An amuse-bouche is a little morsel served between courses to refresh the palate. The term is French—for "mouth amusement"—but isn't actually used in France. Rather, it's an American invention of the 1980s, ironically exactly when the iron grip of French cooking was really being pried away from American high cuisine.
Amuse-gueule might be the proper term in France, but I am not in France, and just as nothing is more off-putting than a white dude rolling the R in "Puerrrrto Rrrrico," so it's a little late in the day for me to start imitating a Frenchman. We are allowed, as I'm always telling my older son after he starchily corrects my grammar, to use the vernacular.
So amuse-bouche it is. When I think of one, I think of the little icy ball of grapefruit sorbet they used to serve at New Japan between the soba noodle salad and the main course. New Japan was on Chicago Avenue in Evanston for decades—it's where my wife-to-be first met my parents. She wore fuscia—it was the mid-1980s. Then one day it became an Ethiopian restaurant.
Such is the way with restaurants. They're like stage plays: here for a while, then vanishing into memory, where they linger. That's part of what makes them precious. Once they disappear, they never come back (except of course, the Berghoff, which faked its own death in 2006 in order to fire its union wait staff, then reincarnated, not realizing that it was also betraying its loyal customers. Or maybe it was just me, but I never went back to check on the reanimated corpse, which seems to be kept alive with steady transfusions of clueless tourists).
I hardly ever write two columns in a row on any subject. But after we ate at Alinea Sunday night, I knew that I'd have to explain how I came to pay the fare for Grant Achatz's 3-Michelin-star restaurant in Lincoln Park. Rather than let half the column be taken up with figures and rationalization, I decided to let Wednesday's column be all about the tab, and devote Friday to the actual dining experience. Which is actually the hard part, like trying to describe a symphony in words. "And now the horns come in..."
Leaving today's blog post as the pause between Wednesday and Friday, between the appetizer and main course.
Since the subject is restaurants, perhaps a refresher, a tangy dollop of perspective that can't make it into the paper. Something small and cleansing.
Restaurants are like travel; they frame life, add significance. Yet, like travel, they're also superfluous. You never have to visit Paris, or the Redwood Forest. But it's a very good idea, if you can swing it.
Just as you aren't required to eat at restaurants. You can eat at home for a fraction of the price. You can carry a sack lunch every day. People do. It's cheaper. And I don't want to skate by the hard times facing so many people. But I have a rule in this job: don't pretend to be someone you're not. And the hard times that are inundating many are barely lapping at my yard. This trio of pieces is proof of that.
So for those who can, to not patronize restaurants, like not traveling, is missing out on a joy of life. At least according to my value system. Each his own. I think I view eating out the way other people view sports—as something worthwhile that frames life and gives it meaning.
So what makes a good restaurant? As a guy who has eaten out thousands of times, literally, in Chicago, I look for three key measures.
First, the food. It has to be good. Which sounds obvious, but gets screwed up more often than not. Particularly new places. There's a restaurant space around the corner from our house that has seen three restaurants come and go in five years, and all for the same reason. Sub-par food. We'd try them a time or two when they opened. Just. Not. Good. Enough. A pizza parlor where the pizza was so-so. A Mexican place serving meh Mexican food. And a fried chicken restaurant with soggy fried chicken. We were pulling for them, rooting for them, hoping for them. And they let us down.
That said, judging on food alone is impossible. If you asked me to pick a restaurant based entirely on taste, on peak mouthfeel experience, I'd be stymied. I'd say ... oh ... go to New York Bagel & Bialy on Dempster, get whatever bagel is hot from the oven, take it back in the car and eat that. That's the best thing you can put in your mouth in Chicago. Second best? Order a Lou Malnati's deep dish spinach and mushroom pizza with buttercrust and eat that at home.
Note that neither is actually in a restaurant. Because food is important but it's also only the beginning. There is the space—the room, the tables, the chairs, the walls, the view, the ambience. The dining room at the University Club is like having dinner at Notre Dame Cathedral. Chicago Cut isn't my favorite steakhouse—that would be Gene & Georgetti—but that glass cube on the river. The food at Kimball Musk's Kitchen is good enough, but oh that room, tall and cool and sleek along the river. Even the bathrooms are elegant.
Food and space aren't everything either. What makes Gene's better than Chicago Cut or Gibson's isn't the room—Gene's is like being in the 1950s basement of your mad uncle. And while Gene's steaks are indeed better—less greasy—that alone isn't why I love the place. It's the service, the third leg of the restaurant experience. Old line waiters in starched white aprons. Somber, almost grim men who go about their business with a monkish solemnity.
All the meals eventually blend into one meal, one sense of comfort and service and belonging. Old restaurants long gone live in memory. I can't tell you whether the famous spinning salad at Don Roth's Blackhawk was any better than any other salad. I first had it I was 15 and didn't even like salad. It was 1975. But I can see the tuxedoed waiter with the possibly fake French accent putting on a show for us, "Here at zee Blackhawk, we spin zee salad not wance, not tuh-why-ice, but sree times!" while my sister and I collapsed against each other, fighting laughter.
Taken together, the food and the room and the service make a box we put memories in. When my wife turned 40, I made reservations at Tru, the swank place that Gale Gand and Rick Tramonto ran for years on St. Clair. They hadn't invented the pay-to-play reservation system, and as the day approached, my wife began to try to squirm out of it, quailing at the expense. I had to reason with her.
"Remember going to Everest for our anniverary?" I asked. Just before our first son was born. She was eight months pregnant, big as a house but chic in her stylish new maternity clothes. "Remember what you wore?" I do. I can see her coming down the spiral staircase in our place on Pine Grove Avenue. "Remember what we ordered?" Buttery whole lobsters, paired with risotto topped with gold leaf. All of those memories would be gone—would never have existed in the first place—without the restaurant. If it wasn't expensive, fancy, special, a big deal we were dressing up and going to with a sense of occasion. We only went there once.
I could go on and on, but the amuse-bouche is supposed to be a tid-bit, not a feast. You have your own restaurant memories, and I imagine they're just as precious to you. The experience is wonderful, while it is unfolding. But the memories are the thing you pay for, the thing you get to keep.