The first bite I took of Curtis Duffy’s food back when he was at Avenues changed my life.
Bite seems too crude a word: my mastication was more like a swoon, and the amuse bouche was more an ocean than a morsel of food. The flavor combination was classic: caviar, lemon, crème fraiche; the presentation was pure 2009: an orb in the spirit of Ferran Adria’s spherical olives. It looked a little bit like those tiny toy-holding plastic spheres in the Claw machines at bowling alleys; it functioned like pop rock, blowing up in your mouth in one bite and dissolving on your tongue. What I distinctly remember about this dish is less the specific taste itself--which we’ve all had in some form--than the experience: waves and layers of flavor building on one another, a cascade of delicious unfolding over the course of 5-10 seconds. It tasted like wonder.
To go any further into this would venture into “madeleine” territory, which my first taste of southern-style biscuits will forever and ever own. But I've been thinking a lot about that bite lately as I dwell on what I would call--and called out as--a middling meal at Ever, Curtis Duffy and Michael Muser's newest temple--and that’s really the right word for it--of fine dining. As I retold the experience to friends and family in the days that followed, I found myself framing and qualifying my assessment with something along the lines of "that's a world-class operation right there”; I said very little about the quality of food. It was just so serviceable. Nothing changed.my.life; I doubt I’ll remember much about, if any of, the dishes in six months.
There was, essentially, no wonder to the meal.
Which is why the question I posed in my review last week continues to occupy mental real estate: what is fine dining supposed to do anymore? To say its purpose is simply to deliver multiple opportunities for outright deliciousness feels like an insult to the chef and team behind the food, turning a dinner into the equivalent of an Instagram Story; to say it's about exploration and technique, however, feels like an insult to the diner, assuming as it does that the purpose of dining is merely to enable a chef’s whimsy without any regard to coherence or meaning. These both may have been true in 2009, when modernist cuisine was still in its giddy formative stages and it felt like a delight just to have a foam on a weird plate; they feel insufficient in 2021, when the same tools of the trade--e.g., sous vide, combi ovens--are available at home and a new breed of talent is finding ways to merge, say, the tasting menu with the taqueria.
Hence the need for wonder. Wonder can be many things: joy, amazement, curiosity, even tastiness and exploration. One should get the sense of possibility in the cook and the cooking, not just in terms of novelty or intrigue but of the depth of expression; it should feel true in a unique and personal way. I just didn't get that at Ever, which is less an indictment of the talent in the back of the house--world-class, of course--than the way that talent is being put to use in the service of what I assumed to be external validation: getting three Michelin stars. That goal may have been an end in itself pre-pandemic; it may still be a worthwhile endgame after. But it didn’t ring true to me, and, as I asked in my previous review, what purpose is served by a highly regimented Michelin three-star approach with no surprises, no real delight--no wonder--and where does it go after it achieves said outcome? That’s a question Duffy, Grant Achatz, Michael Carlson, et al. are all going to need to ponder as we bridge back and the gastro-tourists do or do not return.
Here’s a contrarian thought as we do: embrace discomfort. Toss out the rulebook. Focus on joy. I’d love to see Otto Pham ditch the rigidities of a traditional omakase format, which ironically wasn’t optimally representing his talents at Kyoten, at his new venture, Hinoki; I would love to see how Jonathan Zaragoza might flip the script on the degustation in the same spirit as La Resistencia in Dallas or Pujol in Mexico City, where the taco becomes a tool for exploring new (and old) ideas in flavor. Rahm taught us to never let a crisis go to waste; the silver lining about this one is that both existing and emerging talent have real shots of reimagining the dining scene to be, yes, more wondrous. I hope Duffy is among them.