Brillat Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.”
As much as I’d like to believe that most people go through their lives believing this, my hunch is that most people don’t think it’s a character-defining moment when they sprinkle Splenda into their coffee. Instead, I think many people subscribe to a different notion. Their adage might go something like this: “Tell me WHERE you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.”
As someone who prefers eating home to eating out (although I do eat out several nights a week), I can’t imagine defining myself by where I eat. Yet, if you look at where I eat during a given week–mostly: Taro sushi, Long Tan, with occasional jaunts to Pearl Oyster Bar, Franny’s, Grand Sichuan, and Momofuku–that probably says something about me. What does it say about me?
1. I like Asian food;
2. I like oyster bars;
3. I like places that are casual and unstuffy where the food is good.
That last bit, I think, is the key bit because last week I ate two meals with my family that are a study in contrasts. The first meal was at Alain Ducasse’s new restaurant Adour and the second was at one of my favorite New York restaurants, Prune.
Many of you might remember my last experience with Alain Ducasse. It involved a free truffle tasting menu (see here) that caused something of a sensation on the web. That meal was one of the most surreal nights of my life: we sat in a V.I.P. chamber behind the kitchen and held court as various servers entered and exited with truffles, wine and baskets of bread. It was a very formal exercise–perhaps the most formal experience I’ve had in fine dining–and, despite the wonder of it all, a bit overwhelming.
Alain Ducasse is aware of this criticism. Most of the reviews of his original restaurant were similarly disparaging of the overly formal service. Now that his eponymous restaurant has closed, he’s opened Adour in the St. Regis hotel–a wine bar / restaurant that is Ducasse’s attempt to let his hair down.
Yet look at this picture and tell me if you think party girl or stuffy butler:
I’m thinking the latter and you might too. The place, despite a funky virtual wine menu projected on to the bar, is pretty stiff and serious. Craig and I met my parents there and as we sat in a little banquette drinking cocktails and waiting 45 minutes for our table, Craig and I recognized many of the same characters from our meal at Ducasse. There was the sommelier from Burgandy (he came over, recognizing us, and said hello–a very friendly fellow); the smiling bread man with the giant bread basket. “Remember us from last time?” we asked him as he came around the table with tongs and sourdough baguettes. He smiled even wider and shook his head: “No.”
It’s difficult to slam Adour because, as this post suggests, where you eat says something about who you are and, inversely, who you are says something about where you eat. Meaning: this isn’t a place I really wanted to go–my parents enjoy formality way more than Craig or I do.
So if formality is your game, you’ll probably enjoy these elegant gougeres (the cheese oozes out when you bite in):
Or this very sophisticated foie gras tapioca ravioli with sunchoke broth:
Look at the precision of Craig’s hamachi appetizer:
That sort of precision befits a place like Adour, where the waiters gaze at you like a very tired doctor asking questions of a recalcitrant patient. It’s not a very relaxing place but I imagine the type of person who comes to Adour isn’t a very relaxed person: probably a hard-working Wall Street type who wants to purge some cash to impress a business partner or a date. Or maybe a true sophisticate who’s eaten their way through the Michelin guide and approaches a meal here with a magnifying glass and a notepad, eagerly recording every sensation as it occurs.
Even though my lamb dish was lovingly presented:
I found it a little bland and boring. The star of the night, however, was my mom’s scallop dish—Scallops with salsify, spinach, black truffle and shellfish jus:
I loved the rich almost meaty sauce with the scallops; an unusual and daring combination since most people think of seafood as lighter fare to be lightly sauced. And the slivers of black truffle elevated the plate into the stratosphere; a transformative bite that suddenly justified the formality of the space–this isn’t a library, it’s a temple and, from that perspective, the atmosphere served the food.
