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High Standards


jaybee
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I've been at several meals with highly developed foodies. I've walked away feeling happy with the meal, but not overwhelmed. On follow ups, their comments suggest that much fault could be found with the food. They were unhappy and dissatisfied. My reaction? Yeah, a couple of the dishes were kind of bland or didn't do much for me, but two or three others were great. On balance I enoyed the meal. Maybe give it a 6 out of 10. They agreed, but for them a 6 was damning with faint praise.

I wonder, is it better to not be such a perceptive critic whose bar for praise is set so high that few meals can reach it? Doesn't it take a lot of the joy out of just eating an ordinalry but tasty meal, as long as it were priced right?

Where are you on this continuum? Do you suspend your hyper critical views and just enjoy what's there for what it is?

Edited by jaybee (log)
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Would Einstein had been better off if he had appreciation and interest for less complex theories? The fact of the matter is that the actual rating of a restaurant is only relevent subject to expectations. For example, your meal at DiFara's last night might have been a 9 or 10 but it is still a pizza place and as such there are limitations to the meal you had. Had you gone to a restaurant in a trendy location where they had spent lots of money on decor and service and they had served you calzone and you were wearing your new designer suit, I bet you would have thought it less then a 9 or 10. But on the other hand, many of the 6's you refer to would be rated higher if they were served in a more casual location and your expectations were lower.

You see all sorts of variations of this argument going happening on eGullet. The persistant conversation about eating in Italy is but one example. There is a chorus of people who say, you have to eat like the locals do and the meals are perfect. But there is another group of people who say, as good as those meals are, they are lacking in other aspects of dining which will always render those meals inferior to the people who are looking for those aspects when they dine. So I don't think it's a matter of suspending anything. I think the important thing to understand is where you are on the continuum when you go out somewhere. And that dining is first and foremost a social experience and that the parameters of your expectations are set by what type of experience you are looking for when you go out for dinner.

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I think Steve is correct. At least that's what the many PMs I've received tell me I think.

Context is everything. A pizza can be 10. A raw oyster can be a 10. A tuna salad sandwich can be a 10. It depends upon the context of the dining experience, as well as the quality of the ingredients and skill of preperation.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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I think the question is a really interesting one. It calls into issue our capacity to enjoy ouselves as much if we are well informed. I agree with a lot of Steve's answer re context and expectations but there is another issue in here as well.

Do you continue to enjoy ANY meal or any dish as much as you did when you had it the first time? Does the WOW factor, when you're lucky enough to get it,ever repeat itself?

One often hears people say: "I used to love that restaurant but its not as good as it was" Well maybe they're right but do people ever consider that in fact its just the same as it always was but its THEM that's changed. Their taste has altered or moved on, they're looking for new tastes and experiences.

How many times have you loved a piece of music when you first heard it, played it to death and then stopped listening to it. Now when you listen to it it just doesn't do for you what it used to. The music hasn't changed. You have.

Edited by Tonyfinch (log)
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And that dining is first and foremost a social experience and that the parameters of your expectations are set by what type of experience you are looking for when you go out for dinner.

This, to me, is what it is all about. It's been a very long time since we could "dine" but when the Copenhagen Room was open in Toronto, we went once a year. Maybe the food wasn't all we thought it was, but the experience of being there, of being together there, of being treated as though we were no different than the VIPs, movie stars, etc., dining beside us, made every experience one to remember.

We became disillusioned with eating out at mid-class restaurants not because of the food but because almost every time, something happened to spoil the mood - drinks taking forever to arrive, appetizer served at same time as entree, surly staff, etc., etc. And when the experience was truly horrific and we lodged a complaint, and were given a gift certificate for a return visit, we felt thoroughly put off. Sorry, you've ruined one evening, we won't give you a chance to ruin another!

So now we eat at home for every special occasion. Maybe I can't cook like Charlie Trotter but we never wait for a wine refill, the first course does not have to be gobbled up while the entree gets cold, there are no surly staff to deal with, no one interrupts an animated conversation to ask "How is everything?" though they don't really want to know.

Maybe the fault lies with us. When you dine out so infrequently, you have extraordinarily high expectations, perhaps too high. But the experience was rarely ruined by the food - it was usually something else. Something to spoil "the social experience".

That's my two-cents, anyway.

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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I can't agree with Tony. I find with great music that I generally enjoy it more the more I hear it, and the same with good restaurants and good food. Familiarity does not breed contempt.

