I’m not sure when it turned for me…when dining itself became the only destination and less the thing to do before a movie or after a show. Where you could spend two or three hours trying new tastes in the company of someone special or a group of like-minded fools ready to drop the equivalent of a car payment on dinner.
I guess working at Savoia was a stab at seeing how people ate this way. At that time in my life I couldn’t imagine dropping that much scratch on a dinner. There I saw what I imagined to be rich folks being fawned over by our team, thinking that anyone who would drop $200 on a plate of goat cheese crostinis for an appetizer, a steak with some red potatoes and asparagus, maybe a roasted chicken for the lady and some wine had to be doing quite well.
In 1991, Bret Easton Ellis released American Psycho, his twisted black comedy that followed the life of Patrick Bateman, a wealthy young banker who spends his days “fitting in” and his nights in murderous insanity. I was living in Tulsa at the time and made my way to the bookstore, being a fan of his other works. As I read the novel what struck me as a restaurant guy was the attention paid to and focus on which restaurants they had reservations. Many scenes in the book were set in restaurants, bars and clubs. Some of the restaurants were real places in the fictional New York of the time (mid-80’s). While all of you were reading with horrified eyes the many scenes of hyper-violence and gore, I pored over the passages describing the different dishes being served, many of them the over-the-top, adjective filled, multi-syllabic cooking of the day. I wanted to try the Swordfish Meat Loaf with Onion Marmalade and Wasabi Mashed Potatoes or the Red Snapper scented with Violets and Pine Nuts over a Sweet Potato Hash. It just sounded so damn INTRIGUING.
I’ve had some great meals in my life, some at three star palaces with celebrity chefs and some at local dives where the only stars present (both celebrity and Michelin) were the ones in my head after too many whiskeys. Maybe it was the food, the service, the company on my arm that made the experience what it was but they are as varied as can be.
I’ll start off with the one that many food writers have made to be their “have-to”: The French Laundry.
The French Laundry came into being in 1994. I moved to SF Bay area from Texas in 1995. My friend Michael Meadows mentioned the restaurant and how he and his wife couldn’t wait to go there. Being pre-internet, I couldn’t just go online and check out the hype. But people were buzzy about it so I thought that might be a place to see. Being located in Yountville only made it more attractive since I was a big fan of wine country.
Problem is, I didn’t make it to the French Laundry until 8 years later, having moved back to Texas. We ventured to SF to try and recapture the romance of that time and place and then repaired to wine country for a few days. Being a restaurant guy, I had cajoled lodging and some winery tours from some of our vendors back home.
On a clear night we made our way to the restaurant. Arriving about 30 minutes early (such was my anticipation) we ventured inside and was told by the manager that our table would be ready at nine. We retreated to a local bar for a drink then returned at the appointed hour. The manager was again at the front and said, “Mr. Lory right this way please”. I was blown away that she remembered my name from our brief encounter 30 minutes before, especially given the number of guests leaving from the early seating, the ones arriving for our seating, the ones trying to get a last minute walk-in table and the ones who just wanted to gawk at this the temple of haute cuisine.
We made our way to our table and ordered the 10-course tasting menu. One by one amazing (and much-publicized) dishes came our way. Some I loved, some I didn’t and some I didn’t get. But the service was impeccable and the atmosphere intoxicating. At the end, as we were trying to force ourselves to eat the hand wrapped chocolates and mignardise (petit fours) after so much rich food, I looked over at the large round table in the center of the dining room and noticed none other than Jacques Pepin, the famous chef who helped to introduce French cuisine to America. He was holding court with 8 or 9 others. I am not a person who is celebrity-struck, even back in the Planet Hollywood days. But for a restaurant boy like me, this was the equivalent of dining next to culinary royalty. Or meeting Thomas Keller. Which was about to happen.
“Would you like to meet the Chef?”
My head was fogged from a day of wine tasting, driving all over the Napa Valley, 10 courses of rich decadence plus more wine. Perhaps I hadn’t heard him correctly.
To this day I don’t know if every table had the chance to go back and meet Chef Keller, if they picked me as a fellow restaurant dude or if they took pity on the one table who obviously had to save up many pennies to eat here. Don’t know don’t care. All I knew was that I was going to meet the master.
