Don't think that I don't feel guilty about eating yummy things all the time. I do. Some things make me guiltier than others, especially as I try to wrestle ideas about food security to the ground and consider the realities of rising food costs and ask myself about the responsibilities of a privileged person in society today. Getting a trip to Paris is a luxury. Add fancy meals on top of that and it's almost more than a lefty liberal can handle. Another piece of gravel pie to assuage the guilt please, courtesy of J-P Sartre.
Still, I'm going to talk a little bit about a recent meal we enjoyed at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon - his scaled-back little boite that is supposed to be first come, first served (though they now take reservations for their first seatings). The no-reservations policy is supposed to have an equalizing effect, but this is not really your "bistro for the people" kind of place. They say:
The concept? A kitchen opened on a circular bar with 36 seats that allows clients to follow the service, to watch the succession of dishes, and to compose their own meal according to their appetite, as the menu offers all the great classics to taste in small, tapas-style portions. A large choice of carefully selected wines is available by the glass. Attentive service, warm and casual ambience and impeccable cuisine directed by Joël Robuchon. High-quality cuisine in a convivial, elegant and affordable atmosphere.
As you sit down, the waiter immediately offers a glass of champagne. Let the festivities begin! Sitting at the bar you're enveloped in delicious smells as chefs in the distance do their kitchen ballet, waitstaff flurries and chicken roasts on an open rotisserie. The 120 euro 9-course tasting menu? Or the springtime specials? We learned a painful lesson with an overly large tasting menu at Alinea - and food is supposed to be about enjoyment, right? So, seasonal choices seem like the right way to go. We split the asparagus starter (it costs 40 euros!), but it's entirely more than enough for each of us and is incredibly delicious. I don't usually think of asparagus as meaty, but this was the thick stalks that I like, partially peeled, so sweet and fresh that it almost tastes like corn with a velvety sauce on the side that I would like to drink.
B has ordered a large pork chop with a gratifying pile of morels, and for me, roasted Bresse chicken with fois gras on toast. Of course it's all fantastically delicious and perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned. The sommelier has picked out wines to match the food for us and they're absolutely lovely. Like your favorite married couples, one of the few times where I've thought the food and the wine brought out the best in each other. The Americans next to us have ordered the tasting menu so we get to see what that looks like - a progression of tiny, delicious artworks on dinnerware. The French people on the other side seem to be ordering the entire menu. They are normal size people so I cannot comprehend how they have eaten a large dinner, then followed it by a cheese course and then not one, not two, but three dessert courses. Followed by coffee. And more drinks. It's astonishing.
Somehow, I'm reminded of fast food in that the experience is not really so much about the actual food. It's mostly an actor playing its part. (As are you, dear diner.) The restaurant is a stage, as you can tell by the dramatic lighting, the action at stage left, and the artful stage props - lighted bowls of paper-cut cucumbers and yards-long strips of red peppers. Although the food is unreservedly delicious, it feels weird to have to pay a premium for people to be nice to you as they make sure your experience is appropriately rarified.
A day or two later I make a simple dinner at home of asparagus I bought at the bio-marché, sauteed in butter and garlic, with a lightly fried egg on top (a trick I thought of thanks to a recipe for greens with an egg at the Gastronomical Three). We still have some of the nice cheese I got at Androuet, and some terrine from the Coesnon charcuterie down the street. The wine is from the Nicolas shop nearby. This dinner may be slightly less delicious than the meal at Robuchon, but I enjoy it every bit as much. And at 1/10 the price, it seems like a pretty good deal.
Apparently, the lesson for me is that the enjoyment of food has a lot to do with the actual food and understanding how it got to my table. Does drama make dinner taste any better? I liked having the experience of eating at L'Atelelier de Joel Robuchon, and the food was certainly very good, the waiters as attentive as they promised. But that experience is more of an intellectual one - much as visiting a foreign country. It's only interesting because it's new one time. After that, there has to be something there that you love enough to keep going back.
For my part, I keep going back to my own kitchen. That's where the ultimate authority on quality control resides, where the best price-value proposition is, and where the proper appreciation of and gratitude for the actual food happens. And guilt rarely bothers to show his face.
"It is a far, far better thing that I eat, than I have ever eaten...."