The Age of the Restaurant Gimmick

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Gorgeous apple starter from Maude

We live in the age of the gimmicky restaurant; an age that consistently leaves me hankering for the good old days when a meal meant a straightforward meal. I realize that competition in the culinary world is fierce and that the food business is one of the hardest industries to carve a living within—so I understand why chefs and restaurateurs are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to stand out from the crowd so as to attract their share of diners. But, sometimes, it goes too far as the Cute Gardener and I have seen all too frequently of late.

Take San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions, with its Americanized version of the dim sum joint, for example. It has been lauded as the greatest thing since the reversed foie gras ban. So like every devout foodie, we tried to get reservations when visiting the city last summer. The reservations game was a feat in itself as the CG spent many a day online trying to finagle our way in. Our actual visit was tepid at best. While we enjoyed a few of the items we ordered off the menu, the roving carts of additional options were a confusing mix of seemingly random dishes that didn’t pair well together or make choosing a wine for the evening very easy. I imagine they are shooting themselves in the foot by missing out on bottle wine sales because of the inability of guests to foresee what they might be eating. Also, after watching carts stroll the room multiple times hawking fresh fare like ceviche, it doesn’t seem that appealing to grab one on its fourth or fifth time around. By the end of the evening, all the cart items are offered in a sort of blow out sale, which made us wonder why we weren’t able to just know what we are being offered at the beginning of our meal. Overall, the concept just didn’t fly across cultures. At least in a real dim sum restaurant, everything is cohesive and makes sense.

Another restaurant that tried the dim sum concept was The Church Key in Los Angeles. We had heard rave reviews about the place from friends and were looking forward to eating in the brightly lit dining room we had seen on the show Best New Restaurant. On the show, there had been flaming cocktails and roving carts offering so many side dishes that many patrons had to turn their “dim done” cards up on the tables so as not to be constantly disturbed. On the night we went, we visited the website for a look at some of their signature drinks and dishes and read about the restaurant’s fun style which apparently carried right down to the interesting flight attendant-like uniforms on the servers. When we arrived though, it was as if we had entered a time warp to a totally different restaurant that had kidnapped The Church Key’s space and replaced it with a new identity. No flight attendant uniforms clad the blasé wait staff. One cart of food came by our table during the entire two hours we were there and the falafel we chose off of it was gluey and seemed like it had been re-fried after being made a couple days ago. Although we saw people with some of the better-known gimmicks, like the bowl of shared alcoholic punch, it was nary to be found on a menu. The room was dark. It was as if the owners and chefs had gone on vacation and the kids were left to tend house and decided to do their own thing, including throwing leftovers in the microwave. Or perhaps the restaurant was simply suffering from being born with too many gimmicks that didn’t holdover or translate as viable or economically sound options in the long run.

Last week we went to Maude, which is the high-end restaurant brainchild of Australian Chef Curtis Stone in homage to his grandmother. The gimmick is relatively simple: take one seasonal ingredient and make it shine across nine or ten dishes done creatively in haute gourmet fashion. We like Curtis and were looking forward to eating there for the year  it took us to finally get a reservation. Because it is so difficult to get a reservation, it is hard to plan a visit there around an ingredient of your choosing. We missed out on figs, morels, and other things we might have preferred to the apples we were served all evening when we finally got in. We had a marvelous evening there and the food, for the most part, was superb, but it was decidedly hard to eat apple dishes all evening with a high level of enthusiasm when we were forking over two hundred bucks a pop for the meal. Out first, and possibly only, opportunity to eat food from a chef we’ve long admired was perhaps demeaned by the proliferance of one certain taste in every dish.

We know novelty has its merits and tricks can be fun, but our palates are starting to suffer from the constant barrage of foodie trends, leaving us hungering for the old fashioned, the tried and true, and the solid. We are left in want of just simple good food, done well, alongside something to drink that matches and a server who knows the proper ratio between professional and friendly. Thank goodness there are still places around like Patina.

2 thoughts on “The Age of the Restaurant Gimmick

  1. Lol. When chefs go off the deep end… I wouldn’t mind the morel dinner, or even the fig dinner. But these high-concept restaurants are bound to disappoint. It’s got to be about the food first and foremost, not about a clever idea. Still I would have been attracted to the dim sum idea (a variation on small plates)… until I read this post!

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