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Fine Dining vs. Cheap Eats, Continued


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"Since Plotnicki assures us that quality will rise and be recognized. I'm not ready to rule out the possibility that American gastronomes will recognize Spanish haute cuisine. "

Bux - Thanks for the plug  :biggrin:.

The thing I can't get my arms around with the new Spanish cuisine is why is it happening? I would be a lot more comfortable pronouncing its future dominance if I knew why it was occuring in the first place. Since I haven't been there, I'm sort of at a loss to understand it. But I'm usually good at assessing food from far away if you know what I mean. But this food is different.

I'd love to pick this up on the Spain board and see it have a good run, but there doesn't yet seem to be the interest in the US or by other members of this site. The fact that it's different is interesting as it's different in many ways from many things including what I've thought of as traditional Spanish food. Then again I've also come to find much more than I had originally thought interesting about traditional and regional Spanish food. It did not win me over as French food did, although my introduction to French food was at the least expensive end.

Somehow, over the years my education in French cuisine may have made me more susceptable to the charms of Spanish food. If this were to prove to be the case, would that make French food more universal or would it make Spanish food so much more complex at it's most homespun level? Of course we can't deny the influence of haute cuisine (French) on chefs like Juan Maris Arzak. Could we have Berasategui without Arzak? I don't know. None of this explains the wonderful no star meals that thrill me far more than most in France. Is it the newness, the French influence, and international influence, an awakening to a more robust food, the freshness of local products or some factor I've not yet put my finger on?

Jaybee is correct that raw materials will play a role in the fact that there's much we will not see here. Can you imagine a baby lamb so small that the whole carcass fits on a platter not much larger than a large dinner plate and which serves two as a main course?

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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But what you conveniently leave out, and this THE ONLY POINT I KEEP MAKING, amongst catfish only, people are willing to pay more for better quality catfish than they are for poorer quality catfish.

So, to extrapolate, you were only ever suggesting that French food should be compared with French food. In which case I agree. It is better. Or not.

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Hehehehe.

If the price of one piece of sirloin was higher than another piece (in the same store), that is a probable indicator of the relative quality of the two pieces of meat. If that's it, we can all go home.

If the price per pound of a piece of sirloin is higher than sirloin of the same quality ground up, it strikes me as a little odd, but maybe it reflects the expectations of the market.

I don't see where it tells me that the steak is "better" in one piece than it is when it's ground up.

(Let's be concrete, otherwise you'll think I'm arguing for the sake of it. I like to eat a steak some times - not very often, actually - and I like to eat a hamburger sometimes. I get good and bad steaks and good and bad hamburgers. I just genuinely have no instinct that one, as a foodstuff, is in some abstract sense "better" than the other.)

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"I could have sworn you were also talking steak/hamburger. Or Tuscan beans/cassoulet, now I think of it. "

Wilfrid - I was. That's because hamburger is ground up steak. But it's cheaper because they use the parts THEY CAN"T SELL for $15 a pound. Do I have to tell you why they can't sell them for that price? And is there a difference in the beans between Tuscan beans and cassoulet? It's not the same as comparing two different things like pork and lamb where some unusual aspect of raising one or the other might significantly alter price.

"Neither of these means a $4.99 per pound tomato is necessarily better than a $.99 per pound tomato, which was your original claim."

Jordyn - When I say a .99 per pound tomato, I am really saying inferior tomatoes. I am not saying it is impossible to find great tomatoes for that price. But I am saying that in a store with $4.99 a pound tomatoes, it would be extremely doubtful if the ones for .99 were any good. But I am certain that in August if we went to Apulia, we would be able to buy bushels of the most glorious tomatoes in the world for chump change. Unfortunately when we got them to Balducci's so they could resell them, they would probably charge $5.99 a pound.

Wilfrid again - Well now you have gotten to the core issue. Why is a steak better than a hamburger on the objective scale a butcher uses to price things? As I wrote earlier, ground meat loses some of the qualities a steak has. Let me think about how to describe those qualities or maybe Fat Guy can help me out in describing what the special qualities of a good steak are.

