Eating At The World's Best Restaurants
A run of culinary good luck requires some reflection...
Over the past month I’ve had the outrageous fortune to eat at some of the best restaurants in the world. Apologies to all the dinners I’ve loved before, but there is, in fact, a difference between top-tier meals and the local café on the corner. What makes them special, and what allows them to get away with charging amounts that could also book a trans-Atlantic flight, is what truly fascinates me.
To start: what does that even mean, “best restaurants”? Of course it’s completely subjective. In this case, all it indicates is that people who get paid to rank these things have consistently put these restaurants near the top. If there are over 20,000 restaurants in New York City alone, does that mean they’ve visited all of them? Of course not. But you’ve got to believe that through word of mouth and the reputation of great chefs, these critics and rankers are decently good at pulling out the best the world has to offer.
The two recent restaurants are these: Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Alinea; both were wedding presents to me and my fiancée (one of a couple reasons to get married). And just because I think it merits it, I’ll also include our dinner back at Sushi Nakazawa in 2019. Each is different in cuisine and approach, but there are threads that run through all of them.
Performance (Not Service):
When you think of a 5 star hotel, you often think of a concierge that goes out of their way to help you. Or you think of a 3 a.m. omelet that came 10 minutes later, perfectly cooked. (These are both guesses; I don’t stay in 5 star hotels.) That’s service: responding immediately to the requests of clients, and even going above and beyond.
That’s not what happens at these restaurants. Let’s start small.
When we sat down at Nakazawa’s sushi counter, the chef immediately noticed that Marisa reached for her water glass with her left hand. Without us even noticing, he smoothly moved her chopsticks and ginger to her left. Each piece of sushi was then placed towards her dominant hand; same with mine. Each waiter in the restaurant somehow also got the signal and adjusted their serving style accordingly. It’s a magical performance of the exact right things appearing in the exact right place…. before you even knew you needed them.
At Blue Hill, there was a ballet of servers for each plate that was put down and picked up, especially at the larger tables. They would swirl in unison, stop and drop, stop and drop, stop and drop. Choreographed. The waiter would emerge at the end like he was announcing the next act and opening the curtain. “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you, fresh… from the farm outside… the red pepper egg yolk!!” And just when you were finished, the same dance emerged to smoothly whisk away any hint of that previous course. Again, magic.
If we’re talking about magic, then of course you have to talk about Alinea. At this point “great service” is an afterthought because they have thought of every second of your senses throughout the entire meal. The soundtrack changes based on the course. Fog emerges from below the table. A roaring fire laps at a coconut shell in front of you while your salmon dish doubles as a piece of incense.
Oh by the way, make sure to turn your dish over when you’re done because underneath are fish eggs that have been suspended in gelatin, waiting to be discovered while you, like an idiot, thought it was just a piece of salmon. This is a restaurant that has their own dishware factory so they can custom-create a skull to serve that one bite for that one Mexican dish. Performance.
Quality (The Foundation Matters):
There are some excellent chefs anywhere you live that can do some incredible things with the right spices, marinades, and combinations of ingredients. Not everyone can afford to, nor wants to, go out of their way to get the best ingredients. All three of these places would never dream of starting with anything less.
At Nakazawa, it’s a piece of fish, usually with little to no seasoning at all, resting on rice. That’s it. There is nowhere to hide. You are trusting in their ability to choose great fish, store it correctly, prepare it precisely, and rest it on a tiny amount of perfectly cooked rice.
That last part seems trivial. You haven’t had rice until you’ve been to a sushi place that cares as much as Nakazawa does. It’s buttery. The texture lingers on your tongue, staying together to support the fish but breaking apart perfectly as you bite down. It’s moist and the grains are perfectly sized. Rice has no business getting this many words but this rice probably deserves more.
Then add on a fatty piece of tuna and watch it slowly settle onto the rice before you pop it into your mouth, no soy sauce needed. Marisa still makes fun of me for tearing up on my first bite, but my whole body literally reacted when I tasted it. That, on a dish with two ingredients.
Blue Hill manages to pull off what is the easiest thing to parody. “I went to a fine dining restaurant last night and they gave me a stalk of fennel and five cherries.” That’s a thing that happened, yes. Those were 2 of our 15 courses.
How did they pull it off? That fennel was from the farm right outside. It was the most pampered piece of fennel on planet earth, and it was so good looking it should have starred in the Top Gun sequel. The crunch was wild. They somehow had managed to produce the perfect piece of fennel. Now is the perfect piece of fennel worth paying hundreds of dollars for? Of course not, but it’s a metaphor for how seriously they take each ingredient.
They also gave us two single-udder butters - that is two butters made from two different individual cows - that each tasted different and were the best butters we had ever had. We then put them on four pieces of bread using baking methods from four different centuries - the best bread we had ever had. I can still taste those bites. The meats, the egg yolk shavings on a pea soup - each dish was simple and wild. They had gotten the best out of nature and they knew it.
Alinea I feel like could use month-old tuna from Arizona and still find a way to make it delicious. Fortunately, they decide to combine great ingredients with top notch cooking. There were a few dishes when they stepped back and said “here’s a simple dish just to show we’re not hiding the ball.” They then used those amazing ingredients to concoct wild experiments that stretched the elemental table. It felt like a lesson in “master the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Space (Where You Live For 3 Hours):
If any of these meals were served at a greasy New York diner, I would love them and eat there regularly (and probably get gout). But my memories of each of these restaurants is so tied to the interior and the environment they create. The images from all three nights will stick with me as much as the food.
Nakazawa is a black-stone temple of solitude, dedicated to the fish. They’ve recently pushed a lot harder into dining room service as well so perhaps this bubble is punctured, but the memory I have is almost spa-like, or perhaps like an induction ceremony to a secret society. “Welcome, do you accept this chu-toro as your eternal father and savior.” “I do.” You sink into the high backed leather stools and everything else melts away. It serves to focus your senses on each bite of sushi.
Blue Hill is a constant reminder that you are in a temple of farm-to-table. Each carrot has a backstory, each pheasant a name. It’s barnyard chic, with a big centerpiece and a chandelier made of sticks and candles. The windows overlook the farm you are eating from. Mid-meal they took us to an actual barn just for us, with a slab of wood and benches, surrounded by pitchforks and lights coming down from the pulleys that used to hang bales of hay. Perhaps the food tasted that much better as we consistently convinced ourselves of how fresh it was.
At Alinea we cheated a bit. My Aunt is a master diner and reserved the room next to the kitchen. Nothing but a pane of glass separated us from the scientists creating our food. The other two walls were mirrors, so there was no bad seat at the table. The dinner lasted three hours but there was never any lull in the conversation: either another dish was on its way, another bite was being enjoyed, or another secret was being uncovered as we studied the chefs.
To add on to it, they played with their space as well. That fog I mentioned before? It emerged during dessert. The lights darkened, rock music blared, a red strobe light reflected off the smoke, and two chefs created our ice cream blocks/crumbles/fossils right in front of us. The table was their counter. The table was our plate.
These restaurants are at the top of the culinary heap. But if I had all the money in the world, how often would I go? If I could get into Alinea and Blue Hill anytime I wanted, would I go every night? Every week? Every month? What they have achieved is a masterpiece of cooking and showmanship.
But just like I wouldn’t go see Hamilton every week on Broadway, there is a uniqueness and feeling of wonder that feels best enjoyed sparingly. I feel lucky that I got to go even once. As for other restaurants, as long as the vibe is great or the food is good enough, it’s more about the people you’re with anyway. The restaurant is the backdrop for a gathering.
It is good to know, however, that restaurants do exist that are definitely the main event.