A Tale of Two Visions: Shanghai Gate versus Menton
It's the season for epiphanies so here's mine. Yesterday we had lunch at Shanghai Gate, and we met friends for a seasonal celebratory feast at Menton's for dinner. In Shanghai Gate's cheerful weird little green and pink funky room we had fabulous hot and sour fish soup and lion's head meatballs. The bill: $25.00 with a very big tip included. Satisfaction level: top of the charts. For dinner, at Menton, our bill came to $340.00 for two. The room is rather gloomy, with a corporate cold feel to it, though it is also very comfortable. The prix fixe menu was good and varied: the fois gras starter I had was delicious, the small things like the breads were meticulous, the service was great, the wine list is ridiculously jacked up, and the meal was certainly good. Satisfaction level: Meh except for finding a really good Etna Rosso which I'm about to search for at Central. I think I've reached the age where I've got to wonder why I want to spend that kind of money for an experience I've had many times before and at a higher level (sorry, but NY and France have this level covered in spades, and Menton doesn't come near to Per Se or eleven madison or even to the exceptional meal we had at a mere one star in Caltigironde, Sicily called Coria, which cost about $70.00 a person). When we eat at Shanghai Gate we don't spend time comparing it to "the others": it's unique, it's a "one-off", and it's cheap. I think my New Year's resolution is to limit my food dollars in Boston to the Shanghai Gate's and Strip-T's in town and leave my "uber-indulgences" to my travels.
re: Bob Dobalina
This is really the heart of this. I guess it depends on the person and their budget. For me, I can't escape price and taste. That said, for me it's really about value. A meal costing hundreds of dollars can be a great value in specific circumstances, just like a $5 sandwich can be a bad value.
That said, of course the stakes get exponentially higher as the price goes up. It's hard to be too disappointed with a $5 sandwich even if it is disappointing, but at an expensive meal it's easy to be disappointed.
I know exactly what you mean. For a while now, it seems like the only thing we go out for are cheaper ethnic places (or Strip-T's). Eating out is expensive and these days there's just too much out there in the scene that too expensive (even mid-price places) to really deliver. With plates at a lot of bars hitting high teens and low twenties, I've hit a hard-line in my budget where I'm not going to pay that for mediocrity. It's sort of like the death of the "true bistro" in France. Where are the blue-plate specials of the past? Where are the diners where you can get an honest square meal for a reasonable price? The problem is a lot of this food isn't exciting in our new food culture, but it's kind of a shame. I wish we had more diners in the area.
Ditto cocktails these days. I used to love going out for cocktails, but everyplace now is charging $12 for something that 75% of the time isn't going to be made with $12 of care, and if two people each have two cocktails out, we could've gone to Chinatown twice.
We had the three course Peking Duck at China King this week ($38 to feed four) and it was incredibly delicious and loads of fun. With a price that cheap it's not that hard to exceed expectations, but when a single entree costs $38 and isn't as good as that experience, I tend to get jaded fast.
These days, if we do want to have a great experience, we just wait for a weekend in NY, SF, or abroad. I love Boston and love the scene here, but after spending lots of time in NY and SF, the prices here are higher for lower quality prep and although I shouldn't compare Boston to these cities, it's hard not to.
A lot of this also comes down to proficiency as a home cook. These days, unless we're going to some temple of gastronomy, we're going to go to a place more out of a desire NOT to have to make it at home. Makes sense that the places we hit a lot, Chinatown, great sushi, Strip-T's (AKA truly unique), oyster bars, etc. are things that we probably won't make at home. But Italian, French, middle level "American", is hard to get excited for.
I suppose this all sounds pretty jaded and pessimistic, but all I'm saying is I came to this conclusion last year and can totally relate.
Of course, it certainly helps that I've long thought Shanghai Gate was consistently the best Chinese restaurant in Boston, and that includes Chinatown. You won't always get that level of pure satisfaction at just any little neighborhood place, although I've always agreed with your general concept.
I've had similar experiences many times. And I think you can take both money and location out of the equation, at least for me; one of the times I'm thinking of was in New York, and someone else payed the massive tasting menu bill.
It really comes down to what gets you excited. For me these days, simply but perfectly prepared dishes are more interesting than the overloaded gluttony of trudging through a gigantic tasting menu. (Not that I wouldn't, in a heartbeat, but still!) And it also comes down to mindset, etc. For me, sitting in a really upscale place simply isn't as fun (novel?) anymore as it used to be, so my mindset is never quite right.
I've tried a number of the tasting menus around town, but my best-ever meal in Boston: steamed fish (I think it was striped bass) with a simple ginger/soy sauce, in Chinatown. (I believe it was at Jumbo Seafood, but doesn't matter now.) Ultra-fresh fish, perfectly cooked, flavor that totally popped, and good company. Can't beat that.