This past year, after our experience with Prague’s gruel, we discovered the joys of fine dining with amazing meals at Drouant in Paris, Kapari in Santorini, Le Cheval Blanc in the Loire Valley, Les Brisants in Brétignolles-sur-mer, and Konoba Nikola in Croatia. Upon moving to the Netherlands in August we, thus, made it a point to only eat out if it was going to be on par with these restaurants, saving our money and our paletts. Plus, I’ve told the Frenchman that one of my bucketlist goals is to get my kitchen its own Michelin star, and I am only half joking. After going from February to the end of August without a kitchen I have a lot of catching up to do.
Our biggest dining out experience to date was for the Frenchman’s birthday. By pure luck I managed to make reservations about two months out at London’s Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, the foul-mouthed TV show host’s flagship restaurant, and the first three-starred restaurant to be headed by a woman, head chef Clare Symth. To be honest, I know nothing about Gordon Ramsay, but, after mentioning to several people we were going to dine at the restaurant, I received comments about his prolific use of the “F-word.” I had given the Frenchman the choice between Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester. He chose Restaurant Gordon Ramsay based solely on the menu alone, but I have a feeling Ducasse’s French temperament may not have raised so many opinions as to our dining choice.
The restaurant itself was a “F-word”-free zone of tranquility. No, Gordon Ramsay was not present. No, he could not come to our table to say “Hi.” No, he would not donate to our charity. Yes, the Frenchman had to wear a suit. The FAQs for the restaurant told us as much. Instead, it was a place of choreographed zen where more servers than I could count, seemingly all with French accents, all dressed to the absolute nines, and all everywhere at once took care of our every desire.
I had the prestige menu (substituting scallops for foie gras and choosing the pigeon) while the Frenchman ordered a la carte (foie gras and veal and suckling pig); we shared the chef’s special apple tarte; and we had more champagne, wine, and digestifs than we could count. Though the portions were minuscule, we left our four-hour meal beyond satiated. As mentioned, the service was top-notch, and we were treated like absolute royalty. The food, however, though artistic and novel, was . . . so-so. “How dare I say that?!” you may be wondering in a horrified shock. Or, perhaps, you are thinking, “That’s what you get.”
We have learned that sometimes, it is more about the experience and the memories. At Kapari in Santorini we watched the famous Santorini sunset from a rooftop with only three other tables. At Les Brisants much care and excitement was put into the wine selection, and, afterwards, we walked along the beach. And at Knoba Nikola we dinned in the basement of a Croatian apartment complex and discussed the meaning of life with the manager. Each of these meals lasted for three, four, maybe five hours, and each left us with amazing memories. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay was no different. “I think you need another ice cream,” one waiter said, winking at us. “Would you like a private tour of the kitchen?” the maitre d’ inquired of us. There was even a footstool for my purse.
But, of course, this has made me ponder the entire concept of fine dining as, most certainly, these people were paid a lot to be nice to us. We are the commoners who have paid service workers to treat us like royalty for a few hours. Is fine dining nothing more than an ego boost to let ourselves and our Instagram followers know how bougie, and, thus, ultimately, insecure, we are?
On the other hand, we have had many other memorable meals that cannot be called fine dining by any stretch of the imagination. There was the two-table alleyway restaurant Villa Spiza in Split, Croatia, where we sipped beer on a bench outside and ate homemade, fresh-from-the-oven chocolate cake for $15. There was Taverna Agyra in Drios, Greece, where the gyros cost $2 and where the waitress may have been missing a few teeth but gave warm hugs, spoke multiple languages, and was always smiling. Did these meals make us any less happy than those that cost a week’s work? Did they leave us with sub-quality memories?
Thus, we want to know where the line between the ego-stroke “spend it cause you have it or at least have a credit card” Michelin restaurant and your local, late night iHop where you eat post-nightclub chocolate pancakes with your friends at 3 a.m. is drawn. Is it when the establishment is family-owned and not a mass-produced chain? Is it at one or two stars instead of three when the deliciousness of the food, however artfully presented, can most certainly not match the cost of the experience?
In February, we will be spending a week at the Conrad Rangali Island in the Maldives, the home of the famous underwater restaurant, Ithaa. You have most certainly seen the photos of the diners as manta rays swim around them. As you can imagine, this restaurant happens to be one of the most expensive restaurants in the world (along with Gordon Ramsay’s at #6 on the list,) and, no, it does not have a single Michelin star, compared to Ramsay’s 3 for Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and his 15 total. To enter, you either have to do a seating for lunch or dinner or buy a cocktail or glass of bubbly for a set $65(!) pp. The reviews for the restaurant are so-so, so we are mulling these questions over in our minds while we also consider that we likely will never again visit the Conrad Rangali or maybe also the Maldives given its dire future. Is it the food or the experience or both that should drive our decision, and how much credence or shaming should we give to our own desires to pretend to be royalty for a meal every once in a while?
I think tonight we may order some delivered-on-the-back-of-a-scooter Chinese food and drink a bottle of Aldi-brand wine.