The $500 tasting menu at the Restaurant at Meadowood, in St. Helena, California, begins with a leaf. Four leaves, actually, stuck to two stems and seasoned with salt. “Borage,” my waiter says.
After the leaf course come a kale chip, a ball of carrot cake, a pumpernickel macaron, lily bulbs and radish pods -- a collection of ingredients that, if placed in a plastic bag and sold from a roadside stand, wouldn’t fetch enough money to cover the $40 taxi ride back to my hotel. (The hotel is just 6 miles away; tasting menus aren’t the only expensive thing here in the Napa Valley.)
The 21-course meal at Meadowood contains no langoustines or foie gras (now banned under California law) and only a hint of caviar and a modicum of lobster. Meadowood isn’t unique in this regard, Bloomberg Pursuits magazine will report in its Autumn 2013 issue. Many of the priciest restaurants, particularly in California, are finding luxury in ingredients commonly relegated to the crudites section of a wedding buffet.
At The French Laundry, in nearby Yountville, by contrast, the traditional, protein-rich tasting menu might begin with butter-warmed oysters anointed with sturgeon caviar, followed by lobster tail, white Alba truffle risotto and Japanese Wagyu beef. Dinner for two, with wine pairings, can run $1,300.
At Meadowood’s chef’s counter, the protein-light tasting for two, plus wine pairings, will exceed $2,000. Is it worth it?
Consider this: The kale chip is sauteed to the texture of perfectly prepared pork rinds. (It doesn’t hurt that chef Christopher Kostow adds a dollop of chorizo puree.) The lily bulbs taste like cantaloupe crossed with lychees. And those borage leaves? They mimic the fragrant rush of honeydew, without the cloying finish, in the same magical way that a dry Alsatian riesling might evoke the essence of apricot.
In other words, my counter meal at Meadowood isn’t moderately more enjoyable than my most recent experience at The French Laundry; it’s infinitely more enjoyable.
“People are realizing that luxury doesn’t have to mean caviar and lobster anymore,” says chef David Kinch, of two-Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos, California, which serves no caviar or lobster (and, quite frankly, very little animal protein) during my $185 tasting in July. What I do get is a plate of warm, soft strawberries. They’re infused with essence of anchovy and are so fragrant I begin savoring them long before they hit my palate.
At Daniel or Per Se in New York, eating produce-heavy fare involves ordering from a vegetarian menu. But at venues like Manresa, or Atelier Crenn and Saison in San Francisco, you simply show up to partake of tastings in which half or more of the courses might revolve around plants.
$248 Prix Fixe
When you think about it, dining has really come full circle. When you were young, your parents told you to eat your lima beans. Now that you’re all grown-up, you’re being fed Sun Gold tomatoes with sardine-infused tomatillo water at Saison as part of a $248 prix fixe.
Until a few years ago, a typical nine-course tasting menu worked like this: caviar, followed by foie gras, shellfish, fish, pork, red meat, cheese, sorbet and, finally, a rich dessert. Then, in the autumn of 2011, I was sitting in the dining room of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Pocantico Hills, New York -- Dan Barber’s ode to the bountiful Hudson River Valley -- when something strange happened. After four hours of breathtakingly delicious savory fare, the sweets started rolling in and I thought to myself: Wait a minute -- where’s the beef? (And lamb? And pork?)
Flurry of Crudites
Instead, Barber blitzkrieged me with a flurry of crudites, followed by embryonic egg shavings, onion cooked over housemade biodegradable charcoal, a bone-marrow interlude and an heirloom-grain brioche that included a brief tableside lecture on the history of wheat cultivation. When I ask Barber today about that meal, which I’d estimate as 60 percent vegetables, he responds that things have actually moved even further in that direction: “Generally speaking, you’re looking at 70 to 80 percent vegetables and grains now.”
In France, Alain Passard started bucking the fatty trend back in 2001, when he abruptly announced he’d stop serving red meat at his three-Michelin-starred L’Arpege in Paris. Diners now happily fork over 365 euros for a cornucopia of vegetables from Passard’s garden, along with some shellfish and poultry for good measure.
In the U.S., on the other hand, Barber says he sometimes gets pushback in response to his vegetable-heavy fare. “We do get a lot of people who feel quite ripped off at not having a traditional tasting menu,” he says. “At these prices, they’re expecting lobster, even though we’re on a farm.”
Meat as Seasoning
Blue Hill at Stone Barns nevertheless remains one of New York’s toughest reservations. Manresa, too, is at capacity during my Wednesday-night meal in July. “A lot of our clientele is of Asian ancestry,” Kinch says. “They grew up in cultures where the cuisine was vegetables seasoned with meat. So it’s not a new concept.”