The raspberry creme brulee was my favorite dessert, though the dark chocolate sorbet was like a big gooey bowl of cold chocolate soup:
All in all, for an Alain Ducasse joint, this is less intimidating than the last venture, though still a little off-putting. My least favorite moment of the night involved the wine service. Since I was ordering lamb, mom was having scallops, and Craig was having a hamachi appetizer we all wanted to order wine by the glass. I wanted a red, mom wanted a white, Craig wanted a white. A sommelier (not the one from the comic post) came over after we ordered our wine by the glass and said, “Excuse me” (in a very heavy French accent) “but the idea of this restaurant is to show how different bottles of wine compelement the food and we very much recommend to you that you all share a bottle of wine so you can all taste the wine with your different plates of food and talk about how the wine tastes with the food.”
It was a strange thing to say–especially when we were all very set on having wine by the glass–so I asked: “But what if some of us want white and some want red?”
“What are you eating?” he asked.
I told him what everyone was ordering and he reflected and opened the wine list and said, “Perhaps a strong white would be good? Strong enough for the lamb?”
He pointed to a $200 bottle. I saw my dad’s eyes pop out of his head–this is not what my dad had in mind–and then I awkwardly had to steer the sommelier to the cheaper end of the wine list, just to keep my dad’s heart rate at a healthy rhythm. It was all very awkward and uncomfortable and as much as we thought the wine he ultimately brought (a Viognier) to be very nice, I still would’ve preferred a glass of red and mom would’ve preferred another glass of her Chardonnay.
That intimidation factor is essentially why there’s very little place in my heart for a restaurant like Adour. I admire the craft, the skill, the professionalism of everyone there, but it’s just not very lovable.
And then there’s Prune. If my soul were a restaurant, I’d want it to be Prune. Charming, sweet, small, sophisticated but accessible, Craig and I took my brother Michael and his now fiance Tali there the night before he proposed. When the waitress we had last time saw us sitting there, she came over and gave Craig and I a hug. That’s the kind of place Prune is.
Here’s Michael and Tali with their menus:
And here’s the first thing they sent over–roasted peppers stuffed with brandade (whipped salt cod and mashed potatoes):
Call it rustic, call it homey, call it whatever you want to call it but as a first bite to a meal this hit the spot just as much as the gougeres at Adour with way less formality and much more love.
The environment has as much to do with it as anything else. At Prune, you feel like you’re at someone’s house; it’s so small, it’s almost like someone’s apartment. And the food is like the food a really talented, enthusiastic chef friend would make for you if he or she had you over for dinner. Like this meatball appetizer, which was moist and tender and packed with flavor:
We shared that four ways and then had appetizers of our own. I had the most peculiar thing you will have for a long time; a monkfish liver (I’ve had it there before) cooked in butter and served with buttered toast:
What a wondrous thing monkfish liver is; called the foie gras of the sea, it really tastes that way. All the richness and unctuousness of foie gras but all the brininess and salinity of seafood. Again, it’s like a friend made a brilliant gastronomical discovery and wanted to share it with you; not nearly as precise as the appetizer Craig had at Adour, but a million times more electrifying.
Michael and Tali made enthusiastic work of their grilled head-on shrimp in anchovy butter:
And then came my entree: rabbit braised in vinegar.
Dining out is often about trust and if I were at a place I didn’t fully trust, I’m not sure I’d have ordered rabbit braised in vinegar. But Prune is like a great friend, the kind you stand in front of and fall backwards on during one of those trust exercises. So rabbit braised in vinegar is what I ordered and guess what? It was sublime. So packed with flavor, so explosively good—I’d love to have it again and again for the rest of my life.
Ok, so you see where this is going. “Adam loved Prune and hated Adour,” you’re probably thinking. “Why couldn’t he just say that and conserve my brain space?”
I appreciate your impatience, reader, but it’s not quite that simple. There’s a place for Prune, there’s a place for Adour–both have their merits and both have a particular crowd they serve. Maybe it’s a red state / blue state thing, or a left-brain / right-brain thing. Who knows?
But if the top of this post is accurate, I’d like to believe that my love for Prune and ambivalence towards Adour says something about me. It doesn’t make me a better person or a lesser person, it just makes me the kind of person that likes cozy, homey restaurants with cozy, homey food more than the stuffy, formal kinds. I’m just a cozy, homey Amateur Gourmet; for better or for worse, that’s what where I eat says about me.