alertness to observe that there are many, many examples of kitchens producing food which the workers there didn't grow up with, don't eat and wouldn't want to eat - essentially preparing it more or less to a formula. The servers are serving the food because they are making a few bucks waiting tables until something better comes along; they don't care if it's pizza, curry or chops; maybe they like it, maybe they don't, but they have little real connection with it.

So, love born of professionalism and career motivation at one end, love born of roots at the other. In between, at best, a vague competence. Anyone buy into that?

#4 Liza

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Posted 15 April 2003 - 11:51 AM

I was just sending an expert PM regarding my favorite restaurants in New York City, and I found my top recommendation to be more representative of my middle of the extremes - a really solid bistro, where I know the food will be fresh and fine, which does not pretend to be anything other than what it is. For me, both ends of this extreme are positives, so the middle is, as well.

#5 docsconz

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Posted 15 April 2003 - 12:03 PM

I find that my level of enjoyment is based upon my preconceived expectations. If the food is good for what it is supposed to be, I am satisfied, be it high end superstar chef creativity, simple, well prepared bistro or trattoria or street food. If the food doesn't live up to expectations and hopes, the meal is a disappointment.
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#6 wingding

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Posted 15 April 2003 - 05:04 PM

Yes,I agree,the two extremes are the most memorable of all my dining experiences...Living in the middle of New York City,the very simple,fresh,immediate food is what I crave,and miss the most.At best,I can sometimes buy good product at a greenmarket,go home ,and cook it myself.But there are few restaurants that do[or can afford to do]this well.The high end is also increasingly expensive to do these days.Most of the 4 star restaurants could not exist without all the free help in their kitchens.And as I've come to know more about quality and cooking,the middle is just less and less worth it these days.Why shell out 40 or 50 dollars[at least] for mediocre food?

#7 Basildog

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Posted 16 April 2003 - 09:21 AM

I find that my level of enjoyment is based upon my preconceived expectations. If the food is good for what it is supposed to be, I am satisfied, be it high end superstar chef creativity, simple, well prepared bistro or trattoria or street food. If the food doesn't live up to expectations and hopes, the meal is a disappointment.

Do you feel some customers have too much expectation of superstar chefs.Our local "celebrity " restaurant has some guests who ,IMHO ,are expecting a religious experience, not a well cooked dinner.

#8 docsconz

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Posted 16 April 2003 - 04:48 PM

I find that my level of enjoyment is based upon my preconceived expectations. If the food is good for what it is supposed to be, I am satisfied, be it high end superstar chef creativity, simple, well prepared bistro or trattoria or street food. If the food doesn't live up to expectations and hopes, the meal is a disappointment.

Do you feel some customers have too much expectation of superstar chefs.Our local "celebrity " restaurant has some guests who ,IMHO ,are expecting a religious experience, not a well cooked dinner.

I guess it depends upon why the chef is a celebrity and what he/she charges for your patronage. If I am traveling to Gerona to dine on Ferran adria's food at El Bulli, I do expect it to be a "religious" experience. If it is anything less it is a disappointment. This would be the case partly due to expectations gleamed from sites such as this. On the other hand one of the most memorable dishes I ever had was a simple rotisserie chicken (pollo a'last") at a hole in the wall restaurant in the beach town of Sitges outside of Barcelona, primarily because it was so archetypally delicious and so unexpected.

