"Nice state of affairs when a man has to indulge his vices by proxy," says the ancient general in The Big Sleep, as he urges Humphrey Bogart to smoke and drink.
That's a bit how I feel reading Bob Macdonald's Knives on the Cutting Edge: The Great Chefs' Dining Revolution.
I'd prefer to be consuming the occasional meal at a three-star restaurant; my doctor will be delighted to learn that I'm just reading about them.
Bob Macdonald is one of those foodies who's known to his brethren, but not to the world at large. By day, he runs the Minneapolis outpost of Russell Reynolds, the executive search firm. At all other hours, it seems, he and his wife Sue are out at some exalted restaurant.
Macdonald keeps score: He and his wife have made 50 trips to Europe since 1992, managing "at least one meal at all 25 of the current three-star restaurants in France, including 125 meals at French restaurants that had three stars at the time, and another 30 at restaurants in France that later earned three stars with the same chef." Not to mention the meals at French restaurants that once had three stars. Or the three-star meals in Spain, Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. It's been, he understates, "a great ride so far."
In the classic Between Meals, A.J. Liebling writes that the best asset for a serious eater is not much money. With a thin wallet, he says, you have to think, to make choices. Rich people, in Liebling's view, tend to be fools because they go to "great" restaurants and order what we now think of as "designer food." They are, as a result, "unlikely to make the acquaintance of meat dishes of robust taste."
Ah, Liebling. These days, with a thin wallet, you can only eat ethnic. French restaurants are not cheap, and three-star restaurants can cost what you paid for a car in college. There is foodie culture now. And food porn.
Bob Macdonald does not have to wince when he gets the check at a three-star. What keeps him human -- what keeps this book from a wallow in meals that read like NC-17 movies -- is his lack of snobbery about his good fortune. "Our meals in local bistros and even picnics with fresh French bread and favorites such as pork rillettes, sliced sausages and hams, celery remoulade and Comte cheese could be just as memorable."
Nice, but let's not forget why we're here.
About Per Se, in New York, $295 per person -- and that's without wine -- the names alone are mouthwatering. As he has blogged:
Hudson Valley foie gras torchon with a coffee-chocolate financier, Spanish mackerel, Snake River Farms wagu beef, a salsify veloute with black walnut puree, a Yukon gold potato mille-feuille with tarragon custard, and chestnut agnolotti with chestnut crumbles. A special course offered to us to sample, risotto with Castlemagno cheese and black truffles, gnudi with duck gizzards and hazelnuts and polenta with smoked ricotta cheese and black truffles.
Here is Sa Qua Na, in Honfleur, where Seurat sometimes painted:
Alexandre Bourdes is turning out some of the most innovative food in Normandy. His Vert Olive Aime course tasting menu features poached monkfish with coriander leaves in a coconut broth, a perfectly cooked steamed salmon with a ravioli of leeks, ginger, pork juice and roasted bacon, cod in an emulsion of oysters and lettuce with cuttlefish ink, and a special roasted saddle of lamb with Morrocan spices on a white bean paste with orange blossom juice. The desserts were also innovative, including a prune crusted flan and a cappuccino pot au glacee with chocolate crunch.
You get the idea: the Macdonalds have had decades of the kind of experiences that are unrealized dreams for most foodies. For those dreamers, as for me, this is armchair dining, and at the highest level.
Bob Macdonald's best three-star meal? Joel Robuchon, Paris, 1996. "Even a simple sliced green apple with Iranian caviar was stunning in the hands of this master." I believe him. But I have to wonder who's eating Iranian caviar now.