I have been religiously attending almost every traveling/pop-up restaurant event in town over the last year. It started a ways back- I would place the birth of it when Ludo Lefebvre guest chef’d and did a small bites menu at what was then thought of as a simple bakery/cafe- Breadbar on 3rd. It was called “Breadbar presents Ludobites” and the LA Times announced it back in Sept 2007 . This guest chef concept was quite novel when the restaurant was well, not a restaurant. We savored tasty little morsels of items just starting to get trendy: Foie Gras sandwiches, little soups, clever herbs and flavors on varied proteins. We had 4 orders of this incredible honeycomb served with cheese. We brought our own wine and Ludo sat down with us for about an hour after most of the crowd left. We spoke of restaurants and food and France- it was lovely.
This was the Before time. Times changed. Food blogging, once a novel form of journalism, was mostly owned and operated by a small number of well-read and highly experienced foodies who had a unique story to tell. Soon, there was an explosion of food bloggers. Eater, back in October 2009, published a rather inappropriate and I thought offensive call to food bloggers to quit blogging, replace their website with a page announcing their retirement, all for a token financial incentive of $25. Some said it was a joke, chill out, but I was quite angry at their audacity and their attack against foodie free speech. But I begrudgingly saw their point. There is a ton of saturation of food writers- and while there are many who are great, there are many who, well, are not. And the bad ones make the entire idea of food journalism seem dumbed-down.
For me, it all came to a head when I attended Ludobites at Royal T in Culver City in December 2009. They had set up a light box in so all the food journalists could properly photograph their entrees. I watched bemused from a corner table as bloggers would receive their entree, then run back to the light box, stand in line to wait for others to finish their photographing, then spend several minutes or more positioning their plate just so for the camera. Then they would bring back their now cold and limp dish back to the table where they would eventually consume it as a shadow of its former self. It struck me as very anti-foodie to deprecate the chef’s creation in this manner. In researching this post, I found that some rather renowned chefs are in fact none-too-happy about all the food paparazzi:
So as not to sound the complete hypocrite, yes, I am one of those people who takes a picture of special (or sometimes all) dishes at restaurants, if not for blogging then for my personal records. But I always feel a sense of urgency to take it in as few seconds as possible, so as not to wait so long that the quality of the dish is affected, and also to avoid annoying my dining companions. When I am out with other bloggers I do not often sense that same sense of “hurry up and take thepicture so we can eat” mentality.
Which is an excellent segue to the point I am really trying to make. These traveling (pop-up) restaurants….are not that good. But no one seems to be saying that. What I love about them is they represent a fantastic way to experience often highly creative and experimental cuisine at relatively bargain prices. Case in point: Michael Voltaggio at the Langham ran us about$400/couple. At Hatchi at Breadbar? Under $150.
When you attend one of these dinners, it is like going to a rock concert. They sell out in minutes and many of the guests are paparazzi. The chef will be fawned over, and the fans will beg for coveted photographs and autographs. I get it- I have joined in with the rest and have the autographed menus to prove it. It is all quite glamorous.
But once more, I just don’t find these dinners to be that great. For the most part, they have the potential to be good. But the venues are often not equipped to handle these complex dinners, and execution often falls short. The one common theme is inconsistency. At the most recent Hatchi dinner I attended, Walter Manzke, it was a disaster. People waited 30-60 minutes to be seated and then were told half the items were sold out. We were one of the “lucky” couples who did get everything. But we found our mussels dish had a few bad mussels, the ravioli was undercooked, the flatbread was burned, the trotters had grease dripping from them, etc. I won’t even get into the service problems. I don’t mean to pick on Chef Manzke. I am focusing on him because if you read my blog you will see that I am a huge admirer of his. His tasting menu at Bastide was the single best meal I ever had in Los Angeles. And I thought his work at Church and State was brilliant. I was frustrated and saddened by the terrible experience.
But I was also mystified. Everyone else around me except for my dining companion seemed quite enamored with the food and the overall event. We gave our burnt pizza to the food journalists sitting next to us (they were out of them by that time) and they loved it. I haven’t read all the blogger reviews, but for the most part other than the complaints of not enough food, the comments have been positive.
We had a similar experience at Gram & Papas with Chef Lefebvre. In that venue, service and execution was dramatically improved over Breadbar. But there were still many issues. At one point, we finally sent a dish back. They were very gracious about it. They comp’ed us for the dish, and let us replace it with another. We replaced the dish with our favorite item, the lamb chop. Note the singular on “chop.” There was nothing particularly remarkable or creative about the chop. The chop was very well executed and tasty, but it was over $20, I think $24, for one medium-sized chop. I can get lot of very well-executed lamb chops for less than $24 per piece in this city. At much nicer venues.
So what is going on? Am I just too picky? My friends tease me because I am a “super-taster” and do tend to pick out faults invisible to others. Also, things I find too sweet or too bitter others find to be just right. Guilty. But I think there is something more. Some kind of jump-on-the-bandwagon-rock-concert mentality here. This kind of dining is IN. It is fun, electric, exciting. When you are there, you feel like you are really part of something. It is not just going out to eat a meal, it is about attending an EVENT. Going and blogging gets you bragging rights no different than scoring front row seats for the latest rock star’s concert. Practically nobody sitting at the front row of a concert for their favorite star ever comes home complaining that the band wasn’t that good. Especially after they dropped $150-$300 per seat. Could these trendy dining events be similar? Are people afraid to admit they were not that great because in some way it hurts their personal credibility?
I will continue to attend many of these events. But not all, anymore. As an extreme foodie, the allure of the unique and unknown is too hard to pass up. And while the food itself may continue to disappoint, I grow increasingly fascinated with watching the concept itself evolve. I wonder if these dumbed-down executions are really helping, and not hurting, the chef’s reputation. I wonder what this trend is doing to the perception/definition of a “Foodie.” I wonder if this trend will help or hurt traditional dining establishments, in the same way that Two Buck Chuck brought a ton of new wine drinkers to the scene…but with lowered expectations of cost and quality. And yet I am excited to see where this is going, and remain optimistic that it will evolve into something that transcends the restaurant as we know it today- whether it be permanent, traveling, food cart or whatever. But something that is better than we we have now. I want to be a part of the evolution.
Am I alone in my cynicism?
Afterthought: Rachel Narins of “Chicks with Knives” , a sustainable private supper club, will be hosting an upcoming Hatchi dinner. Her entire model is based on serving underground dinners at varying locations, typically private homes. I have been to a couple of her dinnersand they have been consistently wonderful. She is a professional master of the amateur setting. I am very optimistic that despite the obstacles of this kind of event, she will be unique in her ability to still be able to execute at a very high level. She and others of her ilk may be the ones who will benefit most from this trend.