Along the same line, the most disappointing meal that I've had recently was at Nobu. Admittedly my expectations were stratospheric. It had been the restaurant in NYC that I hadn't been to that I most wanted to. Was it bad? No. In fact the meal started quite well, but then subsequent courses failed to be truly exciting. In a restaurant in which my expectations were less (and the check) I probably would have been very pleased. It is for this reason that I can still find more ordinary restaurants "great" and "interesting" if they do what they do well and at a price point commensurate with the experience. That being said, I will always seek out the truly transcendant meal regardless of price. I don't mind paying what it takes, but I hate getting ripped off.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

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#9 gsquared

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Posted 17 April 2003 - 12:25 AM

I fully agree that there are far too many restaurants in the "middle" category. It seems to me, however, that this is probably due to the fact that a large proportion of the dining public is perfectly happy with the quality of food to be found in these establishments. How else can one explain their existence? If we assume that the majority of restaurants fall into this category, it follows that they cater for the majority of diners. I suspect that, even though their fare may not satisfy the discerning customer, is is still substantially better than the average diner enjoys at home- hence their pool of customers.
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#10 Bux

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Posted 18 April 2003 - 09:02 AM

Do you agree with my hypotheses that dining "in extremis" offers the most consistent rewards?

Assuming for the moment that we allow a wide lattitude as to where the boundaries of the extremes lie, we may still have to define reward. I have had very rewarding meals at moderately priced restaurants, but yes, I agree that bang for the buck most often seems to occur at the extremes. It may be that at the bottom, so little is spent and so little of what is spent goes towards decor and all of the things peripehral to the food, that the food makes a great impression for the price. At the top end, those of us who choose to eat at those restaurants, where the preparations are so extrememly labor intensive, understand that it would be absurd not to continue the intensity of effort in regard to service and all that we expect to surround a fine meal. Some of us, of course, just suspend all considerations of price when in the company of the highest and most intensive cuisine. As a result it's the moderately priced meal that is compared with the cheap cantina, trattoria or counter in Chinatown in terms of price and then with the temples of haute cuisine in terms of quality and finese without regard to price. It's not fair, but understandable why even the value loaded moderate restaurant gets no respect.
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#11 docsconz

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Posted 18 April 2003 - 03:48 PM

"

How often are you satisfied by restaurants "in the middle"?

When you travel do you limit your choices either to restaurants with renowned chefs or those that offer simple, perfect foods -- usually coming from the immediate region of the restaurant?

Do you agree with my hypotheses that dining "in extremis" offers the most consistent rewards?

I am satisfied with "middling restaurants" if I have eaten well-prepared and tasty food at a reasonable price. My expectation at this restaurant is not the same as with a world-renowned chef, for which I will pay much more. The problem is that it is not always easy to get well-prepared, tasty food at these restaurants, however, I am probably disappointed less frequently than at "superstar" restaurants. Again, it is not that the food is necessarily "bad", just that it doesn't always live up to the hype or the price. Some examples are the previously mentioned Nobu, Arun's Thai Restaurant in Chicago and the first time I had dinner at Daniel in NYC. When the food does live up to the reputation at the World-renowned restaurant, it is also my experience that there is nothing better.

When I travel I look for all three levels. If I am near a world-class restaurant I make a special effort to get there. In addition, I will often make a special trip just to go to a particular restaurant. I am currently trying to plan trips centered around El Bulli (unfortunately it will have to wait until at least 2004 since I didn't get a reservation for this year) and Eigensinn Farm in Ontario. I also enjoy dining at representative local restaurants that come highly recommended. A recent trip to Sicily provided some wonderful examples of these "middle" restaurants that served outstanding food. The best examples of these restaurants tend to serve regional cuisine using good quality local ingredients. Another factor for the quantity of middle restaurants is that's all a lot of people can afford. Most people in the world probably can't afford even these, thus we come to the other extremis, epitomized by "street food", once again the best of which tends to be regional cuisine using quality local products (this may not be the case in the USA).