"So, to extrapolate, you were only ever suggesting that French food should be compared with French food. In which case I agree. It is better. Or not. "

G. - You are the clever one. The common denominator in comparing French vs English and other cuisines is technique. It isn't a matter of intrinsic quality, it's a matter of proficiency. It's man made. It's how proficient the French are compared to the Brits. That's something that can be measured.

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Yes, the steak/hamburger comparison turns out to be a red herring, because hamburger isn't cheaper than steak unless it's made of a cheaper cut of beef. So, why is chuck cheaper per pound than sirloin. I can think of several reasons. But if the answer is going to be "because it's better", you're back to the pig belly/pork loin dilemma. Does the pork loin have it over the belly for taste, texture, complexity, etc? That's not what my tastebuds tell me.

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Plotnicki,Jul 10 2002, 10:05 AM]And to say that hamburger has a better mouthfeel than filet steak, only someone who doesn't know anything about steak can take that position.

Steve, you really take the biscuit in terms of dodging around. In the above you appear to be comparing steak and hamburger, and in your most recent post you do so again. In the past you have compared peasant dishes from Britain, say,with French sophisticated ones and claimed that the French ones are better. You have claimed that French cuisine is the most evolved comapred to other Western ones. You mix apples and oranges all of the time. Oh, but hang on, now I see, you decide on the classification system. If I discuss 2 fish, I'm not comparing like with like, but if you compare two very distinct dishes it's OK, because now they both fall under your grand category of "technique".

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Didn't we agree that it required more proficient technique to make a hamburger than grill a steak? I'm lost.

And sure, ground meat loses some of the properties of steak, and gains different ones. Fine. Which do you prefer?

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"Yes, the steak/hamburger comparison turns out to be a red herring, because hamburger isn't cheaper than steak unless it's made of a cheaper cut of beef."

Wilfrid - Cart before horse. If you reread my example, in the mix of the chopped meat is steak that they were trying to sell for three times the price. That it got dumped in the vat with a bunch of trimmings and cheaper cuts draws the inference that ground meat that is made out of steak costs less than steak. What used to be sold for $15 a pound now gets sold for $5.

"And sure, ground meat loses some of the properties of steak, and gains different ones. Fine. Which do you prefer?"

Well here's the answer. The properties it loses are the ones that people will pay more for ($15.) The properties it gains people are only willing to pay $5.99 for. That is the totality of my point. Adieu.

Yvonne - If you would like to discuss to different fish with me, go ahead., It will make my heart flutter. Just don't tell me that those two fish are relevent to the point I was making which was about two of the same fish. But if you would like to start a thread on the merits of catfish which includes a deeply analytical discussion about why it's underpriced, I promise to participate to the best of my abilities. :biggrin:

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Well here's the answer. The properties it loses are the ones that people will pay more for ($15.) The properties it gains people are only willing to pay $5.99 for. That is the totality of my point. Adieu.

Petitio principii. It beggeth the question. People are willing pay more for strip steak than for chuck. True. Is that because the strip steak is "better" than the chuck? Maybe, maybe not. That conclusion is not implied by your example.

What are the economics here? Does strip steak fetch twice the price of ground beef because there's a bigger demand for it? Do expensive cuts of meat generally outsell cheap cuts? I haven't got my arguing hat on here, I am honestly trying to figure it out.

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I doubt it, because many people prefer hamburger to steak (I have taken people to decent steakhouses and watched them order the chopped steak).

The first time I dined with Steve P at Peter Lugers, he told me that the highlight of the meal for him was the chopped steak. He was disappointed with the porterhouse! :biggrin:

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What are the economics here?  Does strip steak fetch twice the price of ground beef because there's a bigger demand for it?  Do expensive cuts of meat generally outsell cheap cuts?

No because the expensive cuts are a relatively small percentage of the carcass. Most of the luxury cuts are in the short-loin sub-primal. There are for example only four or so Peter Luger-sized porterhouses in a side of beef, whereas there may a hundred or more pounds of ground-beef-appropriate muscle.

