Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008

New No-Frills Fine Dining

Fine dining wasn't created for people who like food. It was designed for people who can afford it. If you're at an important business dinner or anniversary, you can appreciate well-dressed waiters and bone china without even being willing to eat fish. But now a lot more people have been Food Network-ized, and fewer people want to put on a suit for a stuffy four-hour dinner, so luxury dining has had to redefine itself. Because before you can deliver luxury, you have to figure out what people want. You can have the best roving mariachi band in the world, but it's still going to annoy people.

The new luxury restaurants eliminate all the formalities, focusing only on the food. Many have no host, don't take reservations and are open all day. Almost all skip the tablecloths, the flowers and the bread and use cheap silverware and plates. Some have no tables, seating people only at the bar. A few don't even have waiters; the chefs bring out the food when they've finished cooking it. Some play unsoothing modern rock from the staff's iPods. Yet they're run by famous chefs who are serving dishes like pine-flavored ice cream cones filled with sea-urchin ice cream and salted caramel as the amuse-bouche on a $110 tasting menu.

"I like to have the food without the pomp and circumstance," says Sang Yoon, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who worked as a sous-chef at Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main and an executive chef at Michael's and now owns two bars in Los Angeles that serve some of the city's best food. You have to wait for an hour outside either branch of Father's Office to get inside, and once you do, you still have to fight for a table and then for attention from the bartenders who take your food order — but you get roasted bone marrow cooked sous vide.

"Ideally, I would like Hooters to serve really good food: I don't have to reserve a table, and I can have whatever I want," says Yoon. "I don't want to be asked if I want flat or sparkling — that's not a conversation I want to have. I don't want to valet the car. I want to be able to come in before dinner or after dinner. Those are the rules I don't want to succumb to." And by eliminating what he calls "nonessential costs" — the host, the china, the bread, the flowers, even the cloth napkins — Yoon is able to deliver the same food as fine restaurants at a lower cost.

Yoon thinks there will always be fine dining for special occasions, but the vast majority of restaurants will have to tone it down and lower their prices for the new generation and the new economy. "This alternative of being able to have fine dining in a relaxed atmosphere — people gravitate to it," he says. "Make the environment easy and have foie gras on the menu. It makes people less intimidated to try things. There's not a waiter hovering over you reciting specials. If you look at all the fine-dining places in L.A., they are half empty. What tells Gordon Ramsay we need more fine dining? That wasn't the case nine years ago when I opened up. There's no demand. I took my eighth-grade econ and said, 'I'm going to try this instead.'"

Sure, there have always been trattorias and bistros with great food. But casual high-end dining really started when Joël Robuchon, perhaps France's greatest chef, came out of a seven-year retirement in 2003 to open L'Atelier in Tokyo and Paris, where customers still eat quail stuffed with foie gras but do so at a bar. It's more social, more fun, cheaper, quicker and more popular than anything he's ever done before. Though he explicitly abandoned the competition for Michelin stars, Robuchon got two stars for his Paris L'Atelier anyway, as well as one each for the branches in Las Vegas, London, New York City and Tokyo. He also has an Atelier in Hong Kong and two more U.S. locations planned for next year. He's created a second casual concept, La Table, in Paris. Though Robuchon has opened fine-dining restaurants in Tokyo, Las Vegas, Monte Carlo and Macau, he's vowed never to open another.

"Guests go out more often than before. They eat faster. They want to do a restaurant, a show and a discothèque," says Claude Le-Tohic, the executive chef of L'Atelier in Las Vegas. "You can come to L'Atelier and have one dish and one dessert and leave in a half-hour, or take three hours and eat the tasting menu. You do whatever you want."

Since Robuchon first opened L'Atelier, casual high-end has become so popular that normal restaurants — ones that are actually paying for hosts and flowers and nice dishes — are calling themselves gastropubs and wine bars to downplay their formality. Meanwhile, New York City's Spotted Pig, an actual gastropub, often has a two-hour wait.

The biggest star to emerge from the casual-dining scene is David Chang, named 2007 chef of the year by GQ and Bon Appetit for running Manhattan's Momofuku empire, consisting of three tiny restaurants right near one another that often play Led Zeppelin loud and have posters of John McEnroe on the wall. "So much in the late '90s and this decade was about service and serving mediocre food. I would rather be in an uncomfortable environment serving delicious food," says Chang. "I remember working at a restaurant, and they told us these statistics that the thing diners care about most was service and second was décor and third was food. And that made me mad. I said, 'Screw it.' That was the motto. Screw everything else — just worry about the food."

Chang compares the trend toward smaller, casual-dining restaurants to what happened to retail clothing 10 years ago, when department stores got destroyed by boutiques. "You're going to find funkier little restaurants that aren't for everyone, just like clothing stores aren't for everyone," he says. "Look at the jeans stores. There are 25 different stores that just sell jeans." Chang's first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, focuses on ramen. Yoon is famous for his hamburger. People go to L'Atelier for the mashed potatoes.

In 2006, Food & Wine named Michael Carlson of Chicago's Schwa Restaurant one of the best new chefs — he's the guy with the $110 tasting menu who makes that sea-urchin ice cream. But cooking is just one of his jobs; his entire staff consists of him and two other chefs, who are also the waiters, busboys, dishwashers and hosts. The place is basically just a kitchen with some chairs; it doesn't even have a liquor license. When I called the restaurant to try to get hold of Carlson, he answered the phone. He thinks restaurants like his, which a chef can start with very little capital and where he can cook what he likes without any filter, will become more popular.

"The section of people who appreciate quality, man, is getting larger and larger. You are finding cats who are 20 who wouldn't have been that interested in food a few years ago are dropping $200 to eat," Carlson says. The casual, sometimes haphazard service takes some of his new customers off guard. "Some people hate it," he says. "But we tend to change a lot of people's minds. A lot of our regulars are 75 years old, eating while we have Slayer playing in the background. But they see it's about energy." Kitchen Galerie in Montreal does the same trick with only two chefs. "This is ideally what every cook wants to do," says Carlson. And he said this, remember, knowing that in a few hours he'd have to wash dishes.

Some chefs are abandoning even the idea of a restaurant; instead, they're serving high-end meals from food trucks. Jerome Chang, who attended the French Culinary Institute and was a pastry sous-chef at Le Cirque, serves chocolate bread pudding with a bacon crème anglaise out of the Dessert Truck parked near New York University. One of the best meals you can have in Seattle is eaten while sitting on a curb in a parking lot next to a truck called Skillet Street Food, manned by Josh Henderson, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

Fine casual isn't about suffering though. People aren't enduring the Momofuku crowds or waiting outside Skillet just to prove how serious they are about food, like the people who spend their one day in Austin, Texas, driving two hours outside of town for barbecue. They do it because loud music at a crowded bar can lead to a better dinner out with friends than silence and a waiter who comes by every few minutes to ask how things are tasting. And if the chefs really do insist on playing Slayer, at least you can cash out of a bar tab pretty quickly.