In summary, I agree that the most sublime meals come from the world-renowned or soon to be world-renowned chefs in sophisticated kitchens, but I am often truly satisfied and amazed at the food from top-notch "middling" restaurants as well as "cucina povera".
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#12 vmilor

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Posted 20 April 2003 - 09:01 PM

My own experience bears out the value added of the extremis approach. We reached this conclusion after many trials and tribulations. But, esp. in Italy I have found many one stars which can be classified as the cathedrals and more expensive higher starred places did not deliver. But the real challenge everywhere, perhaps more in the US than elsewhere, is to discover the "simple" end of the extreme. We perhaps need more reporting of Les Arcades type findings(by Jonathan Day in France). The problem is that incentives are for the little gems to ape the middles, and while they are trying to become more "sophisticated" and when people "discover" them, they often end up becoming a caricature of what they used to be. I put my money that with or without praise in eGullet, El Bulli will remain what it is in the near future. But if a well read travel magazine writes an enthusiastic pieces on the good old Les Arcades, and they get inundated by all and sundry, they will no longer keep up the level.

#13 Jonathan Day

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Posted 21 April 2003 - 01:44 AM

I am a firm believer in the "in extremis" approach, but the true little gems are hard to spot -- you have to go through a lot of dreadful places to track them down. The vast majority of cheap, local restaurants provide neither good food nor good value.

I would guess that there are several factors working against the middle, i.e. the lower levels of restaurants that practice "serious gastronomy" as opposed to places like Les Arcades or Le Pigalle in London which appear more as an owner/ family just having a good time.

First, the best young cooks must come to these places more to break into the business and move on to more elevated places than to stick around. I remember a friend who was trying to get into advertising; she landed a job at a mid-sized regional firm, stayed there for awhile but swiftly moved on to J. Walter Thompson. You end up with an adverse selection effect: those who can move on, do so and the mediocre perfomers try hard to stay.

But the bigger factor against the middle is that restaurants are unquestionably a so-called Winner-Take-All market. These are characterised by two properties. First, relative performance is more important for payoffs to participants than absolute performance. Second, the payoff to the best performers is far higher than to the second best. In many cases, the number 1 in a given field earns or charges twice what the number 2 does. A tennis player will only earn a living playing tennis if he beats other players, regardless of how good he or they are in absolute terms.

The obvious examples of Winner-Take-All markets are in sports and the performing arts. But they also appear in the law, in academics and in the market for CEOs. Print and electronic media (e.g. guides) make it easier and easier to find the "top performers" in a field, and falling transportation and communication costs mean that more and more people can access these winners. At the same time that information has increased, our "mental shelf space" and personal time have not, so that we are keeping track of a diminishing fraction of the total information available.

You see this on these boards: a member is going to Paris for a week; she doesn't want to waste time checking out the mid-range places, and hence the frantic calls go to L'Astrance, Guy Savoy, and so on. An affluent person who fears he is facing a heart attack will rush to the most renowned surgeon he can find and not argue about her fees.

I put "top performers" in inverted commas in the above, because of an important phenomenon in Winner-Take-All markets: there is an enormous random element involved. A few people get the breaks, reach the top situations, and a reinforcing cycle begins, as the noted performers get more opportunities (for chefs, for example, this would include stages or sous-chef positions) than their peers and are hence able to advance their standing . This isn't to say that merit is irrelevant, but that it not the single determining factor. Jamie Oliver was spotted at the River Café while a television programme was being made about that restaurant. He happened to be in the right place at the right time, and parlayed this moment of luck into a lucrative "celebrity chef" situation.

The debate in economic circles on Winner-Take-All markets goes back at least to 1981, when Sherwin Rosen published an article in the American Economic Review called "The Economics of Superstars", but the most accessible treatment is Robert H. Frank, Philip J. Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us (Penguin, 1996), click here to order. Frank and Cook are better on the description of the phenomenon than on the cure. They argue, correctly, that these markets provoke behaviours that are far from socially optimal, as they divert resources into "reaching for the brass ring". Note also that every entrant into a Winner-Take-All market diminishes the chances of all other entrants. The authors' prescriptions, essentially for increased regulation, are more questionable.