Lobel's gets a higher price for filet mignon than for boneless strip, yet the overwhelming majority of steak connoisseurs will tell you that the strip is the more flavorful cut and is superior. I don't know a single steak maven who would order a filet over a strip if given the choice. But there is a perceived luxuriousness to tenderloin among the clueless because it is so tender, and there's simply more strip than tenderloin in a carcass. And since the porterhouse is both strip and filet/tenderloin, and the strip runs longer than the tenderloin, a carcass that is butchered into porterhouses will have pretty much no filet portion available for sale as just filet, so there's almost no USDA Prime tenderloin out there. Some, but hardly any. Therefore the better cut is less expensive and in less demand. Now assuming Plotnicki agrees that strip is superior to tenderloin he might say that of course he knew that but still as between two strips the better strip will fetch a higher price. But while that's most likely true it's clearly not a statement you can extrapolate to broader based food comparisons. You can't even extrapolate it as between cuts of meat from the same animal, and you certainly can't extrapolate it to prove that all food that is better costs more than all food that is worse.

Likewise, as I said before a hamburger is more complex than a steak, as is any preparation where lower-quality cuts must be smushed up and reconstituted and perhaps combined with other ingredients in order to make them delicious. It typically requires more skill and training to accomplish that than it does to get a great steak from Lobel's and throw it on the grill.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Lobel's is the best. As to whether it's worth it to you to pay a whole lot extra for a little bit of betterness, that's a personal decision, one that depends both on how much money you have and how much you value the incremental improvement in quality. As with wine, you'll almost always experience diminishing returns at the margin. Were I rich, I'd shop at Lobel's. Since I'm not, I look for a compromise more in line with my budget.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Equating quality with price is a fallacy to which the wealthy are particularly prone. They prize most highly those foods which are the most bland and the easiest to eat. Fillet steak, for instance, which has a very mild flavor and which you can cut easily with a dull knife. Lobster, whose tail is much easier to empty than the convoluted body of a crab. Foie gras, which takes no more effort than lifting it to your mouth.

But there are those who regard a slow-roasted brisket on the bone as having a much richer flavor than prime rib. Who regard the succulence and complexity of crab, including the brown meat, as more interesting than lobster. As for steaks, there's a rule of thumb that, the tougher the meat the stronger the flavor. You just have to be prepared to deal with it, both in the cooking and in the consumption.

During the season, my wife and I have a crab between us every weekend. There is minimal preparation in the kitchen -- just cleaning, extracting the block of white meat, chopping it down the middle, removing the brown meat, being sure to avoid the poison sack behind the eyes. Then crack the big claws and that's it. All the pieces come to the table, together with the necessary tools, a simple salad and a bowl of aioli. We do the time-consuming work as we go along.

Pound for pound of meat, a dressed crab is much more expensive than a whole one. Is it better? Only for the lazy. Buying a whole crab, you know as soon as you open it exactly what condition the meat will be in -- how moist, how plentiful in the shell. Ready dressed crab can contain anything they choose to put in it, from a mixture of sources. This is only one example of what people will pay in order to avoid, not only labor, not only an excess of sensory stimulation, but most crucial of all -- thought.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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(T)he expensive cuts are a relatively small percentage of the carcass. Most of the luxury cuts are in the short-loin sub-primal. There are for example only four or so Peter Luger-sized porterhouses in a side of beef, whereas there may a hundred or more pounds of ground-beef-appropriate muscle.

Thanks, Steve, that's clear now. I got stuck because it didn't occur to me that if you slaughter a certain number of cows, you might end up with a lot more of the cheaper cuts than the pricy cuts. Dunce.

I was looking at Lobel's web-site while pondering, and they sell hamboiger at $12.98 a pound. It's a blend of sirloin, tenderloin and chuck. Unfortunately, they don't have the per pound price of those cuts on the web-site, but I guess the price of the hamburger is derived from those prices and the proportions of meat used. So, it's not cheap meat as such - it just happens to include a proportion of cheaper meat because, I suspect, you get better, juicier burgers that way.

John Whiting - Of course, of course. One could cite Liebling on the detrimental effect of wealth on developing a palate. It's why I picked the pig belly example. I can't imagine any serious eater arguing that pork loin is a better, more interesting, more sophisticated cut - although, thanks to Steven Shaw's tutorial above, I now have an inkling why it's more expensive.

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Wilfrid - Cart before horse. If you reread my example, in the mix of the chopped meat is steak that they were trying to sell for three times the price. That it got dumped in the vat with a bunch of trimmings and cheaper cuts draws the inference that ground meat that is made out of steak costs less than steak. What used to be sold for $15 a pound now gets sold for $5.

