Last updated on February 11th, 2015
One of the many pleasures of planning your own book tour schedule is that you get to plan your companion meals for each stop. One of the drawbacks is that you’re working with your own budget, not a fancy travel per diem or retainer. (No, book advances don’t cover stuff like this. Not at the rate book advances are going these days. First world problems!) When you know you’ll be eating out regularly, occasionally for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the bargaining game begins. Sometimes mornings of coffee and leftover cookies mean you can eat a big, fancy pizza for lunch. Then a $9 noodle bowl for dinner with your sister. But sometimes you just gotta treat yo self to a full-on fancy chef meal.
For my one-night-only engagement in Philadelphia, I booked myself a table at Matyson in Rittenhouse Square for a decadent little single-girl supper. (Yes, it’s fun to eat alone every now and then.) In addition to an à la carte menu, Matyson offers a five-course tasting at the unbelievable price of $45, and the selections change weekly. Of course I rolled up to the door on the final night of foie gras week. Oooof.
Prepared to pace myself through a series of heavy and overwhelmingly rich dishes, I was thrilled instead to eat five well-proportioned, elegantly prepared courses, including crepe-thin cannelloni; a venison roulade wrapped in crispy gribenes (that’s chicken skin to the layperson), and finishing with one of the most clever desserts I’ve tasted in recent memory: a coconut-foie creme brûlée. Each dish had just enough creamy, luxurious foie gras folded into its constituent ingredients to satisfy, but nothing weighed me down; chef Ben Puchowitz balanced it all deftly.
A month later, happily resting my head against a banquette as I watched the parade of dishes set before me at Commonwealth in San Francisco (a restaurant recommended by Good. Food. Stories.’ own Culinarily Clueless Correspondent C.C.), I let myself relax with clouds of buttery uni on seaweed brioche rounds; Dippin’ Dots-style pearls of pungent horseradish against pale raw fluke; and tender, fat-rich pork jowl rolled in a crunchy coating of ash, spiked with ginger. Too stuffed after eight courses for dessert, a complimentary dish of fizzy celery sorbet with verjus soda cut through the haze.
Compare these dishes with the long-awaited Zuni Cafe meal I shared with two dear friends and fellow food writers at the start of the San Francisco trip—a dinner that was deeply satisfying and worth the hype, but which, for all intents and purposes, was the same type of food I’d make at home for a casual dinner party. Pasta with fresh vegetables and herbs (and fava bean leaves, which, admittedly, I’ve never been able to get my hands on in New Jersey); wood-grilled halibut with a smattering of pickled squash; the famous Zuni roasted chicken and bread salad; and blood orange granita; every plate was expertly executed, the chicken’s superlative juices softening the cubes of bread underneath and the piquant cubes of crunchy squash enlivening the soft, flaky halibut.
Now, I’m no slouch in the kitchen—I’ve told you how I find cooking recipes from The French Laundry Cookbook to be soothing and meditative. But where I like to challenge myself at home by taking on complex, multi-component dishes, I use my experiences dining out to spark my creativity in a more passive sense, by sitting back and appreciating others’ talent—and the intensely high quality of their ingredients. I don’t bust out lobes of foie gras on a Wednesday (or any other) night. I don’t have daily access to just-caught scallops. I couldn’t be a chef or even a line cook at most of these restaurants, cooking and plating with such speed and efficiency night after night. I’m a slow, messy home cook and I know it.
But, then, most of us are. And yet here we sit, packing it in at both reassuring farm-to-table places like Zuni and more cerebral spots like Matyson and Commonwealth, relishing the way each dish we’re served builds flavors and textures—vinegary against mellow, fatty against sweet, creamy against herbal—and the thoughtfulness behind each composition. It’s not just entertaining to watch; when done right, it’s a meaningful experience. When working on recipes for Classic Snacks Made from Scratch, I fondly remembered Gale Gand’s mini meringue Peeps from a meal at Tru in 2001. I’m still trying to replicate the perfect, hearty, umami-rich sauciness of a mushroom pasta I ate at Bistro Jeanty in 2005.
I’ve been inspired by elements from all my recent meals that will eventually work their way into my own recipes. (Yes, I’ll be pickling some butternut squash soon. Wait for it.) It could be weeks, months, or even years before I return to some of the ideas marinating in my brain, but there’s no timetable—the food on the plate is gone in minutes, but the taste memories remain. That’s what I call a long-term investment, and the ROI is gratifyingly delicious.