Sunday, April 3rd, 2011
Ce n’est pas une pipe, and this is not a restaurant review. It could be a story about Christopher Kostow, the 3rd-youngest chef, and only the 2nd American-born, ever to earn 3 Michelin stars; it could also be a story about giggling over amuse-bouches like Harold & Kumar with a locked-and-loaded bong, or about the first – and, considering my embarrassment, I hope the only – time that I leaked tears over a bite of food. Ultimately, however, a meal at The Restaurant is about much more, and also much less, than all that: it’s a story about uncompromising vision, about what can be accomplished when a man embraces the impossible yardstick of perfection as the measure of his work.
Nowhere is the treachery of images more insidious than in the case of food: How to convey the sensation of biting into a warm, crispy “pillow”, garnished with a tiny, jewel-like flower and served on a “real” pillow of silk, filled with a tangy mousse of fromage blanc, so exquisitely delicate and yet unexpectedly piquant as it bursts across the tongue…
…or a “crudite” of baby carrots and radishes the size of my babies’ fingers, served in a bowl of lettuce cream and buried under an airy, crystalline pile of perfectly white tomato “snow”, whimsically transforming pot-luck snack food into haute cuisine?
And that was only the first wave of amuse-bouches, the stuff that had my wife I giggling like schoolgirls before we finished ordering. The rest of the meal was considerably more complex, often technically virtuosic, occasionally even jarring – an unpleasantly stringy garnish distracting from my wife’s otherwise delicious soup of green garlic and almond milk – but, always, built on a seamlessly integrated foundation of flavors: The savory cigar of rolled hamachi and veal tongue sous vide, accented by caviar and a tendon suc, like some sushi chef’s hallucinatory riff on vitello tonnato; the impossibly tasty, individually fried leaves of a brussel sprout accenting an egg poached so gently it had the texture of soft custard; or the intricately composed cheese course, punctuated by a perfectly rectangular slice of whipped Stilton “cheese cake” with a frosting of port wine gelee.
But these are mere examples, particular moments, random flashbacks; they explain the medium, but not necessarily the message. For me, the evening my wife and I spent at The Restaurant, as good as the food tasted – to be sure, it all tasted very, very good – was less about eating per se, and more about hitching a ride with Mr. Kostow and his staff, sharing their journey down the road of uncompromising commitment:
Commitment does not always guarantee success, which is why, despite my inherent skepticism of management-speak, I like Dave Cheketts’ line – success builds character, failure reveals it – and, with all due respect to their otherwise impeccable service, it was perhaps the staff’s one mistake that said the most about their character: A slight misstep, the clatter of a crashing bowl piercing the hushed atmosphere like a cowbell in a church choir, and our neighboring diner was wearing his soup, instead of eating it, a swath of white linen, plush carpet, and the poor guy’s jacket looked like an electric-green Jackson Pollack.
A tiny mistake, really, in any other context. But when I spoke about it with a staff member the next day, this was quelle scandale for Mr. Kostow and his team, requiring a day of staff meetings to discuss what it means to perform every task correctly, to remain disciplined, and above all, to ensure that it never happened again. As the staff member explained it, you have a bowl of soup in your hand; you have a table in front of you; there is nothing in between. Therefore, there is never an excuse for failing to get the soup from your hand to the table. Never. Now, take that deceptively simple precept, and apply it to every aspect of a restaurant – ingredients, technique, service – and you will have a sense of what The Restaurant is about. Uncompromising.Inevitably, someone will ask if it’s all worth it, “only” $115 for four courses, or a tasting menu with wine pairings that pushes dinner for two with tax and tip to a crushing $900 – why even bother writing about restaurants that most mortal folk will never even consider going to? Restaurant critic Michael Bauer has his answer, and it’s only fair to point out that The Restaurant is priced competitively with, say, two-star Cyrus in Healdsburg and three-star Le Bernardin in New York City, and is substantially cheaper than The French Laundry and most three-star establishments in Europe and Japan. But quite frankly, I find that whole line of debate uninteresting. Who cares whether or not I can afford to eat there, or whether a meal is worth your mortgage payment? All we, as consumers, can reasonably ask is that we get what we pay for; us to decide whether or not to pay. Absolute commitment of any sort comes at a heavy price, and Mr. Kostow and his staff are, if nothing else, absolutely committed.
[photo credits: Wikipedia & Meadowood Resort]