The server led us quietly to a hallway to the kitchen. There a tall figure in white was fiddling with a towel. He turned to us and said “hi, Thomas Keller”. I shook his hand and introduced us in return. He asked how the dinner was and I said it was great. I’m sure my delivery was not very elegant and that I stammered my words.
We left and made our way outside. There was a small garden to the right of the building and we went over there and looked inside through rectangular glass windows into the kitchen. There was the cleanest kitchen I had ever seen and in the center was Chef Keller sweeping his floors among the cooks and sous-chefs. I was in awe. Here was arguably the most exciting chef in America sweeping his own floors. My own KM’s back home didn’t even sweep the floors, not deigning to do something that they felt the line cooks or dishers should do.
Chef Keller autographed a menu for us, and Melissa made up a special display as a present for me a few months later.
But there have been other ones, experiences where the restaurant wasn’t so lauded, the chef not so well known. Where there was a simple special touch, like a location or a server or a menu item or a companion that made it special. Where it didn’t really cost a lot of money. And isn’t that what dining out is about? And isn’t that what we strive for as restaurant professionals?
The simple yet elevated cooking of Hattie’s in South Dallas. Low country Southern fare not seen in the area for some time. Their bacon-wrapped blue-cheese stuffed figs are legendary.
The crispy garlic chicken wings at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, before it became known as the best Thai restaurant in the country. In our time, Lotus was in a shambling strip mall on Sahara Avenue and every Wednesday a group of fellow fraternity brothers would jump into a car, classes be damned, for the all-you-can-eat buffet featuring these wings.
There was driving across the country, moving to San Francisco. That night we planned to stay in Albuquerque but I knew that driving an extra hour north would reward us with Coyote Cafe and Mark Miller. Miller once worked for the vaunted Alice Waters, then spread his wings and became a grandfather of Southwestern cuisine. We changed clothes at a New Mexico gas station, then drove up to Santa Fe. Amazing and worth the detour.
The dinner at Wink in Austin, where they put “Happy Birthday, Laura” at the top of their daily-printed menus for my girlfriend of the time. Little touches like that make my restaurant lifer pants go crazy…
The 48 oz double-cut Porterhouse steak at Mastro’s in LA, served sizzling with butter and sides. Drunk with bourbon and a day of revisiting old memories while hanging with old friend Kuehne, we devoured that steak then Ubered our way back to the hotel, stumbling inside to pass out sated and at peace.
There was the visit to Star Canyon prior to its sale to Carlson Restaurants. Knowing it had a finite life span as an independent, we quickly made reservations after the news of its impending sale and reveled in what would soon not exist, preferring to be a dumbed down, corporate version of itself in upcoming days. The Bone-In Cowboy Ribeye with Pinto-Wild Mushroom Ragout and Red Chile Onion Rings. A now-classic dish that Chef Stephan Pyles should be proud of. (As I was writing this passage, I went online and ordered his first cookbook, The New Texas Cuisine. Sure, its rather dated now and Chef Stephan has moved on to other successes, but I had to have it…).
There was Mary’s Trattoria in the West Village in NYC. Making our way up carpeted stairs to our table, the other diners having hushed intimate conversations wrapped like bubbles around them. I don’t remember what we ordered but we were New Yorkers for 2 glorious hours.
The sandwiches at Gezellig. This bar was the brainchild of a couple Dallas-area friends, who used a boozy trip to Europe to create a supercool Amsterdam-style watering hole. Beers were good, better than most being served in Dallas and definitely ahead of the current craft beer craze. BUT what I loved most about Gezellig were the sandwiches; big thick deli treats with corned beef or pastrami or roast beef. Still the best deli sandwiches ever.
The tenderloin tamale at Reata in Fort Worth. Instead of poor cuts of meat scraps being ground up and stuff into a corn husk, they used the trimmings from breaking down full tenderloins; rich, succulent meat. Topped with a pecan mash, these things were melt-in-your-mouth.
There was the Short-Rib Foie Gras Burger at Paris Vendome in Dallas. This thing was mind-blowing, and presaged the rise of gourmet, “better burgers” that followed 10 years later.
There have been so many that I could go on and on. And probably will in postings to follow…