He’s right: There’s nothing new about Brussels sprouts fortified with bacon. But take that idea to a higher plane and you have Manresa’s cassava root with fish sauce or Meadowood’s lobster, where the crustacean isn’t a 2-pound indulgence but rather a sweetening agent for lily bulbs, petals and stamens. Meadowood chef Kostow calls it root-to-fruit dining -- a clever riff on the nose-to-tail bacchanals popularized by Britain’s Fergus Henderson and other carnivorous cooks.
Yet in a world in which most countries measure the good life by an abundance of animal protein, how does one appreciate carrots costing 10 times that of the supermarket variety?
Pommes de Terre
“Luxury at this level requires a certain degree of awareness,” Kostow says. Take his preparation of pommes de terre, in which La Ratte potatoes are cooked ever so slowly in beeswax. Sounds cheap. It isn’t. “The beeswax alone is $100 to $200 a pound,” he says.
The beeswax imparts a honeyed flavor to the potato, while an accompanying potato puree and crispy potato bits scattered around the plate give the dish the texture of an ice cream sundae. It’s outstanding, even if you don’t know the cost.
“Try this -- it’s called chocolate mint,” says Stephan Garaffo, the garden manager at Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz, California, plucking a plant. The name of the herb is appropriate, as the rich, dark flavor is oddly reminiscent of a York Peppermint Pattie.
Love Apple, run by attorney-turned-farmer Cynthia Sandberg, supplies Manresa with much of its produce. Garaffo is giving me a tasting tour of the grounds, handing me runner beans (the cool flavor of watermelon rind), French sorrel (like lettuce spiked with lime), green chrysanthemum flowers (tastes like carrot), ice lettuce (a crispy succulent with the texture of suede) and four different types of arugula whose relative strengths range from black pepper to high-grade wasabi.
The sorrel and ice lettuce make their way into Manresa’s take on gargouillou, the melange of 40 to 60 vegetables and herbs that Michel Bras made famous at his eponymous restaurant in Laguiole, France. Kinch’s ever-changing riff is no careless act of salad tossery. Its success lies in using sweeter ingredients (anise hyssop) to tame bitter ones (Vietnamese coriander). Kinch even throws in some flowers, which look dainty enough -- until you bite into one and discover the sweet sting of radish. “They’re calorie-free little Starbursts of flavor,” the chef quips.
The tight relationships that Manresa, Meadowood and Stone Barns have with their respective farms allow them to harvest what Kinch calls “bespoke” vegetables, cultivated at great expense and tailored to the individual needs of each restaurant.
Love Apple grows tiny cucumbers for Manresa, which Kinch uses in his clam broth. The cukes distill all the grassy flavor of their adult-sized analogues into a single cornichon-sized bite. It’s the vegetarian equivalent of veal demi-glace, except there’s no sauce or messing around, just a straight-from-the-ground flavor bomb, bred into being by the good folks at Love Apple.
“In terms of cost, they require a lot more skill when you’re not getting them cleaned in a bag,” Kostow says.
Barber goes further, saying that when vegetarians come into the restaurant, he actually loses money, “just from the labor costs involved in making the vegetable menu haute enough.” Whatever the cost, Kostow’s ability to distill squash into a gorgeously perfumed water or Kinch’s skill in transforming fava beans into a stellar riceless risotto is, by any measure, truer to the magical heart of gastronomy than simply searing foie gras.
Gastronomy’s Magical Heart
About a quarter of the way into dinner at Meadowood, patrons are brought a clear bowl filled with fire-grilled whelks (marine snails as richly flavorful as steak), oyster leaves (a rare foliage that tastes like its namesake) and soft green tomatoes (that taste like, well, tomatoes). The dish is finished with clam broth that’s been frozen into little pebbles using liquid nitrogen. Once the broth melts, what started as a bright summer salad is transformed into a cold seafood chowder.
As the evening progresses, the kitchen moves on to more-familiar fare: king salmon and giant, cured roe; a crispy breast of squab; a filet mignon dry-aged beyond belief. Although typical of a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, they lack the envelope-pushing vibrancy of, say, Kostow’s raw scallop, which is simply a background note of brine to the dish’s main event: a crystal-clear pudding of cauliflower, trout roe and tapioca.
There are simply so many more plants than animal proteins in this world. If haute cuisine is going to move forward, if we are going to fully develop the new (and old) flavors of the Earth’s flora, chefs will need to take a page from Barber, Kostow and Kinch -- and depend far less on its fauna.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com.)