I beg your pardon. What you just said in your example is that what they were unable to sell for $15 a pound now gets sold for $5. And that's very reasonable. Now if I can in and asked for steak and they asked me how much I was willing to pay and I said $5 a pound and then they offered to sell it to me for that only if I would accept it ground up, you might have a point.

Hmm, kind of like those discount clothes with the label shredded maybe.

:biggrin:

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Wilfrid you can compute the price of those cuts at Lobel's easily enough if you look at the mail-order prices for boxes of, for example, 4 6oz filet mignons, etc.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Imagine you are on vacation off in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. The sticks. And you are driving down the road and stop at some little hole-in-the-wall- joint with a nice view, a few tables outside. Nothing presumtuous. The waiter, a young guy comes up and gives you water and a menu and asks if you want a beer. What do they have? Oh, 55 different micros in bottles, a smattering of imports and every cheap American beer in a can you can think of. So you order a Liberty Ale and a Grants' IPA. Food? How about the Buffalo style Pheasant legs for an appetizer with a side of the house smoked salmon. For the entrees you just want a burger off the menu and your companion orders the fresh Oregon razor clams with the citrus glaze. A bottle of decent pinot- say Eyrie from Oregon or Calera from Cal. to wash it down. The salad that comes with the entree is made from greens grown locally that showed up at the cafe a little while before you did. The bread is fresh, definately handmade, not some thawed stuff. The rest of the food arrives. The burger is fresh ground chuck, the bun is fresh, the potato chips just came out of the fryer and are tossed in a mild blackening spice. The razor clams are cooked al dente and topped with a glaze of lemon and orange with preserved ginger and garlic. Served on the side are fresh braised baby greens and tiny zuchinnis, carrots and red potatoes the size of your thumb. The billl comes to @75.00 with the Calera and 2 beers.

I ran a little place like that for 6 years in the middle of the Idaho wilderness. The coolest thing was seeing the expressions of people who stumbled into the place and were blown away by what I served. Too bad I only had a 4 month season or I probably would have never moved.

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" do think it is very useful to have a conversation of the form "In evaluating a fish soup I look for the following characteristics: ..... and the soup at restaurant X had the following: .... " "

JD - But now you have shifted gears. In your original post about Tetou, you say the fish soup was "disappointing." Now in my book, your opinion about it is only subjective if you don't know how to assess a good fish soup. But in reading your posts I sense that you do know how to assess one.  So which is it? Did you just not prefer the soup at Tetou or was it inferior to the soup at Loulou?

I don't think I've used the terms "objective" or "subjective", which in my view don't do a lot to move the conversation forward.

I did cite my criteria for a good fish soup: "robust, clear, strong, with plenty of garlic and just a bit of acidity". The soup at Tétou didn't meet them, and it had a scorched taste. On these criteria, the soup at Loulou was better. The one at Tétou was disappointing...given my criteria and expectations for a good fish soup. A tourist who had never visited France and was expecting a certain style of service (and who had never tasted bouillabaisse) might have had a great time at Tétou and found the Loulou fish soup overly simple.

I don't admit to an absolute standard of taste or a single set of criteria. These things are in large part socially constructed. We generally reject bitter tastes in food, but Chinese bitter melon (foo gwa, I think it is called) has an honoured place in certain Chinese menus. That doesn't mean it is inherently "good" or "bad".

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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You see I go out to take a walk and the conversation takes a turn for the better. Finally you are discussing the real issue which is what characteristics people value (i.e., are willing to pay more for) and why. For example, as John Whiting points out, people will pay more for things that have a luxurious texture to them. Foie Gras is a perfect example. Filet mignon is another. And if you were all at Loulou with Robert Brown and I sharing our Cote de Boeuf, it had a beefier texture than a filet would have had but it was smooth as silk, even though it had some chew to it. There are other items that fall into this category as well like diver scallops. Sea urchin is another. Tremedously smooth and luxurious mouthfeels. And its also a characteristic of a great bottle of wine. Go get a bottle of 1964 La Tache or 1961 Latour and it's like having silk in your mouth. Or open a bottle of Chateau d"yqueem from a good vintage. It's like having Quaker State Motor Oil on your tongue. Or get a bottle of champagne the wealthy drink, Cristal. 1990 Cristal, probably the single most heralded bottle of Champagne in the last 20 years has the mouthfeel of creme brulee. I'm sure I can name countless other examples but, that should be enough to demonstrate that the characteristics of smooth and silky are qualities people are willing to pay for. But before any naysayer jumps in and tweaks their nose about these things being luxurious, don't forget that luxury and mouthfeel are just secondary issues because in the first instance, these items are profound expressions of their terroir, and possibly the most profound expression of terroir in the regions they originate in.