Winner-Take-All systems tend to provoke irrational entry: more people enter these markets than rational economic calculations would otherwise support. Hence the queues of people trying to break into theatre or television, and the number of wannabe restaurants that open daily. This phenomenon has been proven experimentally, where people play artificially constructed games with high payoffs but high costs of failure -- see this paper for a relatively recent example -- and irrationally large numbers of people enter the game. The authors conclude that excess entry happens because contestants "enjoy the thrill of competition" (since such a market pits each new entrant against all other competitors) or experience "the illusion of control, i.e. they erroneously believe they can influence random processes."

With the continuing phenomenon of "celebrity chefs", we can expect to see a continuing Winner-Take-All market in restaurants. Hence the logic for selecting restaurants either at the very top (where the tournament has in some sense ended) or those places that never entered the tournament in the first place but are instead playing a different game, one not about garnering stars or fame but about enjoying themselves and helping their customers do so as well.
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#14 docsconz

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Posted 21 April 2003 - 09:01 AM

Jonathon,

That was an interesting, well researched and well thought out post, except that I think your argument allows for discovery of superior and more economical experiences well below the high end "extreme" of Superstar Chefs. Let's say there are ten extremely talented chefs in a market, but economics allow for let's say two of them to become superstars, by glint of their good fortune, breaks and perhaps slightly better food. You still have eight chefs preparing superior food, only now it is less expensive and easier to get a reservation. They are most likely a better value, than the superstar who by virtue of his name can charge more. Taking it a step further, probably not all of those eight talented chefs (and maybe not a superstar) will stay in business due to economic or other reasons. Let's say three of the non-superstars can't hack it and go out of business. There are still five talented chefs producing quality foods at presumably a more reasonable cost and competing to make it to the superstar level or just happy where they are. The difficulty is hearing about and finding these chefs in the first place. It is easy to find the superstars, therefore they are more reliable, but also a greater disappointment if they don't live up to the hype. All that being said, the superstars are probably more likely to provide the truly spectacular, cost-is-no-object, once-(or more than, I hope :biggrin: )-in-a-lifetime kind of meal by virtue of greater resources afforded by their status. It is for this holy grail that I search out top restaurants wherever I go. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced some of these transcendant experiences, but I have also often eaten at a number of "lesser" restaurants that have outshone some of their big "superstar" brothers.

The other satisfaction of the excellent lesser known restaurant is the thrill of discovery. That in itself is very satisfying when it occurs.

Of course the bulk of middle restaurants are going to be boring and mediocre at best, by definition. Just look at all the corporate chain restaurants that are financially successful, because people are unwilling to take a chance on the "unknown". Most people prefer known mediocrity to the unknown. They prefer to be comfortable rather than push the envelope. Then again, most people are not eGulleteers!
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

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- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#15 vmilor

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Posted 22 April 2003 - 08:13 PM

Jonathan,

Sharp observations, except when I click to read the paper it does not come up.

In cuisine the problem with Winner-Take-All markets is more than the random choice and the self-enforcing dynamic. There is now so much convergence in styles at the top that it is affecting the performance of those who do not have to confirm. It does not pay off any more for a chef to spend 10 years achieving perfection in roasting a duckling or preparing sauce perigourdine. The guides will just not differentiate or even de-promote him because he is not innovating! A perverse dynamic will then unfold: those great chefs who are not "selected"( because they refuse to play the mickey mouse game), will be demoralized and then lose their edge. We are then left with the lower end of the extremis if we are lucky enough to run into one and hope that they do not get tempted by the desire to go the post-modern way. This may also be a reason why those in the know look forward to go to Basque fishing villages and Tuscan trattorias as much as they covet some ***.

Maybe Winner-Take-All is equally detrimental in other markets too. I have to read more and think about it. Appreciated the stimulus...

#16 John Whiting

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 11:22 PM

... restaurants are unquestionably a so-called Winner-Take-All market. These are characterised by two properties. ...

The obvious examples of Winner-Take-All markets are in sports and the performing arts.

