Food porn

Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle Magazine was a “Food and Wine” issue–and this time, nearly the whole issue was one long story by Michael Bauer, the head restaurant critic, regaling us with his latest meals at each of seven four-star restaurants in the Bay Area, as part of a 13-restaurant orgy (ordering the “chef’s tasting menu and suggested wine pairings” at each restaurant). The experience resulted in upping the total number of Chron 4-star choices from four to seven.

“Even if you never step foot inside the French Laundry or Chez Panisse, there are myriad reasons why anyone who loves food–even if it’s no more glamorous than burgers and pizza–should care.”

Before descending into pure food-porn mode, Bauer explains some of those reasons–four-star restaurants are “the culinary equivalent of haute couture,” with what happens there drifting down to less exotic restaurants later on (so we’re all in for “infusions, foams and gelees” in a few years?). “What some might perceive as a frivolous indulgence is a glimpse of the future.”

And it’s a good deal too! “For example, a meal of about 16 courses and a dozen wines at Campton Place costs about $200. An 85-minute wrap, facial and massage treatment at the high-end spa Bliss is $215, tip not included. My recent four-star meals were not only just as restorative, but the memory of my delight at cutting into a foie gras torchon and releasing an amber stream of aged maple syrup will last for years.”

What? You thought I was kidding about “food porn”? And for those of you who believe San Francisco is hopelessly politically correct, note that Bauer’s example includes a foodstuff that neither my wife nor I will eat even if it’s offered free, given what’s involved in producing foie gras. (Yes, we’ve had it offered: We do cruise on fairly high-end ships.) That aged syrup spurting from the forcefed-goose-liver torchon: Wait for it at TGIFriday!

It’s not that we’re never going to be able to afford meals like this, so I’m looking on with jealousy: That’s not true, as it happens. It’s not even that I’ve never encountered one of these restaurants–back in the 70s, I had lunch once and dinner once at Chez Panisse, and walked away dissatisfied both times. (Maybe I’m just not cut out for high-priced restaurants where you Get What We Serve You, No Choices Offered.)

Two things struck me about this gastronomic orgy, one while I was reading it, one not until I was thinking about it this morning:

  • There’s not one of these meals that I would want to eat. Not one. That’s not surprising; the whole “tasting menu” thing leaves me cold in any case. (As a side-note, when we were on one of Radisson Seven Seas’ cruise ships, where one of the alternative restaurants offered a tasting menu, we heard that you could always get into that restaurant with no advance notice…and that few people ever returned.) I really don’t want a dinner composed of seven, or nine, or twelve, or 16 little bits of constructed food, particularly when (as in two restaurants here) nobody else at the table gets the same food prepared the same way. I’d like three or four courses (maybe five) that I can enjoy from beginning to end–and I really don’t want a different little glass of wine with each course!
  • The hallmark of California cuisine is respect for ingredients–meat served with wine reductions or light peppercorn sauce instead of overpowering sauces, vegetables served so you enjoy the taste and texture, and so on. It strikes me that most of these menus featured composed food: food with so many ingredients in such bizarre combinations that you’re admiring the culinary architecture, not the ingredients themselves.

Of course, I’m not a restaurant critic, always looking for the hot new experience. And I’ve known for a long time that I’m not a true gourmet: I appreciate good food, but I’m not excited about haute cuisine. Your mileage may vary; if so, Bauer’s article will certainly show you some of the hot places to go. You won’t find me there, though.

3 Responses to “Food porn”

  1. Nicolas Morin Says:

    That’s right, producing Foie Gras is pretty rough but, Boy, you do miss something! With a nice white Sauternes, or, better still, much more original but harder to find, a Vin de Paille! That being said, there’s a wide variety of qualities in Foie Gras, and it can be really bad.
    It’s found on almost every French family’s christmas table and each member of the family usually has a choice for the first course: Foie Gras, or Salmon, or Oysters.
    Gee, just talking about it…

  2. walt Says:

    “Pretty rough.” There’s an understatement. I’m no vegetarian, and spent enough time on a farm as a child to have no qualms about eating eggs, chickens, turkeys, and beef. (Veal is another issue, and in fact I don’t eat veal.)

    But foie gras, for me, falls into the category where the end can’t possibly justify the means. If I heard that cat stew was the world’s greatest dish (particularly if the cats are force-fed for two or three weeks), I wouldn’t be able to eat it either.

    For a San Francisco food critic, it’s particularly interesting: The state outlaws production of foie gras (the law takes full effect in 2012) for humanitarian reasons, joining a dozen or so civilized nations, but the critic sure does love those spurting chunks…

    I never thought I’d favor Arnold Schwarzenegger over Alice Waters, but given Waters’ bogus “oh, ducks gorge themselves before they migrate anyway” copout and The Governator’s surprise signature on the foie gras ban, I’ll make an exception in this case.

  3. Nicolas Morin Says:

    Hum. More or less the same debate as for corridas I guess: just the kind of issue that does make some strange political bedfellows.
    I have to say that even though I don’t oppose the production of foie gras, I wouldn’t oppose a law outlawing it either… which, for *cultural* reasons (here you have it…) is pretty unlikely in France (there’s an understatement).


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