Fine Dining for the 99 Percent

Danielle Oteri

by Danielle Oteri on March 15, 2012

The French Laundry in Napa Valley is considered the pinnacle fine dining experience in America. It’s the alpha dog, the ultimate, the Harvard, the Yankees, the Beatles of restaurants. With three Michelin stars, it’s the crème-de-la-crème-de-la-crème. Two weeks ago, I planted my foodie flag there and had what I anticipated to be my crowning “meal of a lifetime.” Simply, it was a gorgeous experience that I’m not soon to forget replete with the three benchmark ingredients of fine dining: truffles, caviar, and foie gras.

Why though, must these ingredients be limited to lavish and prohibitively expensive meals within the pantheon of only the best restaurants and lengthy tasting menus? In France and Italy especially, all three are enjoyed liberally, albeit in different forms.

bottarga
Bottarga is Sardinia’s most famous food and has an illustrious 3,000 year history. The pressed roe pouch of a grey mullet fish is purified, salted, and cured into a hard, saffron-hued slab. The preserved caviar is then sliced or shaved over pasta, eggs, or toast. The flavor is nutty and umami-rich. One of the most graceful solo meals in my repertoire is peels of bottarga over spaghetti with nothing more than olive oil, sea salt, and a handful of capers. Parsley is another lovely addition, as is a squeeze of lemon. The upfront cost of a package of bottarga may seem like a lot, but for $32.50, you’ll have more than enough for eight solo meals. The effort is minimal and the reward is tremendous.

Truffles are mushrooms that grow underground, usually in dense forests. In the Umbria region of Italy, where some of the world’s best truffles grow, there is little pretension over such things and truffles are commonly found atop pizza. Beyond the places where they grow abundantly, the average of a white truffle is a staggering $2000-$3000 per pound! At Cyrus in Sonoma, a waiter carried around an elusive white truffle in reliquary-like box and offered to shave a few slivers of the tuber over dishes for an additional $50.

truffle salt
Fine restaurants often use truffle oil, which is largely a scam as the truffle flavor is derived from an artificial ingredient that is all scent, little flavor and usually mixed with a cheap, non-virgin olive oil. A much better investment is $12 for a jar of truffle salt. Small flecks of black truffles are mixed with sea salt. The earthy taste of truffles combined with the briny taste of the ocean is a revelation. Sprinkled on top of scrambled eggs, life has never tasted so good.

Foie gras, the fattened liver of a hand-fed goose, is highly controversial and even more highly prized. In France, it is enjoyed widely and without the exorbitant cost. A less decadent but equally rich chicken liver pâté is a signature dish of Tuscany, where absolutely every enoteca will have “Crostini Toscana”—slices of toast spread with the pâté—available to pair with a glass of Chianti. Once I made it at home, the mystique of fancy pâté faded as I saw how simple and peasanty it really was, though the taste was no less luxurious. It is perhaps one of the least costly things you can make, with a tub of chicken livers costing no more than $1.50, even at my local, overpriced grocery store.

While my meal at the French Laundry may have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the ingredients and flavors I enjoyed there are in no way limited to only sophisticated (read: wealthy) palates. The next time I crave caviar, I can sit out on the fire escape with a dish of spaghetti and bottarga and raise a glass to democratic dining.

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