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The Dissatisfied

October 26, 2011

This is a dangerous post. Nobody is going to get hurt. But it has the potential to diminish my credibility. After all, how can anyone expect to please a person who is never satisfied? And why should anyone try? What’s the point?

I have been very lucky in that I’ve been able to eat some stunning meals in some amazing restaurants. A few highlights include places overseen by Thomas Keller, Michael Mina, Wolfgang Puck and David Bouley. There are countless others in the country and around the world that I would like to visit, but like most everyone else I’m constrained by time and money.

But never have I had a perfect meal.

Even among the highest of high end restaurants, something is always a bit off. Maybe the entrée wasn’t quite as exciting as the appetizer or dessert. Or the dessert menu didn’t quite measure up to the refinement of the rest of the meal. It could be as simple as a clunky wine glass. More complicated problems involve the unique interplay of personalities and the relationship between waiter and diner. Once upstairs at Chez Panisse the waitress killed a small spider on our table… and left it there.

As it turns out, a perfect meal is never the point.

For that matter, neither is the perfect dish. Although over the years I have indeed encountered a good many of these. Plates where every element comes together, it is a feast for all the senses, and not a single thing could be improved upon or changed in any way. Yes, they are rare. But they do exist.

Most of the time, there is always something that could be at least a little bit better. A detail that’s been overlooked or an element on the plate that just doesn’t work as well. These lapses are not lost on me.

If I were looking for the perfect meal, I would probably have stopped dining out years ago. The frustration would be just too great to bear. But I’m not. I’m looking for a memorable meal. I’m looking to taste a chef’s skill. I want to experience their vision of what good food should be. I want to eat things that I cannot prepare in my home kitchen made from ingredients that are reserved for chefs and restaurants.

Chefs are human. They make mistakes.
On some level, taste is subjective.

The weak link on one visit to Chez Panisse was the lamb chop. Inevitably it was the best quality lamb chop one could find that week in Northern California, given that farmers have been known to hand deliver the best animal from their herds to Alice directly. I have no doubt about this at all. I’m glad I was able to try it. But the kitchen’s simple preparation to honor the glory of the lamb just left me flat. It was an amazing meal, and one that I think fully and accurately gave me a sense of what the restaurant was about. It wasn’t perfect, and there was certainly room for improvement. But I think fondly of the experience, and recall with delight the highlights from that dinner.

Many of my favorite meals have been far from perfect. Now it may just be a game of semantics, but I see a clear divide between favorite and best.

Maybe someday in my life I will stumble upon the perfect meal when I least expect it. If it happens it happens, but things like this can’t be forced. Chasing a perfect dining experience will only lead to unhappiness and disappointment.

Until then, I’ll continue to enjoy some interesting dining experiences, while I fastidiously note all the things that could make them better.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2011 11:11 am

    In my experience, if my husband and I share a bottle of wine on a Saturday afternoon before dinner, split a half bottle with dinner and follow it with cognac or Mexican coffee, there is a far greater chance of achieving the perfect dining experience that evening. This method makes me more forgiving and likely to forget any minor flaws. It’s a highly enjoyable way to dine. I’d call it ‘drunk dining’, but I swear it’s less trashy than it sounds.

    You should add this to your open letter to Capital District chefs…perhaps one or two might bite at the challenge.

  2. Elyse permalink
    October 26, 2011 11:28 am

    Killing a spider on the table and leaving it there??? Yech! That would even gross me out at a greasy spoon, never mind Chez freakin’ Panisse!

    I think I had a perfect meal at Bocuse (I mean, it better have been, right????). The reason I said “I think” is because I was eating my way through France like it was the last 2 weeks I had to live and when it came to the ULTIMATE DINING EXPERIENCE….I just wasn’t that hungry. Also I looked kind of gross so I felt self-conscious about that so despite the perfect food, wine and service, I was not able to really relax. It just goes to show that there are so many elements that contribute to perfection.