It takes two to develop advance expectations - you and the restaurant. Since the restaurant is the supplier, it is primarily their responsibility to give the customer a realistic set of expectations. It is their marketing stance, their price, their reservation policy, and so on which "set out their stall". On the customer side, is it up to you to decide whose reviews you read and listen to, to interpret the marketing material to decide what you expect, to understand what you might expect at that price and of that type of establishment, and from all of that to develop realistic expectations.

If either side gets it wrong, then the result will be disappointment.

I agree with the other half of what Tony said, which is effectively that "ignorance is bliss". I envy young children the capacity to gain such huge enjoyment out of simple things, a capacity which we can lose as we get older and more experienced. It does take a conscious effort of will to wipe away our veneer of cynicism and to recapture that naive enjoyment.

And even if we do, it is often more fun to pick fault than to praise, certainly on eGullet :rolleyes:

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Two to three eating opportunities a day, multiplied by 365, multiplied by however many years left you expect/hope to live.... I don't care what kind/level/style of food it is, I just want it to be wonderful for what it is.

Sometimes other factors can make for a wonderful and memorable meal -- dinner companions, wine, great service -- and compensate for food that doesn't quite live up to its expectations.

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I'm reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon (I may have mentioned this one before): A man is saying his prayers before bed. He says, "Lord, I don't ask for much, but what I get should be of good quality."

Without lapsing into analogies, many of the problems arise when the standards for one genre are applied to another, or when one genre is deemed to be "better" than another. I'm pleased to see Steve's remark about disappointment in a given cuisine framed as so being "to the people who are looking for...[other] aspects" of dining. In the stubborn atmosphere around here, this represents real progress. The apples and oranges may yet peacefully cooexist on egullet!

In addition, I think it's often necessary to relax one's standards in the interest of having a good time. If the service isn't exactly sharp, or a dish isn't precisely as it should be, focus rather on the greater prize: a good time in good company in pleasant surroundings.

I'm frequently crticized - mostly in good humor - for being too rigid about my standards, and for setting the bar too high, so I speak from experience. Make the best of things. Most of the time, that is.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Another approach, to which I partially adhere, is to see visiting a restaurant as both a process (of taking in the cuisine, service, decor, etc.) and as producing a substantive outcome (an assessment of the quality of the cuisine). Thus, when substantively the cuisine is sub-par (relative to my expectations), I do not generally regret having visited a restaurant. It's a process of discovery and exploration.

I can still be somewhat excited about visiting a restaurant whose cuisine I have lower expectations about. Of course, I anticipate more a visit to a restaurant with a more developed cuisine. It is incredibly difficult to find a meal with which I am entirely satisfied, outside of perhaps less than a handful of restaurants in the world. But I believe high standards are a good thing in the context of restaurant going. :laugh:

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I'm pleased to see Steve's remark about disappointment in a given cuisine framed as so being "to the people who are looking for...[other] aspects" of dining. In the stubborn atmosphere around here, this represents real progress. The apples and oranges may yet peacefully cooexist on egullet!

But of course this quote glosses over the fact that not only are they looking for it, but they should find it but they can't and that is a flaw of the cuisine. For example, to say that one should recalibrate their palate when they are in Italy because their cuisine doesn't lend itself to fancy dinners is a matter of properly calibrating your expectations. But expectations and desires are two different things. And in the scheme of things, a perfect 10 at an Italian restaurant for lunch has to be weighted because I desire to eat "dinner cuisine" at least one out of every three nights that I am travelling. So I'm not sure I am being as generous as you are giving me credit for. I'm actually being more stingy in saying that a restaurants score needs to be modified by some denominator that indicates what level restaurant it is. That way I can say that Sostanza in Firenze is a 9 point experience but if I say that a Tuscan steakhouse, the meal ultimately has its limitations that a "real restaurant" doesn't have. That makes everything nice and linear. Capisco?

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I wonder, is it better to not be such a perceptive critic whose bar for praise is set so high that few meals can reach it?  Doesn't it take a lot of the joy out of just eating an ordinalry but tasty meal, as long as it were priced right?

In the absence of Wilfrid, I am obliged to point out that this question is analogous to an argument between Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Bentham, in formulating utilitarianism, argued that the morality of an action (or the value of a restaurant) is determined by its tendency to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. By this measure DiFara is better than Gagnaire.

Mill, however, thought that the quality of the pleasure must be taken into account in addition to its quantity. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” However, as Mill may have thought that eating was a “beast’s pleasure” he might have eschewed both DiFara and Gagnaire.

