Some High-End Restaurants Just Don't Measure Up

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Not being a fan of crowds, my intention was to avoid Restaurant Week. Yet somehow I ended up at Fearing's for an evening of rushed--as in 'get the hell out, we need to turn this table'--yet very pleasant service...and mediocre courses.

It's quite likely, of course, that Fearing's crew pay less attention to their cut-rate dishes. I wouldn't expect an award-wining kitchen to overcook a salmon entree so badly or to pour half a shaker of salt into one portion of mashed potatoes on a normally priced night. On the other hand, Dean's famous tortilla soup was a one-note drag, and they should be well versed in that recipe.

This made me wonder about something: we have plenty of high-end, $30-plus an entree restaurants in this city. But do we have any true 'fine-dining' establishments? More to the point, do we really understand fine dining?

Many of you, I'm sure, have tried Michelin star restaurants in Europe (and now elsewhere). At a then three star destination in Brussels my waiter recommended the chicken entree, which being accustomed to commercial American bird I considered somewhat insulting. The chef chose to plate the thing simply: a quarter chicken, naturally dark, in tacky gray-brown sauce. From the moment I took my first bite of this artless-looking bird I realized just how beautiful real chicken could be.

There was a one-star Italian place where the chef dotted a pappardelle dish with small shrivels of guanciale, as if for a garnish. Yet the bacon was so damn--I hate to use this word--ethereal, seeming to wisp away under the slightest pressure though popping with intense flavor, it proved mesmerizing.

These are encounters that compel you to drop whatever conversation you're having and lose yourself in contemplation of food, textures, ingredients and the kind of technique that brings flavors across your palate as a symphony.

Some of our top tier restaurants approach this--places like Nana, Aurora (at least the last time I was there), Tei An, York St. and the like. For the most part, however, we're happy to shell out a hundred bucks on dinners (for two) involving tortilla soup or fried catfish, choice grade New York strip and such.

Good, yes. Expensive, certainly. Fine dining? Well, that's the question--or maybe the real question is why we're so often willing to pay for more than we receive.

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