March 19, 2017 / Leave a Comment
The term ‘fine dining’ has come under a lot of fire lately. Everyone seems to be scrambling to define their restaurant as anything but. Why are restaurants now scared of being labelled ‘fine dining’? Is it because the general population are intimidated by the old school notion of fine dining, without realising what it really means today? In my eyes, it’s a term to be proud of, a standard to rise to, not run away from. To me, fine dining means fine food, fine service and fine atmosphere. The best of the best. A meal that is memory worthy, story-worthy (and Instagram-worthy, natch).
‘Fine dining is outdated and stuffy.’
Fine dining needn’t be stuffy – in fact, the mark of true fine service is being able to read the diner and customise the service to their personality. In all honesty, it’s probably more appropriate to call it ‘fun dining’ these days – Gaggan does playful fantastically well with their new Emoji menu (and had us laughing throughout the meal), Mugaritz will have you playing games and sharing activities with the whole restaurant, Namaaz Dining will have you eating table decorations and donning rain ponchos. And that’s just scratching the surface.
‘Fine dining is all white tablecloths and silver service.’
Come on guys, we all know that white-gloved, silver service is a thing of the past – in fact, I’ve only seen it once in recent times, at Gaddi’s in Hong Kong. In Paris three stars? Sure, you might see it there too. But modern ‘fine dining’ just isn’t about that. I’ll be honest – I actually love a white tablecloth, and I get a bit excited when I see a nicely ironed, padded one (ooooh) – but these days it’s a rarity (sadly for me). Fine dining tables run the gamut from minimalist to modern to rustic – you’re as likely to eat off a piece of wood, stone or slate as you are fine porcelain. Silverware? Hardly an essential. In fact, in Asia’s Best Restaurant, Gaggan, your meal is almost entirely eaten with your fingers.
‘Fine dining is so much dearer than casual restaurants.’
Reading the comments following the NYT Per Se review, it reminds me that people all too often use prices as a way to define, and at times denigrate fine dining. I guess I’ve gotten a little sick of hearing people say that fine dining is overpriced compared to other eateries, as I know that’s most often not the case (yes, sometimes long format tasting menus can be crazy dear – I’ll use Per Se as an example again, with their $325 USD tasting menu). There are a huge range of well priced tasting menus out there in the world however, with Spain, Hungary, Asia, Mexico and New Zealand in particular offering some fantastic value.
That being said, let me give you some real world comparisons of a dinner bill at a fine dining restaurant vs a casual restaurant in my current home (Dubai) and homeland (Auckland) featuring similar dishes to prove my point. I’ve matched them as well as possible giving my tasting knowledge of the dishes and wines (consisting of a starter and main each, one side and a dessert to share).
Auckland, New Zealand
Soul Bar & Bistro – Classified by Zomato as Fine Dining
Kumeu River Chardonnay $75
Zucchini Flowers $16
Lamb Rack $42
Mille Feuille $16.50
Tasca – Classified by Zomato as Casual Dining
Odyssey Chardonnay $70
Scotch Fillet $34
Lamb Shoulder $36
Rocket and Parmesan Salad $12
(Dessert and drink menus unavailable online)
The Artisan by Enoteca Pinchiorri – Classified by Zomato as Fine Dining
Black Truffle Lentil Soup 40
Parmesan Pumpkin Agnolotti 94
Baby Chicken 135
Mixed Grilled Vegetables 30
Total: AED 344
Perry & Blackwelder’s – Classified by Zomato as Casual Dining, Bar
Spinach and Artichoke Dip 45
Martini Coconut Shrimp 55
Chicken Parmesan Pasta 110
Baby Chicken 110
Steamed Vegetables 25
Total: AED 345
To be honest, the results of this exercise have even surprised myself – I didn’t think it would be this close (and I didn’t purposely choose dishes at the high or low end, but simply those that were as comparable in description as possible). In Dubai, from fine dining Italian (winner of TimeOut Best Italian Restaurant 2017, in fact, and one of my favourite restaurants in the Emirate) to casual American BBQ Smokehouse and there’s a single dirham difference. Auckland is almost as close – the difference between a waterfront, Metro Top 50, absolute stalwart of the fine dining scene (it’s truly fabulous) and a casual Spanish eatery was a mere $5.
When prices are this close, doing your research becomes even more important. All restaurants are not created equal. Read reviews, check out menus before you book, and, err, you should also definitely read blogs and follow trustworthy foodies on Instagram for inspiration ;). Keep an eye out for fabulous mid-week test kitchen and mini-degustation style deals from your city’s best restaurants too – they can be an absolute steal. Make sure you know you’re getting the best bang for your buck – and don’t just judge a menu by its leather bound, gold embossed cover.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about fine dining? Let me know in the comments below.