Edited by g.johnson (log)
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I'm as easily pleased as I am easily peeved, and can switch from one to another within one meal quite easily. That said, I try to look at the complete experience of dining out - even though I'm Egullet finicky, the food is just one factor.

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Where are you on this continuum? Do you suspend your hyper critical views and just enjoy what's there for what it is?

If it were a first visit to a restaurant I'd never been to before, then the critic stays out of sight. (It only pops up if something goes horrendously awry, or if the meal exceeds most or all of my expectations.)

If it were a visit on most any other occasion (dates don't count), then the critic becomes my silent partner.

Sometimes a piece of uni is just a piece of uni. :blink:

SA

Edited by SobaAddict70 (log)
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My only comment here is that there is a process of learning and development. Suppose, for the moment, that you believe in a simple and linear scale, where 3-star refined French cuisine reaches greater absolute heights of quality than simple cuisines -- this as opposed to a more multidimensional or "fitness for a particular context or purpose" scale where a pizza and a dinner at Arpège could both be a 10.

Even in this world, it seems unlikely that anyone could learn, instantly, to discriminate and appreciate at a high level. A person's idea of a "10" will change over time, as he or she experiences new places and new cuisines. Palates develop, as does our ability to frame intellectually the subtleties of a meal and the chef's intent. Most novices, confronted for the first time with a true 3-star meal, will miss a lot of what is going on.

So I would propose four issues around high standards. First, can we identify a series of developmental stages or steps in "palate development" where an aspiring gourmand could learn taste and discrimination? This has practical value, for example, in teaching children how to eat. If I recall correctly, there is something in Brillat-Savarin about stages of gastronomic development, and even tests of development, but these might usefully be updated for modern times.

Second, is it possible to "switch off" one's discrimination and, from time to time, stop eating analytically? (I think that it is, and I find this a useful capability.)

Third, to what extent are there diminishing incremental returns in excellence as you go from (I am just making this sequence up) Chibois to Passard to Adria? Is the difference between 10 and 9 as big as the difference between 5 and 6? Or does the function go the other way, where the last steps are the biggest ones?

Fourth, do high standards lead to unhappiness, as one ends up jaded and disappointed?

Jonathan Day

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

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I have had several happy experiences at restaurants where in the moment all was well and there were no complaints. Yet a week later I couldn't tell you what I ate. Therefore, these are not great or even good restaurants.

The sense memory factor is my standard. At a certain price point I want food that stays with me forever without notes.

The Pesto Sauce at Cibreo in 1990

The Tomatoes at Ducasse in 2000

The Sea Urchin at Gramercy Tavern in 1998

The Sea Scallops at Bouley in 1995

The Duck w/Pommegranite at Union Pacific in 1999

And so on.

These are few and far between but if a meal is forgettable, it can never have been great.

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Capisco?

Oh, yes, Steve, I understand, and I apologize for having mistaken your words as representing an advancement in your thinking. It's clear that you are as intractable as ever, in which case I return to my position of enjoying your reports very much, and ignoring your views on comparative culture.

g. johnson: I wonder whether Mill's view of the utility of French versus, oh, say, Italian, cusine would have depended on a preference for one over the other based on a qualitative perception. However, since, as you say, he placed little value in the pleasure of eating anything, I guess the question is moot.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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The sense memory factor is my standard. At a certain price point I want food that stays with me forever without notes.

Exactly, when the food isn't memorable, then to me it's a wasted eating opportunity, in the meaning of building up my lifelong sense memory databank. (Of course, this is spoken from the privileged position of having enough to eat every day.)

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Oh, yes, Steve, I understand, and I apologize for having mistaken your words as representing an advancement in your thinking. It's clear that you are as intractable as ever, in which case I return to my position of enjoying your reports very much, and ignoring your views on comparative culture.

But I thought I pretty much said the same thing as Mills and Jonathan Day. There are a number of issues at play here. Expectations have to be set by some parameters. In this particular instance, it is the scope of the meal. I would argue, that the French have created a dining experience that is far more reaching in scope then anything the Italians have created. And I would say the same thing about the Chinese and possibly a few other cuisines. But I can also criticize the French (and did recently) because they have not been able to create a Union Square Cafe category of restaurants while the Americans and Brits have (god knows where the Italians are in the exercise.)