Howdy, strangers. Just looking in briefly. Jonathan, I find these sentiments -- how shall I say it? -- a perversion of the history of cuisine. I have always regarded cookery as an activity in which everybody wins. The fact that most of those running restaurants have been sucked into the distorted values of the society in which they live does not make it impossible to cook for the pleasure of one's self and of others, even for money.

Whenever I return to Paris I like to go back to a few neighborhood bistros, tucked away in remote corners, where the same chefs seem always to be cooking for the same diners. They don't seem to be struggling particularly harder than everyone else -- who's doing really well these days aside from the reconstructers of devastated countries? But the food is still good and the atmosphere is still good.

And to lump sports and the performing arts together as Winner-Take-All "markets" -- pop music no doubt, but if you made such a statement to even the "winners" I know and have worked with in classical music, such as Simon Rattle, Ralph Kirkpatrick and Alfred Brendel, it would bring steam from their ears. Others whom I know happily spent their lives as dedicated "losers" and were admitted late into the Pantheon. They hadn't been banging on the door -- certain people went out looking for them.

In short, monopoly-driven world commerce does not serve as a useful model for every other human activity.
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#17 RyneSchraw

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Posted 24 April 2003 - 04:25 PM

First, the kitchen and service at high end restaurants ought to be well-trained, well-motivated and comparatively well-paid - in particular, one can expect an understanding of the cuisine being served.  No mystery there.  At the other end of the scale, aside from the fast food chains and other bottom feeders, one finds many inexpensive restaurants primarily concerned to serve home-cooking to a local community which grew up eating that home-cooking.  The cooks grew up with it too, the servers eat it, and everyone knows what to order and what it should taste like.  Fortunately, they tolerate they odd tourist who noses in; and in some cases such eateries maintain their standards despite tourists crowding the locals out.

What of the middle section?  This is a generalization, but it doesn't take much alertness to observe that there are many, many examples of kitchens producing food which the workers there didn't grow up with, don't eat and wouldn't want to eat - essentially preparing it more or less to a formula.  The servers are serving the food because they are making a few bucks waiting tables until something better comes along; they don't care if it's pizza, curry or chops; maybe they like it, maybe they don't, but they have little real connection with it.

So, love born of professionalism and career motivation at one end, love born of roots at the other.  In between, at best, a vague competence.  Anyone buy into that?

I definitely agree with this. In my experiences the "middle" has always seemed a bit confused and because of it, a bit disappointing. This kinda makes sense though, as the "middle" is geared toward the masses, and the masses have always been a little confused about what they are going for, what is 'it' now, and what they really want. So you may have a chef who is genuinely passionate about what he is doing, but then end up sitting in a dining room with servers who care little about the food and are only there only to get a paycheck. Or you may get a super-trendy place in the city, with a bar as big as the dining room, and then get served mediocre food-- because what hip, 20-something person actually cares about the food? (Generalizations, generalizations, yes, I know!) And for the successful middle places there are always a few strong pros, which help let everyone forget about the cons. This is exactly why they are a safe bet for a lot of people, weekend after weekend.

Personally, I find safety through the extremes. Too much of the low can be depressing, while too much of the high can be pretentious, but a balance of the two can be wonderful. Once you remove all the confusion surrounding the food -- the consummerism, the trendiness, the lack of connection, etc. -- then what you're left with can be great food and a great love of the food.

#18 John Whiting

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Posted 26 April 2003 - 03:25 AM

There seems to be no precise distinction made here between the "low" and the "middle". For instance, I've eaten very respectably and enjoyably at independent Logis hotels all over France. This association demands that members' kitchens serve a "menu du terroir" which is locally based. The connection may be tenuous, but it shows an impulse to avoid members' cuisine becoming boringly uniform.

