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Plat du Jour Tuesday June 4, 2012: Is It Rising Formality or Declining Formality?

On this first Tuesday of June, this week’s news of one of San Francisco’s most highly regarded restaurants (and its most expensive) commencing an à la carte food menu in its adjacent lounge area got me to realize about just common it is now how these highest end gastronomic restaurant are starting to de- formalize, at least partially. Saison only has 18 seats in its main dining room, where diners pay $248 a head for the tasting menu. Now you can sit at the bar and graze upon various smaller dishes, adding a completely new meaning to the term “bar bites.” A full meal might end up being $200 each, but it can also be a $40 apértif.

Saison isn’t the only one in the country, or even the Bay Area doing this. Manresa in Los Gatos and Meadowood in St. Helena recently started similar concepts. San Francisco’s La Folie built a lounge with a lounge menu not too long ago. Across the country, Le Bernardin last year did the same after its extensive re-model, and Matthew Lightner’s Atera has a similar separate bar concept. Jean-Georges in New York has entire casual restaurant, Nougatine, that serves as the main room’s “lounge.”

No lounge here...yet

No lounge here…yet

It’s certainly a form of the high-end restaurant starting to de- formalize itself. At the same time, you have more casual restaurants raising the bar (literally bars) within the set restaurants via chef’s counters with much more pricey, extensive tasting menus.

The two directions are completely contrasting with each other. So are we seeing a rise in formality or a decline? The chef’s counter concept certainly can call the epic tasting feasts at sushi bars and counter restaurants in Japan as its key inspiration. Now you’ve got various counter- only high end restaurants worldwide from luminaries including Joël Robuchon and David Chang. Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is a Michelin three star counter-only spot in New York. However at those spots, it’s the chef’s counter or nothing.

It’s a bit of an additional exclusivity element you can say for these chef’s tables. The rest of the restaurant can enjoy good, usually even exciting food, but here you’re in the exclusive club getting the ultimate meal the chef can give you. Aldea in New York, Zahav in Philadelphia, and Fearing’s in Dallas are all among the restaurants that offer some form of the separate chef’s table/ chef’s tasting menu. Even the already top tier Inn at Little Washington in Virginia offers a stratospheric kitchen table experience starting at $375 a table.
In a different building within the same complex, Carlo Mirarchi’s tasting menu only Blanca is Roberta’s tasting room. Roberta’s specializes in pizzas. Blanca certainly does not do pizzas for $180 a diner. Until recently moving to its own isolated location, Jose Andres’ Minibar shared the same space as Café Atlantico/ America Eats Tavern in Washington D.C. You wouldn’t confuse Minibar’s menu with the others, that’s for sure.

Fearing's BBQ shrimp taco...on the regular menu, not the chef's tasting menu

Fearing’s BBQ shrimp taco…on the regular menu, not the chef’s tasting menu

So, we’re really seeing both directions. We’re witnessing casual restaurants with upscale sophisticated additions, and also experiencing top-end restaurants adding more approachable, comfortable components.

Part of this has to do with the fact that we seem to adore the speakeasy complex of something small and unique within a much grander space. It makes us feel special.

Part of this has to do with the fact that diners are less committal to full meals and value cocktails equally with the food.

Part of this also has to do with the rising surge in both substantial, complex tasting menus, and also meager, equally complex bar bites. Every bite of the two bite dishes matters– it just depends if you want two of those dishes over 45 minutes or 32 of them over four hours. We all have four hours for dinner every night, right?

It’s formality going up and coming down. Just look at Torrisi Italian Specialties in New York, where you used to get a wonderful turkey sandwich by day, then a $75 tasting menu at night. The contrast was so vast and so popular they opened an adjacent sandwich shop, Parm, for the casual diners, and kept the original former grocery store turned dining room as only tasting menus. What changes.

Speaking of Torrisi, Pete Wells of The New York Times fully approved of their new informal “red sauce” Italian joint gone glamorous, Carbone. Is it a formal dining room with informal cuisine, or an informal cuisine taken to high-end sophisticated heights?

Finally on this Tuesday, how has nobody thought of this before? Florence Fabricant of The New York Times refers us to this brilliant California creation by Traina Foods, ketchup from sundried tomatoes. How did I not invent this or at least request this? Perfect for your July hot dog BBQ.

It’s an example of today’s restaurant societal debate in a nutshell.

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