  3. October 26, 2011 11:53 am

    I’ve had small meals that have been perfect – this taco, that sandwich. But the best multicourse meal I’ve ever had hilariously fell short in only one way–we were given root beer lollipops to take home, and even though I like candy and love root beer, I absolutely did not like the taste of this one. So the food I paid for and ate at the table was impossible for me to criticize, but the freebie take home put a frown on my face.

  4. northcountryrambler permalink
    October 26, 2011 1:37 pm

    The perfect “dining experience” probably has less to do with the food than the setting, the company, the occasion, the wine, and the spiders – or not. The perfect “meal” is easy ~ meatloaf.

  5. October 26, 2011 3:53 pm

    I agree with Valerie that there is a definite relationship between wine consumed and dining pleasure, when I am eating with my children.

    I believe I had a perfect dining experience last year at Restaurant Menton – the ambiance, service, food and wine were stellar. I’ve been fortunate to have the preceding aligning of the planets on more than one occasion, but what made this particular evening beyond even the kismet of those circumstances, was the presence of chef/owner, Barbara Lynch dining at the table next to mine. And, when she invited my party to join her party…well, it just doesn’t get better than that.

  6. October 27, 2011 7:40 am

    I have a few times voted a restaurant “as good as it gets” on Yelp but that is not the same as perfect. Just like an actor’s performance on the stage, every meal is different and no matter how good the preparation or ingredients there’s always the potential to make it better. The only exception would be if you and the chef were both to drop dead as soon as the meal concluded.

  7. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    October 27, 2011 8:20 am

    Had a “perfect meal” last week at St. John in London: great lager, roasted bone marrow with toast and Maldon salt and parsley salad, along with a crispy pig ears salad with radishes and rocket. Mmmm.

  8. October 27, 2011 10:47 pm

    I think it’s kind of depressing to never feel satisfied because one is always seeking perfection. What is perfection anyway?

    This morning I sent a text. It said, ‘Last night was perfect.’ (Head out of the gutter please) I was referring to a dinner/night out that the BF and I enjoyed. I had a spur of the moment need to put on a dress and go out and luckily the planets aligned and we were able to do so without kids.

    We headed to my favorite restaurant, The Wine Bar on Lark. We were seated in the make out booth which is the booth we were seated at on our first wonderful dinner at the restaurant. We had the lovely Sylvia for a server. There was pork belly and rib eye and a fantastic cheese platter. There were a couple of glasses of good red wine. There was conversation both serious and silly. We laughed a lot and spent 2 1/2 hours at dinner. We left full and happy and I might have been a little tipsy. On the way home we stopped at Stewart’s for chocolate milk shakes and drank them in the car while it rained. In the morning when I woke up all I could think was what a perfect evening we had and so I texted the BF such.

    But would it meet technical definitions of perfection? Maybe not. After all, I wasn’t that crazy about my poussin but the BF turned a blind eye to my rib eye stealing. And the poussin that I wasn’t crazy about came with some delicious lentils. There was a cheese on the cheese plate that we were meh about and didn’t eat but there were two other cheeses that we absolutely loved.
    I got annoyed at something the BF said on the ride home and briefly got fired up (I’m Irish and Puerto Rican, I have a wicked quick temper) but I got over it quickly.

    So what does that (long winded comment) say about perfection? Am I crazy for thinking I had a perfect night out?

  9. Kate permalink
    October 28, 2011 8:57 pm

    I think life would be depressing if we ever hit the perfect meal or the perfect anything – we’d have nothing to strive for. Once you’ve had the perfect dinner you should just give up and eat whatever for the rest of your life, the same thing goes for the perfect day or dress or job etc. It doesn’t have to be perfect to make it exceptional. One of my all time favorite meals was grilled cheese and homemade tomato soup on a foggy rainy day on the coast of Maine. It wasn’t gourmet or served in a fancy place but circumstances made it memorable.

  10. Stevo permalink
    January 17, 2013 2:55 pm

    I’m surprised everyone is getting all bent out of shape over this post.

    Daniel does state at the top of every page in the header “I know what is good.” This post is right in line with that mantra and ostensibly why many of us come here regularly.

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