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Thorny Rascals

January 25, 2018

Money. I hate talking about money. But I can’t write today’s post without tackling this sensitive and polarizing issue.

I am lucky. For lots of reasons. Money isn’t something that I have to worry about. It’s not even something I have to think about. If I wanted to drop a thousand dollars on a fancy dinner tomorrow, I could do that without having to worry about how the utility bills are going to get paid, or if my kids will have enough food to eat, or if I’ll be able to fill the car’s gas tank.

Mrs. Fussy probably wouldn’t be too happy about it though. She was just telling me about the growing number of Americans, living in America, who are contending with the reality of living on just two dollars a day.

That said, I am careful about how I spend money, and there are some things that I just won’t buy. For me, the decisions comes down to value. There can be value in a $25 bottle of beer, although maybe not for everyone. But I have resisted even tasting a bite of Primo Botanica chocolates, because a $15 chocolate bar seems outrageous regardless of how fine it may be.

As a practical matter, I am an infrequent patron of higher end restaurants since moving to the Capital Region. The last time I paid over $200 for a meal was at The French Laundry, and that was a long time ago. Most of the other meals I’ve had in that strata were also on the West Coast at places like Fleur de Lys, Masa’s, and Aqua. But those were business meals, and not on my own dime. Like I said, I’ve been very lucky.

So here’s the nut. When evaluating a meal, is it better to have paid for it yourself, or not?

One of my long time complaints about the Times Union restaurant reviews is that they construct a meal out of an outrageous number of courses, resulting in a huge bill. My concern is that nobody needs to spend that much money to have a nice night out, and by using the authority of the paper to establish a baseline expectation of what it means to dine, readers may be dissuaded from exploring a nicer restaurant.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. I was an invited guest to the first Rascal + Thorn dinner at Old World Productions, with Brad Kilgore featuring Michael Lapi. Tickets to the dinner cost $225 a person, inclusive of paired wines, soft drinks, coffee, tax, and gratuity. But like most of the fine dining I’ve done for business, I didn’t have to pay for this meal either.

Here’s the thing. I loved it.

Would I go again if I had to pay my own way? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that the dinner itself was important, and I hope this series continues. In some ways, it begs the question, “What are you paying for when you go out to an expensive meal?”

The obvious answer would be the food, but that would be wrong. Beyond things like imported caviar, fresh truffles, and premium cuts of prime grade dry aged beef, there aren’t a lot of foods that in and of themselves are truly worth a lot of money. Ultimately the food costs are minimal. I remember looking into how much the ingredients totalled in the braised and glazed Berkshire pork shoulder at San Francisco’s One Market. They were astonishingly low. Reportedly it was just a few dollars. The entree itself cost about ten times as much.

There are a lot of trappings of finer dining that are missing in the Capital Region. Plates, stemware, and silverware matter. Chefs matter. Time intensive cooking techniques matter. Chairs. Table linens. Lighting. Real estate. Fresh flowers. The list goes on and on. But all of these elements come together to form a very special experience.

When I go out to an expensive meal, I want an experience. Not only that, but I want something that I could not or would not attempt to make at home.

In these regards, the Brad Kilgore dinner was a smashing success.

Here’s the critical thing to remember. No matter how celebrated the celebrity chef, or how loud the hype is that surrounds a culinary notable, they are still human beings, and what they put on the plate is still food.

One of the most disappointing meals I had in one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants was when I attended a private function for about thirty people. When the fully staffed professional kitchen had to crank out thirty versions of the same plate at the same time, the typically flawless execution fumbled miserably.

Chef Kilgore was trying to do something similar. Except instead of a brigade of line cooks, he had one helper. And while he was working in a very well equipped kitchen, not only was in unfamiliar, but I suspect it’s smaller than the one in his restaurant.

Were there technical flaws to some of the dishes? Yes. So I can understand why someone might be disappointed to find overcooked lobster on one of the five plates from the evening. Those who demand their food be piping hot might also have found the night lacking.

That said, I found the meal to be inspiring, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Each course, had something truly remarkable element.

The squared off pieces of jamon serrano served as a delightful and tender taco shell for beautifully diced and seasoned pieces of kampachi. To call it a tartare does a disservice to the precise cuts. But there is a blend of precision and playfulness in Kilgore’s food, and this was a good introduction.

Kilgore brought some cobia up from Miami. He told us a bit about the fish, how it’s caught, and a bit on its unique texture. It has a little crunch when you bit into it. Again, calling this just sashimi doesn’t quite give enough credit to all the work that went into its composition.

I enjoyed the playfulness of the lasagnetta. Something about the way the pasta and the chorizo-lobster emulsion lay on the plate, reminded me of an over easy egg. The star of this dish was really that chorizo and lobster emulsion, which was deeply flavored, rich, and delicious. The cuts on the vegetables hidden under the pasta were just mind-blowingly impressive.

Seriously, here’s a extreme close up.

Last week, I mentioned the beef course, which was this gorgeous, thick piece of grass fed new york strip. On the plate is a puree of pickled peppercorn. The internal texture was positively silky. I need to talk more with Michael Lapi and maybe he can teach me how they did that. Because while often I find steak to be boring when going out, this was positively exciting.

Sides for the steak were served family style, and I didn’t get a good picture of the platters, but the young cabbage with green curry chimichurri was an assertively flavorful and racy accompaniment that helped balance the heaviness of the beef.

Dessert was a real treat since Kilgore brought strawberries up from Miami, where January is the peak of strawberry season. If the berries weren’t enough, he even got me to like white chocolate, which I typically find to be simple, sweet, and fatty. But on this plate it was transformed into something more closely resembling dulce de leche after a long slow cooking. And just look at the glossiness of that whipped cream! It’s so rare to see a well executed whipped cream, I almost forgot how beautiful it can be.

And those leaves weren’t just for garnish. They added some more brightness and herbal complexity to the dish.


Here’s the thing. I never saw this dinner as being about the food. Rather, I saw it about being a presentation of what food can be. Show me the chef who is doing things like this in the Capital Region. Some restaurant owners will counter that there is no market for such fine food, or reasonably sized portions locally.

But this room in a kitchen production studio was filled for two nights in a row with people willing to spend a lot of money for a remarkable culinary experience.

And ultimately, that’s what Rascal + Thorn is all about. Remarkable culinary experiences. They may not be perfect. Food is rarely perfect, and I’ve never had a perfect meal. But that doesn’t stop me from trying.

If you missed this meal, another one should be scheduled in the future. Keep your eyes open on Facebook, because like this first one, I expect it will sell out.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jean Patiky permalink
    January 25, 2018 12:52 pm

    Love this post!!

  2. HokieMom permalink
    January 25, 2018 2:32 pm

    same concept for me (I think) are we going out for supper or dinner – big difference in my mind – love the pictures and descriptions – thnkas

  3. Lauren Darman permalink
    January 25, 2018 6:31 pm

    On principle alone, I will not pay $30 or more for a plate of pasta or a steak, not when I can make it at home for so much less. Not when there is hunger in America, not when the division between rich or poor is good food versus junk food, not when there is more pet food in the supermarket than baby food. You get my drift.

  4. May 4, 2018 2:29 pm

    The proprietor of Primo Botanica happens to be my little brother. Next time you see him out and about, tell him you know me and I’m sure he’ll give you a sample.

  5. October 30, 2022 8:22 am

    Thank you ffor writing this


  1. 7 and 7 on Saturday, January 27, 2018 – Chuck The Writer

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