Then there is another category of food item people seem to place lots of value in that isn't as refined. Tougher cuts of steak like a strip, lobsters, mushrooms, truffles, poultry, lamb. Things that are harder to chew and intensely flavorful in a way that defines its food group. Take a strip steak. To me it is the most "beefy tasting" cut from a cow.That the texture is firmer and chewier enhances the beefy characateristic because as you chew the beefy flavor intensifies. Like a stick of gum when you first put it in your mouth and it releases the flavor. The beefy taste is in those fibers that you have to break down in your mouth. And a great chicken like Bresse chicken or one from the Landes has almost the same characteristics as the strip steak, and I can see why it is valued so highly. The flesh is so firm. So chewy in a good way. Like if you could make chicken that was cooked through and al dente as well. But just like the strip, the chewing is worth it because the amount of flavor it releases is intense. Many items are like this. I think that a good lobster offers a lot of the same qualities as well. But regardless of how good the items in this category are, I think as a general rule, things that are more refined cost more because people are willing to pay more for that feature.

When you start getting to the lesser cuts like brisket and flank steak, though those cuts offer lots of flavor, they don't offer the characteristics that either of the two categories I sited have. I've eaten a few thousand briskets in my lifetime and although flavorful, it has a coarse mouthfeel and doesn't approach a strip steak in terms of beefiness. I am certain that the lack of those charceristics translate into their being sold for a lower price.

And I think that ground meat is in this category, possibly below it. I think ground meats biggest appeal is that it is comforting. Easy to chew. But it will never be elegant and refined, even in a DB Burger. And it will never have the beefy flavor that a good strip has, although as Jaybee pointed out, a burger at Luger's comes close. But remember, that's because it is made out of the good stuff they aged. It's the trimmings of the $35 a person steak.

Anyway, if one were to try and determine why meat was priced the way it is, this is a place to start. Understanding what characteristics people value should lead to how much people are willing to pay for it. Which should correlate to market price. And although there are blips in the system, I highly doubt that people would pay more for their chopped meat than they do for a steak. But there are people who tell the Lobel's to grind up the good stuff. But as Yvonne said earlier, good chopped meat needs to be fattier, i.e., of lesser quality to be good. It's a perfect case of less being more. It's just not more than a good strip.

As an aside to this, I have to say that I have had much better results making filet mignon than the reputation it has. Maybe because I buy them at Lobel's :biggrin: But I buy them at Citarella too and it's the same. I always buy really thick steaks and cut them into small disks around an inch thick and cook them over a really hot fire (they aren't fatty so the flames don't flare up.) I serve them on a bed of arugala with shaved parmesan cheese with some truffle oil splashed on top and then a sprinkling of sea salt. Fabulous. It's a perfect way to take advantage of the silky texture of the meat.

JD - I think someone who just got off the plane from Minneapolis and never had fish soup before is not entitled to have an opinion about it that you and I should give any weight to. Unless of course that person has a superior palate which will become evident through a debriefing. But in reality, 99% of the time that person's opinion has no value to people who have an expertise in food. I don't think we should be shy to admit that. Our failing to do so just perpetuates there being shitty food in the world.

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Actually this thread reminds me of an old joke. A man is waiting at the dock for his sailor son, about to disembark from an aircraft carrier after a long tour of duty. A beautiful young women next to him is looking anxiously for her man at the rail. They spot each other and wave. He yells, "FF", she answers "EF", he emphatically yells back "FF", she smiles and nods. The man, curious about this exchange asks the beauty, "what was that all about?" "Oh", she answers, "I want to eat first."

Time to eat.

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So Plotnicki, for the record, which is better: Filet mignon or New York Strip?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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