These are not quaint little auberges populated by peasants, but decidedly middle-class establishments. The tables are probably covered in spotless linen and the set menus are liable to range anywhere between 200 and 500 euros. In other words, they fall unequivocally into the "middle" bracket that this thread seems to be trashing. They're the sort of places frequented by modestly prosperous middle-class families who love good food but would never read a review, open a guidebook, or concern themselves with what was fashionable.
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#19 Jonathan Day

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Posted 26 April 2003 - 05:11 AM

John, I also have enjoyed many pleasant meals and good hotel stays at the Logis de France establishments -- not every one has been successful, but the association generally seems to work. When in an unfamiliar part of France (and out of contact with eGullet) I tend to look either for a Logis hotel or for a hotel marked with the red rocking chair in the Michelin guide, signifying a quiet and pleasant setting. The red rocking chair seems largely independent of the grandness or simplicity of the hotel itself, or its price range.

I hope you mean set menus priced at 200 to 500 francs rather than Euros!

Your point about defining the "low" and the "middle" is a good one. I think Robert's original post was not an attempt to revive the old "fine dining vs cheap eats" debate, but rather a contrast between two different value propositions: the simple and local versus the exercise of a famous chef's technical skill. The two are somewhat correlated with price, but price is not the defining point.

The Logis restaurants I have dined in have generally offered the first proposition.
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#20 docsconz

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Posted 26 April 2003 - 07:40 AM

Your point about defining the "low" and the "middle" is a good one. I think Robert's original post was not an attempt to revive the old "fine dining vs cheap eats" debate, but rather a contrast between two different value propositions: the simple and local versus the exercise of a famous chef's technical skill. The two are somewhat correlated with price, but price is not the defining point.

I think price is a very important consideration in this discussion. My expectations are different when spending $50pp on a meal than when spending $200pp. For $50 I am satisfied with a tasty, well cooked and nicely presented meal prepared in the style I'm expecting. For $200pp I should be wowed with truly delicious and creative food. When that happens it is the best, but it doesn't happen often enough, so there are many disappointments. Even though on an absolute scale the food may be better than the $50pp restaurant (or not), it may not be $150pp better (though sometimes it is infinitely better).
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#21 Jonathan Day

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Posted 26 April 2003 - 08:08 AM

Price is not irrelevant, in my view, it just isn't the primary characteristic of the continuum that Robert's first post set out.

El Bulli, for example, charges a mere EUR 135 for 30 truly outstanding courses, and very modest prices for fine wines. On the other side, there are outstanding local restaurants that don't charge that much for their food, but cost a fortune to reach. And there are restaurants that charge very high prices but don't reach the high "extreme" on Robert's continuum.

I would be happy paying a lot for absolutely fresh, perfectly cooked ingredients. In a net sense, I do pay a lot for this, because it costs a lot to spend time in Italy, France, Spain, and it takes a lot of time to seek out the places at one end of the extreme.

Equally, I eat a lot of supposedly high end dinners that I don't pay for (they are business meals); I find it as annoying to receive a badly prepared, poorly executed high end dinner that I am paying for as one where someone else is paying.

Price matters, but I at least don't see it as the defining point in the "in extremis" continuum of this thread. Robert may view it differently.
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#22 docsconz

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Posted 26 April 2003 - 08:17 AM

Price matters only because of the expectations that often go along with it and how the restaurant meets those expectations. El Bulli may be "worth it" at five or ten tems their price or the cost of getting there. There may be a meal that is indeed "priceless" no matter what the charge. Obviously, that is the ultimate. If the question is "satisfaction", then I am satisfied at least as often at well chosen "middle" or "low-end" restaurants that meet or exceed expectations than I am at high-end restaurants that often do not meet or exceed expectations. Of course, my expectations are higher at these restaurants as they should be based on their reputations and their "prices". Nevertheless, the high-end restaurant is more likely to achieve the level of "sublime", which is why I choose to dine in those kinds of establishments when I can.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#23 Jonathan Day

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Posted 26 April 2003 - 10:02 AM

For me, a "sublime" dining experience involves a kind of aesthetic shock, a sense of revaluation and reorientation that comes after a particularly superb meal or dish.

