During the recent Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, I attended one of the many dinners being staged around town. I luckily ended up at the Optimist — Ford Fry’s slapping fresh new seafood restaurant and oyster bar on the Westside. Fry and his chef de cuisine, Adam Evans, along with a handful of the South’s best and most famous seafood chefs, prepared an all-fish meal. Bryan Caswell of Houston’s Reef served sustainably raised Gulf snapper, cooked and seasoned with miraculous delicacy considering he needed to get 100 or so plates of it served.
Such dinners are now commonplace, and you don’t have to participate in a food festival to attend one. On a smaller scale, visiting winemakers and beer brewers often get welcomed to town with open arms and a fixed-price dinner at one of the town’s better restaurants where six or seven courses will meet their pairings.
Food writers and historians often get feted at Restaurant Eugene, which hosts periodic author dinners. Guests come to hear the writer speak, get their books autographed and consume an expensive multicourse meal.
Chefs, being naturally gregarious souls, invite each other into their kitchens. One Midtown Kitchen ran a memorable series of monthly dinners featuring the efforts of well-known toques from around town.
Le Cirque, a classic New York eatery that wants to keep its brand flying as high as a trapeze in the national foodie consciousness, has been trotting new chef Olivier Reginesi (as well as crates of the restaurant’s signature china) across the country for a series of “pop-up” dinners. The Atlanta stopover was at the Buckhead Club, and those who popped in after paying $150 were treated to a multicourse meal with matching wines.
Members of the press and bloggers find themselves invited to any number of complimentary dinners, staged at many of the town’s best restaurants. They happen to promote brands of liquor, food festivals, tourist destinations and trade organizations that represent, say, Alaskan seafood or Italian viticultural regions. These dinners are often long affairs with many courses and, natch, matching wines.
Chefs like to host dinners because they get to play. Maybe they can’t sell enough rabbit to keep it on their standing menus. But if it’s one small course between the fish and beef, their guests might enjoy it. Restaurateurs like the dinners, because even those that don’t sell out bring in revenue on slower weekday nights. Customers like the dinners because they get to eat, drink and be very merry, with plenty of flavors to taste.
If you follow chefs, food writers and other gastro-obsessives on Twitter, you’ll begin to notice a lot of their “oh my God, this is the most amazing dish” tweets come not from typical restaurant meals, but from blowout dinners where chefs are putting on the dog.
I do sometimes worry this intensive focus on special meals and experiences takes a chef’s attention away from his bread-and-butter product — namely bread, butter and the two or three courses their restaurant customers order after looking at the menu.
I almost never go to dinners because I think I should assess restaurants solely on the quality of food they serve from their standing menus, not from the prix fixe extravaganzas they stage for groups large and small. But I do sometimes worry I’m only seeing half the picture.
Think about some of Atlanta’s better known chefs. Do you really get the full measure of Linton Hopkins by walking into Restaurant Eugene on a Tuesday night? Now that Richard Blais has opened the Spence in Midtown, will we get anything like the experience of the dinners he prepares to raves across the country?
That’s not to say I didn’t love my dinner at the Optimist, which was a lot of fun. But, man, six courses with matching wines! You’ve got to have a steel gut to go to a lot of these.
- by John Kessler for the Food and More blog