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Repost: A Favorite From 2009

May 25, 2015

Food Versus Restaurant Food
Originally posted: June 18, 2009

I don’t really care to go into the history of restaurants, although it is interesting.  We could spend some time discussing the different grades of restaurants from “greasy spoon hole in the wall” to “palace of fine dining.”  Maybe we’ll do that later.

But I have been reviewing a few of my recent posts, and some that I have on deck for the future.  What I need to come clean about is an expectation I have for higher-end restaurants.

Now I do recognize that “higher-end restaurants” may be a vague term.  But it is one that I believe reflects a variety of decisions a restaurant makes: from the look and feel of its menus, to its menu offerings, to the price of the dishes, to the table setting, to the dishware, to the formality and dress of its waiters, to the interior and exterior of the building, etc.

On occasion one of these elements will not be in line with all of the others, and it is as wrong as pants on a trout.  For example, the beautiful restaurant with inventive seasonal menus and elegant utensils that uses paper napkins emblazoned with the name of the establishment.

In Albany there is one thing that sticks out across the board: the absence of restaurant-quality ingredients.

Let me explain.  Anyone can buy meat, vegetables, grains, stock and spices at the supermarket, bring them home, and cook them up into something tasty.  On some level restaurants exist to save us from the task of cooking.  But on another level restaurants exist because their chefs are trained and more skilled than most home chefs, and we pay for the privilege of eating what they make.

But the best chefs know that the secret to the best quality food is using the best quality ingredients.  And the best chefs have access to ingredients that home cooks do not.  They also have the time to prepare things from scratch that are not feasible for most home cooks, like rich clarified double or even triple stocks and demi-glaces.

Ideally I would like to see on the menu at any serious restaurant with options above $16 – yes, I said $16 – meats and poultry that include some description about their source.  Or at the very least to provide some kind of higher quality offering, such as heritage Berkshire pork instead of just run-of-the-mill pig flesh. By the same token, I would expect the proud chef to highlight his or her source of produce as much as possible or bring something interesting or unusual to the table.

Otherwise I am left to assume the worst: that the ingredients on the menu are nothing but food service grade, delivered with the c-fold paper towels and bulk industrial spices from the SYSCO truck.

Perhaps the chef is so well trained they can make a delicious meal using industrial ingredients.  That is fine.  I’d happily eat it, and admit my enjoyment.  But on some level I would still feel robbed paying a fine dining tariff for the experience.

And to me this is the critical flaw of the local food scene.

Yes, there are some exceptions; most notably New World Bistro Bar where the chef is committed to local, sustainable, and humanely-raised meat, seafood and produce.  And where I am thrilled to be able to eat a grass-fed hamburger.

Maybe I am just missing other places around the area that actually provide food of this quality.  Tell me your thoughts, and we’ll discuss it further.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2015 10:56 am

    Many restaurants will SAY they are using local, sustainable, grassfed, organic, etc. but they don’t always let you know where they are sourcing their goods, and they should. It’s good for the restaurant (honest and best quality), farmers, the communities, and it’s good for the diners that really care.

  2. EPT permalink
    May 26, 2015 1:06 pm

    We just returned from Tuscany and Florence Italy. We visited the Central Market and the products from cheese to produce, meats and poultry, fish, wine and more were absolutely gorgeous. There was everything you needed to produce a wonderful meal of the freshest ingredients. Unfortunately, even though we were eating in “high end” restaurants, you never saw the variety that was available to them on your plate. In fact, it seemed Tuscan food was minimally “fussed with” and that includes herbs and spices. That can be a good thing if variations in flavor came from a variety of ingredients but most restaurants had very similar menus. I could go on but I’ll stop there.

    One pet peeve is that many restaurants who say they are committed to locally sourced products, as you have pointed out, don’t give us the specifics. Hopefully, they are not using dated menus and have since abandoned the local products.

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