The Theater of Wine and Food
Showmanship is now a bigger part of many dining experiences, though restauranteurs keep the focus on great food and exciting wine programs.
I recently dined at Megu, the downtown Manhattan restaurant that has been a magnet for sushi enthusiasts and celebrities since it opened in 2004. We are talking major buzz. So when I first entered on the street level and was greeted by the hostess, I took in the atmosphere and sort of shrugged inwardly: big deal. It isn't until you descend the stairs that the full dimension and splendor of the restaurant is revealed, like a curtain rising: the gleaming art deco surfaces of red, gold and white, the 600-pound temple bell suspended over the glistening ice sculpture of Buddha. It's pure theater designed to make every diner feel like a star.
The American restaurant scene is more rich, varied and vital than it has ever been, as you'll discover in our presentation of our Annual Wine Enthusiast Restaurant Awards in this issue. Any ethnic cuisine you can imagine, you can find in most large cities. Everywhere, you can find restaurateurs who are scrupulous about quality and tireless in their pursuit of great food and wine. And I've been struck by the sheer theatricality of so many restaurants. I can't say that my experience at Megu was typical because, happily, there is no such thing as typical.
The hostesses' uniforms incorporate kimono fabric to create a sense of old and new, merged—costumes in every sense of the word. The flatware, like the hostess uniforms, were designed specifically for this restaurant to complement the chefs' visual concepts; for example, certain plates have perforations so that the edamame (green soybeans) are allowed to stand straight up—just one example of the pure performance magic of the food presentation there. Our sashimi salad was prepared tableside; our waiter tossed three separate vegetable portions, blended them into three intertwined spheres, then topped it with a delicious piece of yellowtail that had been seared in a in a miniature pan. Our Kobe beef was also presented tableside, cooked on hot stones and finished with Hennessy Cognac that was flaming mid-pour.
This theatrical flamboyance combined with artisan care in ingredients and preparation is happening nationwide: More and more kitchens are exposed, so that diners can watch the intricate ballet of chefs preparing their meals. Increasingly, main dishes and desserts are prepared tableside, salads tossed in the air, guacamole mixed, desserts flamed. A platter of fish might be presented to the diner, for that person to select his or her own, and after it's prepared it's deboned tableside. One trend that was born in the 1980s lingers: the recitation of the specials, down to every emulsion and spice, so that the server is delivering a veritable soliloquy of specials. At some restaurants, the waiter will sing to you, whether you want him to or not. There's even a touch of the circus, as waiters juggle pepper grinders and "flair" bartenders flip bottles, glasses and ice cubes in air, and pour their spirits in arcs that stretch for a yard or more.
I don't believe all of this showmanship is a matter of staying abreast of the competition. My understanding of the restaurant scene is that those sorts of pressures don't apply. I believe this is sheer American creativity and Barnum & Bailey showmanship at its finest; the quality of the ingredients, the skill in preparation and the care and nurturing of the wine list are paramount.
Much of this care and vitality is reflected in our selections of the best wine restaurants in this country. Please read the profiles of some of these great, award-winning establishments. Wine enthusiasts have truly never had it so good, with wine lists that are either expansive to satisfy most desires (whether impulsive or ingrained), or tightly focused to pair well with the menu and challenge diners to try something new. The presence of a sommelier or wine director, once the province of white tablecloth restaurants, is common. And many of these men and women are striving to train their waitstaff in wine service.
There is truly a restaurant renaissance going on in this country. On with the show!