The Not-So-Finer Things

Can you find cheap versions of fine foods?

Biernat's staff served up cappuccino mixes from General Foods, Hills Brothers and the like in style--glass mugs, chocolate spoons, the works. Surprisingly, the mixes lack any form of flavor but a vague taste we could only describe as "brown." Still, coffee sparked the event's only argument as Garza and Hage squared off, spoons in hand.

"It's hot brown water," Garza said of the cappuccino. "No, it's beige," Hage retorted.

OK, so you definitely cannot skimp on cappuccino, goat cheese or caviar. Decent wine, on the other hand, exists at almost every price point. For the purposes of this test, we narrowed the field to cabernets, set a price limit of $6 and sought out wines from the most popular name-brand vineyards: Ernest & Julio Gallo, Vendange, Sutter Home and Glen Ellen. Several very good cabs retail just a few dollars outside of this range, of course. A 1999 Caliterra Valle Central, for example, runs about $8. Todd Lincicome, wine director at Al Biernat's, suggested a 1998 Raymond Reserve or a 1997 Quail Ridge Reserve. "The best wines for value are Italian wines, and '97 for Italy was a great year," he added. "Oregon had a great year in '98. It's really about finding the good years."

Location Info


Al Biernat's

4217 Oak Lawn Ave.
Dallas, TX 75219

Category: Restaurant > Seafood

Region: Uptown & Oak Lawn

The cheapest labels again fared poorly: Matthew refused to taste the Gallo ($4.99) after smelling it; Garza likened Vendange ($3.99) to sweet pickle relish; Glen Ellen ($6.99) "smelled like old varnish," according to Cassel. Sutter Home ($5.99) stood out as the best of the worst. "It was the least offensive," said Hage, "but they all had distinctively bad characteristics."

We paired the wines with frozen beef dinners from companies such as Stouffer's and Boston Market, all in the $3 range--another mistake, it seems. "It's Salisbury steak meets beef bouillon," said Garza in response to Hage's incredulous, "What form is this meat in?" The carrots did taste like carrot, and Matthew adjudged the peas to be "vibrant"--at least in color. Otherwise, salt and unidentifiable chemicals dominated the dishes. Ah, the wonders of artificial preservatives. Considering that beef tossed into canned and frozen foods ranks just above dog food and well below prime, it's no surprise that the servers steered clear of other restaurant guests when bringing out the main course, in order to shield them from the aroma.

The Conclusion

"Isn't it better to eat really good bologna than really bad steak?" Hage asked.

And that may be the lesson here. Once accustomed to prime steak or caviar or Starbucks coffee, the cheap alternatives only offend the palate. Over the last couple of decades, Americans opened up to worldwide influences and subtle flavorings. Dallas now offers world-class, chef-driven restaurants by the score. People across the United States recognize names such as Fearing, Spears, Rathbun, Ascolese, Hage, Garza and Cassel.

Finding cheap versions of fine items is possible, the chefs say. You just have to know where to look. "It's really a matter of trial and error," explained Hage. "It's not just buying the things you've heard of." We tested cheap on the extreme end, the stuff readily available to consumers, the name brands. Unfortunately, we've developed taste.

"A lot of things you can't go backward on," Cassel warned.

In other words, if history holds true and a recession ensues, we're screwed.

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