Whatever happened to fine dining?
I wonder if I’m the only spouse asking this as we make secret (but noisily secret, to reassure my better half) plans for Valentine’s Day. It used to be fairly simple: On the 14th of February, we men would shake off our suits of mothballs and drive out with made-up and scented dates into the traffic jam, to make it in time for that difficult reservation in a restaurant with lots of candles, a waiter in a bow tie and exorbitant prices.
It was a pomaded ritual, scrupulously observed, which has gone the way of the many fine restaurants where I celebrated it: Grassi’s at Benpres, Cheval Blanc at Shangri-La Makati, Sala in Malate.
Many would argue that being married is the best reason of all to celebrate Valentine’s, as it serves as a once-a-year reminder that the woman you’re sharing the house with is not just there to make sure you take your cholesterol medication, and it challenges us to find new ways to show our gal a swell night out on the town.
But I think my wife and I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face if we did try to eat out in an old-fashioned, soft-lit joint; and by the soup course we’d be checking our baby monitor to see what was happening at home.
The truth is that traditional fine dining is on its last leg. Even the hotel outlets that have survived have gone contemporary; you can tell by the shape of the plates, which are now long and rectangular or oddly shaped, or made of glass or flat with a depression in the center.
Even the consistently excellent Tivoli Grill at Mandarin, which I can still recommend, has gone funky with foams, infusions, and the general shadow of molecular gastronomy looming in the shadows.
But no one cooks out of the cookbook of classical French cuisine anymore, even if this is still what every chef has to learn in most cooking schools, including (or in fact, especially) Le Cordon Bleu, where creativity is not encouraged; that comes later, after you’ve gotten your diplôme.
I miss the candles and the theater of a dimly lit dining room, the meticulously polished silverware, the rituals of a sole filleted at table or a haunch of beef wheeled in on a Christofle trolley.
But casual is the new high cuisine, and of the new best restaurants only a handful are in France, and of these only a handful are French in the traditional sense.
Dining rooms tend to be bright and casual, dress-codes are relaxed, and the serving staff are friendly rather than icily Gallic.
And this is great for most of the year, whether it’s the cozy little dining room of The Fat Duck in England, or the bustle of Mamou, where the good steaks start at over P3,000.
But for one night of the year you need something that’s corny and clichéd, because, let’s face it, nothing is as corny as the idea of romance itself. Which is why you have to give in to roses and candles and heart-shaped boxes, because trying to be original or ironic is just going against the spirit of being silly and doing silly things—which is what being in love is all about.
It’s the one night of the year when the maître d’ needs to turn the lights down and the music low, because us poor pomaded gentlemen need all the help we can get; and it’s the one night that couples don’t want to be interrupted by a chef pulling up a chair for an extended chat.
One of the few good things about restaurants serving overly complicated food is that simple things have become something of a treat, and while most home kitchens aren’t equipped with liquid nitrogen to shatter vegetables with, most men these days can cook simple things. Which is another great reason to stay in for Valentine’s evening; the other being that you don’t have to drive home to get to the bedroom.