This dispute really comes down to whether you want to look at things in a linear way or as multi-dimensional. I clearly prefer the former. But even if we were to superimpose multi-dimensionality on it, I would still reconcile the parameters so I could calibrate it according to a linear scale. It's neater that way and it's easier to do. As I often say, hierarchies are created by how difficult the techniques one must apply to a situation are. For example, it isn't very difficult to steam a pot of mussels and then add cream and some curry powder to it. But it is difficult to steam mussel shells to extract their essence and then strain the broth, thicken it etc. so as to turn it into a sauce. And to say that the latter isn't at a higher place in the hierarchy of cooking just because the former can be amazingly delicious is just a fancy version of the relativity argument and that is all the mutli-dimensional argument tries to do.

And to bring this back to the original topic and Jaybee's question, no people aren't being hypercritical because that is the reason they are going to eat in the first place. If you want a meal cooked at the highest possible level of culinary technique, a fabulously ripe peach is not really an acceptable dessert. Just the same way that if you went to see the opera and Bob Dylan performed instead, you wouldn't be molified with an answer that says, what's the difference, he's the greates folk song writer of all time? Well the difference is why you went to the opera in the first place. And the reason you go to the opera is because the technique is astounding. And while I am not an opera fan, I can tell you that the technique on display at the opera wipes Bob Dylan off the table. That isn't a matter of opinion, that is a fact and I do not see what about that is multi-dimensional. It is linear in the same way that a perfectly cooked and presented peach is "better" then a plain one. It is perfect plus.

Edited by Steve Plotnicki (log)
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Do you continue to enjoy ANY meal or any dish as much as you did when you had it the first time? Does the WOW factor, when you're lucky enough to get it,ever repeat itself?

One often hears people say: "I used to love that restaurant but its not as good as it was" Well maybe they're right but do people ever consider that in fact its just  the same as it always was but its THEM that's changed. Their taste has altered or moved on, they're looking for new tastes and experiences.

How many times have you loved a piece of music when you first heard it, played it to death and then stopped listening to it. Now when you listen to it it just doesn't do for you what it used to. The music hasn't changed. You have.

I strongly disagree with this, Tony. When I taste a meal or a dish that gives me that WOW factor, I want to repeat the experience. For example, I am never tired of eating a slice of pizza at DiFara's - it's always fantastic, and I'm always delighted to eat it.

As for music, I agree with macrosan. The more I listen to a piece of music I love, the more I understand it, the more nuance I am able to pick up - and the piece becomes more meaningful to me.

Mind you, this is only true of food and music (and I suppose other things as well) that I truly love.

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Just the same way that if you went to see the opera and Bob Dylan performed instead, you wouldn't be molified with an answer that says, what's the difference, he's the greates folk song writer of all time? Well the difference is why you went to the opera in the first place. And the reason you go to the opera is because the technique is astounding. And while I am not an opera fan, I can tell you that the technique on display at the opera wipes Bob Dylan off the table. That isn't a matter of opinion, that is a fact and I do not see what about that is multi-dimensional.

I suspect that Dylan's poetic technique is vastly superior to that of most librettists.

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I suspect that Dylan's poetic technique is vastly superior to that of most librettists

Well that's exactly the point isn't it? Poetic technique isn't the only technique on display at the opera. There are numerous techniques that are on display that are inticatetly intertwined and that's what makes it interesting to most people. And if one only wanted to experience terrific poetic technique, they would have made a different choice for their evenings entertainment. And it's the same thing with food. A perfect peach on a plate displays the producers technique as well as the chef's abilities to choose perfect peaches. But once he starts to cook that peach, then slice it, and then sauce it, other techniques are now present.

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Is it not possible that you are making the peach less perfect (  ) by introducing these extra techniques?

Of course that's possible. But you pose it as a theoretical and aren't looking at the philosophy of the cuisines. One cuisine (Italian) says we won't interfere in the natural perfection of that peach. Another cuisine (French) says that they will apply sufficient technique to improve it while maintaining the natural perfection. You will taste the terroir and the chef's hand. That they aren't always successful in doing it is a function of their performance but isn't relevent to the scope of their efforts. That's Mill's quality argument isn't it? But in general, how can a perfectly executed recipe not deliver a better peach then just the plain peach? I can see rejecting it based on personal taste but on any other objective scale I don't see it. That's why Jaybee's question sort of comes down to, is it appropriate for people to put a highly objective scale on their dining experience? And why my answer is, well it all depends why people go out to eat.

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Yes, I see your point, but these points come back to the fact that it is your opinion that a perfectly cooked peach is "better" then a perfectly ripe raw peach. And I'm not sawing your are incorrect, just that I don't think that it is possible for you to convince all people of this view and I that is relavant to jaybees question.

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