Now some of these have come at 3- and 2-star restaurants, where a brilliant chef demonstrated an unexpected degree of mastery, or where a dish arrived with layers of unanticipated complexity.

But I have experienced the same sense of the sublime at places that prepare foods very simply: for example, a deep-fried squash blossom I had at Chez Panisse, many years ago; or a bistecca alla Fiorentina at a tiny village restaurant in Tuscany; or the carrots that accompanied the aioli I recently had at Les Arcades in Biot.

Perhaps this comes from my spending a fair bit of time cooking. To some extent, the really complex dishes are almost out of reach, since they depend on equipment and techniques (e.g. sous-vide cooking, or the Pacojet, or really elaborate tricks with sugar) that are unavailable to most home cooks. But anyone can make steak, or fry a squash blossom, or cook a carrot, right? The shock, for me, came because, having tasted these dishes, I had to answer "no." These cooks had done things with simple, perfect foods that raised the bar for me. And they created the same sense of aesthetic shock and discovery, the same "shiver down the spine" that I have experienced at the highest of high-end restaurants.
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#24 docsconz

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Posted 26 April 2003 - 10:22 AM

For me, a "sublime" dining experience involves a kind of aesthetic shock, a sense of revaluation and reorientation that comes after a particularly superb meal or dish.

Now some of these have come at 3- and 2-star restaurants, where a brilliant chef demonstrated an unexpected degree of mastery, or where a dish arrived with layers of unanticipated complexity.

But I have experienced the same sense of the sublime at places that prepare foods very simply: for example, a deep-fried squash blossom I had at Chez Panisse, many years ago; or a bistecca alla Fiorentina at a tiny village restaurant in Tuscany; or the carrots that accompanied the aioli I recently had at Les Arcades in Biot.

Perhaps this comes from my spending a fair bit of time cooking. To some extent, the really complex dishes are almost out of reach, since they depend on equipment and techniques (e.g. sous-vide cooking, or the Pacojet, or really elaborate tricks with sugar) that are unavailable to most home cooks. But anyone can make steak, or fry a squash blossom, or cook a carrot, right? The shock, for me, came because, having tasted these dishes, I had to answer "no."  These cooks had done things with simple, perfect foods that raised the bar for me. And they created the same sense of aesthetic shock and discovery, the same "shiver down the spine" that I have experienced at the highest of high-end restaurants.

I agree. The high-end restaurant should be sublime, but it does not have exclusive rights to sublimity. Simple, quality ingredients, well prepared are often the most delicious and soul-satisfying meals and are often the province of the good "middle" restaurants. That takes nothing away from the uber-chef who creates a dish that nourishes not just the soul, but the mind as well. To me, that is the ultimate, and indeed, "priceless". While this combination can and does occur at lesser known restaurants, it is most likely to occur at the upper extreme. The problem is that it doesn't occur as often as it should on the upper extreme. I've had too many meals that while good, have fallen short of this mark at prices that have not. It really comes down to a question of value. In terms of Robert's question, "Do you agree with my hypotheses that dining "in extremis" offers the most consistent rewards?", I would have to disagree. I find that well chosen "middle" restaurants are more consistently satisfying than the extremes, even though when I am satisfied by the upper extreme the satisfaction is greatest. In other words dining "in extremis" offers the greatest upside, as well as the greatest potential disappointment.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#25 John Whiting

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Posted 26 April 2003 - 11:52 AM

I hope you mean set menus priced at 200 to 500 francs rather than Euros!

Whoops! I meant, in fact, 20 to 50 euros. Some, of course, go beyond, and are worth it. (Or, alas, not.)

I can't resist quoting, yet again, the observation by the great English food writer Jane Grigson, which I have carved on my kitchen wall: "We have more than enough masterpieces. What we need is a better standard of ordinariness."

P.S. Glad that you too have found pleasure at Logis hotels.
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