What is the American fine dining experience all about and what it does it mean to me?I attempt to define this for myself and by no means is it meant to be the definitive treatise on the subject.
I welcome comments wholeheartedly, as usual. Don’t be afraid! Just say it!
Fine dining means salads that have a little bit of crispiness, but not so much that you can’t hear anything else while you are eating your lettuce. Salads that are cool, but not cold, and warm salads that are warm and not room temperature. Fresh, and I do mean fresh ingredients, the fresher the better, and this goes for all food served in a fine dining restaurant.
Much about fine dining has to do with the temperature at which the food is served. Most cooked food and raw food has a peak temperature where the flavor is as good as it gets. If a chef can get those plates out to the customer at peak temperatures and keep it that way over the course of the meal on dishes that have been heated or cooled accordingly, then we have a wonderful meal, and very satisfied customers.
We also want to taste a lot of flavor in some cases, and very subtle flavors in other cases. For instance, onions are a major seasoning in American cuisine, but it’s a flavor that one normally wants to remain in the background, underneath the flavor of the meat or other food it is seasoning. Chefs will almost always opt for green onions, or scallions, or leeks, over yellow or white or red onions. Sometimes they will use three or more types of onion, ginger, cinnamon, etc to get depths of flavor that one won’t find at Mickey Dee’s.
We also like to see the flavor linger nicely for awhile in our mouths as another sign of fine dining. A good flavor, well spiced or seasoned will last and fill the mouth with flavor, and that will stay until we eat something or drink something, or for up to an hour or so. (I asked myself when I get home, shall I brush now or wait? hahaha) This is true of savory dishes, spicy dishes, or sour dishes, but not so much sweet dishes, as sugar easily blends into other liquids.
Texture is another thing to consider. Steaks should melt like butter on your tongue. Fish should be tender, and flaky, not rubbery or swimming in oily fats. Natural aged cheese should be smooth and hold together when melted…only processed cheese is going to split and separate into a sea of oily goo.
Pasta should have the slightest tooth or crunch to it, very slight. Mushy pasta is not acceptable as it is really just very weak, tasteless glue at that point. Breads should have characteristics based on the kind of bread they are, such as a chewy toothy bread is for dipping into sauces and juices, like tomato sauce,
Italian beef drippings. Most fine dining restaurants serve a warm sliced, freshly baked bread or buns with a nice even texture, smooth, and light, with a light crust…real butter on the side.
Vegetables should not be mushy and overly done either. They should have the slightest bite to them, and each bite should be as the previous one. This makes for easy chewing, and no surprises that might cause choking hazards to the table. Raw vegetables and fruit should be ripe and the color should be rich and deep. I don’t accept green red tomatoes or whitish strawberries or dark avocado.
Seeds are not usually desirable in or on any tomato, bread or sauce. Eating seeds creates a medical problem for some people as they irritate the digestive system. Most restaurants clearly state when seeds
are present on bread or in a recipe, but don’t really mention fruit or vegetable seeds, as that is considered a given (generally known).
Americans are used to ice in their cold drinks, but other countries use little if any ice. Cold is hard on the body ,and to me, a cool drink with just a modicum of ice is good. Every time my drink gets to that point, someone comes and fills it…same for hot drinks, not that good for us…my coffee cools off, here comes some more. Stop filling! Ask me first! Too late,oh, well, can’t have everything. I should ask for less ice right away.
The little lemon slice you get with your iced tea, or with your fish, and should be firm and in no way slimy. This is very important. If you see a restaurant giving slimy lemons, it may be symptomatic of a restaurant with problems. Ask for a fresh lemon in any case.
Next is aroma. If you walk into a restaurant and all you smell is garlic…well that’s not fine dining in America. Maybe in Italy. You want to smell an appetizing aroma that makes you want to sit down and eat, but not one that is gonna go home with you in your hair and clothes. We leave that for White Castle. Most meals should not be so over whelming that you are smelling your partner’s food all the while you are eating your own meal.
Another thing, ingredients…how raised, where found…food should be fresh, organic, wild caught in the case of fish, free range, in the case of chicken and the four legged animals No animal should be mistreated, shot up with hormones, stuffed or caged. No herbs should be sprayed or hot house grown when you are paying over $20 or more per plate. Hopefully, local restaurants all use locally grown eggs, lettuce, onions and other common foods when in season. One day we will be able to eliminate all harmful additives, but today, you pay a bit more for that.
Oh, and the final test for great American dining, or any dining, is how you feel an hour later, and into the next day. If you are burping, popping and otherwise making sounds you wouldn’t want the queen to hear, you probably had a chef that did his or her internship at the same high school you went to way back when. Fortunately that doesn’t happen too often. After the meal you should feel good, satisfied, energized and ready to take on that project you are working on, or go for a nice stroll, or just be relaxed and content.
A good chef knows how to combine all the elements of the meal so that no discomfort is caused and there is no reason to complain. This is the art of fine cuisine. This is what makes it all come together and makes it all worth doing…the food, the service, the ambiance, the company you keep, and to heck with the costs, if just for one night a year.
That’s it for now. Remember, this is just my own take, what I have picked up over the years and what I have observed during our cross country eating trek of the last 12 years and beyond. Once again, comments are welcomed and wanted. What do you have to say? What was the best meal you ever had? And what made it so good? A loving touch, a beautiful view, or a flavor that reminds you of happy times?