What's Good for the Goose

Tasting menus near and far, or what I did on my Winter vacation

But the true stunner was the famed "db burger," a $28 hamburger in which fresh-ground sirloin is wrapped around a filling of the stringy meat from braised short ribs, foie gras, and black truffle, the whole thing served in an onion-Parmesan bun, topped with the luxe variation of ketchup, a piquant tomato confit. The burger is seared without, but rare just around the filling, so you get several stages of beef--seared sirloin, rare sirloin, and braised short rib--as well as the meaningful enhancements of the foie gras and truffle, which add those fleeting, heart-stirring rich and woodsy notes. I was so jazzed I could hardly sit still in my chair. I say if wine can be said to be profound, that freaking burger is profound: It made me feel suddenly as if all our foods were open to reinterpretation and glory heretofore unimagined. If any local chef wants to take a run at a similar lowbrow passion, like, say, the tuna melt, just let me know-- I'll be there.

Then, hours later, we went to Jean-Georges, the restaurant of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for a tasting menu that, if it contained less than 30 dishes, well, I'd be very much surprised. High points included every breath I took, but also, service the likes of which I never knew existed: an ivory room, dusky and luminescent at the same time, full of hawk-eyed guys with lowered lids watching the surface of your table with rapt attention from a discreet distance. Soil a knife and another is folded into linen on a silver tray and exchanged in seconds, but somehow you never feel watched or intruded upon. Likewise, the water and wine glasses seem to be tied on some subconscious level to the hearts of your guardians and the glass levels rise and fall like the invisible work of waves at high tide, unconnected to you but charming to behold. The maitre d' ripped through descriptions of complicated dishes clearly and concisely in the space of seconds and seemed to know everything there would ever be to know about cheese. And, you know, the food.

The food.

Taster's choice: Auriga chef Doug Flicker has been known to create stunning tasting menus
Tony Nelson
Taster's choice: Auriga chef Doug Flicker has been known to create stunning tasting menus

I feel embarrassed writing about the food, because I'm going to start blushing and gulping like a schoolgirl, but I'll try. The stuff was assured, refined, and, on the basic level, delicious. But on another level, smart and insightful and full of comment on itself and the world. I didn't know food did that. Consider a single course: the foie gras. I got a perfect pink circle of foie gras terrine that was unspeakably creamy and made every other foie gras I've ever had seem overcooked. It was topped with some kind of crazy pistachio cookie-brittle thing that was clear, like a perfect circle of glass set with bright-green pistachios. It was placed atop the terrine but cantilevered over the plate: It looked like magic. To one side was a pistachio butter, glossy and green, resembling a bone spoon lying on the plate; up to one corner, a little portion of hot, sour-pickled cherries all tart and sweet. Moving from one bit of the plate to another wasn't just delicious, it was like an essay on all the sweet and floral qualities of the liver.

Meanwhile, beside me, Mr. Gold received a seared piece of foie gras, brown and black, caramelized, resting on a fancy bruschetta that was itself lying in a pool of dark wine sauce, the whole thing crowned with a moon of grainy Meyer lemon jam. It, too, was delicious, but also like a commentary on the winey, irony, muscular, and gamey side of foie gras. Moving from one plate to the next was certainly about dazzling-tasting food in a dazzling restaurant, and yet, if you chose to let your thoughts wander another way, it was to learn not just about the nature of the ingredient, but also about...about everything. About the way that technique, talent, and character are the most important things, and everything else, elements, molecules, habits, fall before them. I could go on like this about another dozen courses, about the squab and venison and the dusky nature of the forest. About crab salad and islands. And still, nothing was too flashy, too theatrical, too show-offy. Just so controlled, so smart. I'd heard before that Jean-Georges is the best restaurant in America, and I think: Boy howdy, oh gosh, yeah. (The standard seven-course tasting menu is $115 per person; reservations can be made a month in advance.)

Then, suddenly, I was descending through spitting snow into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and for a few days I couldn't think clearly, because my blood was mostly foie gras. Eventually though, I came around, and thought: Well, what the hell do they have out there that we don't have? I mean, besides all the money and all the stars? Ambition that knows no limits, fierce, fierce competition (would we have reached the moon without the Russians? Would these New York chefs fly so high without other chefs across the street just dying to eat their lunch, so to speak? I bet not.), and relentless buzz. Constant energizing and flagellating buzz.

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