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.
The friends I dine out with most often and I came to the same conclusion awhile back -- well, a combination of teezeetoo's and Klunco's. We are all pretty good home cooks and pretty much do not go to places which serve things we can make at home -- even if we do not achieve Menton-like heights at home. So we tend to go to either Asian or Strip-T's or similar one-off places. We have been much happier since putting that rule into effect. (And these friends were taken to Menton and even though they did not pay, said it validated our self-imposed rule.)
I couldn't agree more. The category you appropriatly define as uber-indulgences in Boston just don't measure up to other places. Menton, o Ya, Uni this means you. The food at L'Espalier can still be pretty amazing, but I just can't get past the move. It affects the way the food tastes in my warped mind. The restaurant and food sold its soul.
That's what my wife reminded me when we contemplated O Ya recently. She said let's just go to Sushi Island and save the splurge for guaranteed excellent experience on our next visit to NY. She was right.
I had a somewhat similar epiphany, after having a midweek lunch at L'Osteria in the North End about a month ago. I was with an older relative who really needed to eat and didnt want to spend alot of time checking different menus out. I'd never been to L'Osteria and from the looks of it I thought it would be too pricey or fussy, based on the cloth tablecloths and napkins, fancy water glasses and neatly dressed waitstaff, but decided to give it a try. We ordered the antipasto, I think it was $10, and it was big enough to share and I also had a cup of minestrone. The antipasti came mounded on a dinner plate. It had lettuce (iceburg), salami (not homemade), anchovies ( not white) , cheese (not homemade or local) tomato quarters (beefsteak), pepperoncini and olives and oil and vinegar. And it was freaking delicious and with the fresh (and free) breadbasket and olive oil was a perfect lunch. The minestrone soup was rich and hearty and obviously homemade. Water was refilled frequently and service was pleasntly nonchalant but prompt. Total cost for lunch for two $14. The food was good and fresh and the service was courteous and professional and the atmosphere and view of the street was perfect. And it just felt very European and made me wonder why Boston restaurants have to make such a big deal about just serving some good food at a good value in a nice atmosphere.
It was so refreshing to NOT have someone's overpriced meats and cheeses and not know the farm it came from. I'm sure everything in the antipasto came from neighborhood deli's, the bread from the bakery etc, and it was all just great.
And somehow it seemed really really rare in this city. Why? I feel like the bar has been set so low for so long , that anyplace that serves decent food feels they can charge exorbitant amounts for simple fare (like roast chicken , or cod for example) or "handmade" sausage for that matter. Why ? I guess that's why I also do most of my own cooking.
Well, truthfully one of the reasons that I decided to try L'Osteria (besides hunger and proximity) was that I remembered reading good things about it here, so thanks for that CH'ers! I agree with Swank about the no fuss no frills, but in addition to that what really struck me was how much dignity the place had, in the way t the tables were set, in the food it served and the way they served it, and the honest prices.
Well, thank goodness it's not necessary to pick a dog in this fight. I love fine dining and I love finding gems in unassuming hole-in-the-wall storefronts. And all the good stuff in between. O Ya, Erbaluce, S&I Thai...all three among my favorite food experiences in the Boston area.
(Incidentally, I do think that O Ya competes favorably with similarly priced indulgences in NYC, etc. But, as with most things, that's certainly a matter of personal taste.)
re: Jolyon Helterman
It's certainly fortunate to be able to indulge in this discussion, which really is about our luck in having choices and the ability to make them. My own take is that I find the current "fine dining" options often have a corporate planning feel rather than a sense of the passionate individuality of a chef. It isn't really about the "dollar value": I am a big fan of Erbaluce and of Strip T's because the kitchens clearly have a present-tense person with a personal perspective. The first time I had the good fortune to eat at Cote D'Or many years ago, I was stunned by the intense individuality of a fabulous meal: nothing "group-think" at all about it and worth every precious penny. I think what I'm feeling about Menton and, in fact, my last experience at Del Posto in NY, is that they are designed to meet a "template" rather than a vision. Very good but bloodless I suppose best describes it. I fully realize that at some level it's an absurd discussion since we are incredibly fortunate to have the leisure and the assets to indulge in it.
I've recently come to this conclusion as well. My favorite neighborhood joints here are:
Boston Kabob in Allston-veggie platter in particular
Rami's in Brookline (schwarma in pita)
Fish Market in Allston (sea eel!)
Shanghai Gate (you must get something made from dough, as it appears that everything is homemade).
Sadly the splurge nights out have been a disappointment.