With all thanks to Matthew Fort for this blog.
A pernicious inverted snobbery is stalking the land. It’s become habitual for restaurant critics to take every opportunity to deride ‘fine dining’, as if it were some contemptible gastronomic heresy. A bit of theatrical oo-la-la, suave service, comfortable upholstery, above all, tasting menus, are held up as if they were smelly underpants, to be sniffed at by a well-bred contemporary nose. It’s as if the acme of modern eating out should be reduced to a narrow paradigm rather than been treated as a spectrum on which different kinds of restaurants serve different people looking for different experiences on different occasions.
I’m all for the democratisation of eating out, but it seems to me that by condemning high-end restaurants reduces the possibility of pleasure. As too often in this country, food is used as a form of social exclusion, and, instead of promoting the idea that anyone should feel an inalienable right to go to such places (as the do in Italy, Spain, France, Denmark, for example), the message is given de haut en bas that you really shouldn’t bother with fine dining because you really wouldn’t enjoy it.’
Like all dining, fine dining can be well done or badly done. When it’s badly done, it’s a tedious bore of prodigious expense. When well done, it is an impeccably crafted journey that cossets the senses, lifts the spirits and sends us out soothed and strengthened to face the sturm und drang of life.
And, dare I say that many of us actually enjoy the occasional bout of dressing up and being pampered in expensive luxury – snowy napery, heavy gravity cutlery, wine glasses as delicate as a butterfly’s wing, the deft way our needs are met, nay, anticipated, the understated psychotherapy of the high grade waiter, the ordered swish and glide of the service, the sense that we don’t have to worry about anything (except possibly the bill). Even tasting menus have their part to play in this palliative process. The whole anxiety of deciding what to eat is taken away from us. There’s none of that havering over whether this dish will go with that, or wishing we had what someone else is having. Tasting menus bring equality before the menu. The whole experience is – or should be – akin to sinking into the back seat of a turbo-charged Bentley Continental and saying ‘Home James, Hone James, and don’t spare the horses’ to the person occupying the drivers seat.
The only question you really need to ask yourself at the end of any meal, is ‘ Do I mind paying the bill?’ If you’ve been separated from your heard-earned dish without a quiver of pain, then it’s been worth it. If, on the other hand you feel a deep sense of resentment, then you haven’t. In my experience I am just as likely to feel the latter in some uber fashionable, carefully distressed, down-and-dirty, post-industrial effect modern eatery that’s been hailed as the Second Coming by a collection of metro smarty pants as I am in some damask, glittering glassware, 21-course tasting-menu temple of gastronomy.