NYC: Blurring Definitions & Evolving Expectations

I seem to find myself in New York at least twice a year now, either for personal reasons or a food-related conference. This trip was our annual strategic planning journey where we blue sky vision all the things about the restaurant that we want to improve upon in the coming year. As I've said before, this is one of the things that really sets us apart from a lot of other restaurants—a constant restlessness to push ourselves.

Having eaten out a lot in NYC, it gets tougher and tougher to pick restaurants, especially for a trip like this where we want to do some comparative analysis. There just are not that many restaurants that are similar to us. The last five years has seen a huge increase in the "casual" sector and a significant loss in the "high end/fine dining" sector. I use quotations because the definitions are getting blurred and maybe that is what I most appreciated about this trip to the Big Apple.

The high end joints seem to be suffering from a bit of insecurity. It seems they are trying harder to show the difference between what they are doing and what the place down the street is offering at half the price. Is it fancy, expensive ingredients? A bigger wine list with a sommelier to guide you? Is it the plates and linen? The server uniforms?

What I take away not only from this trip, but also what's happening in the industry as a whole, is a total shakedown of definitions and expectations.

When you can have a great meal at an incredibly busy place like Locanda Verde by ordering crab bruschetta, ricotta bruschetta, house-made pastas, some octopus and a great pork chop, all brought to the table as the kitchen completes each dish and not in any other particular order, drinking some esoteric Italian wines and finishing the meal off with a fantastic tasting of rather rustic desserts, it's hard to beat. On the other hand, you can go to Corton whose goal is to blow you away with every over-agonized detail, not the least of which is quantity—I counted 12 plates on the table for just one of the courses on the tasting menu we ordered. Did that make the food more enjoyable? No. Did it make us more comfortable paying the bill? Yes.

It used to be that one experience (Corton) would trump the other (Locanda Verde). The fact that this is not the case anymore says a lot about our society and where the restaurant world and food in general is going.

For me, tasty, well-prepared food with soul will always win over a highly-intellectualized experience unless it's pulled off by a master on a night when the restaurant is firing on all cylinders. The expectation is just too high and it's too easy to poke holes in the armor. I'll take a great roast pork chop any day.