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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Meal stimulation

There's a website here in Houston,, which allegedly compiles dining bargains (shout out to HTownChowDown for pointing it out to me). Except, near as I can tell, these are almost all luxury fine dining restaurants. Which I found rather oxymoronic; if they were targeting the person on a budget, the discounts don't reach far enough. And people on a tight budget shouldn't be thinking of eating in such places, anyway, since they aren't exactly good value for the dollar compared to so many other places in town.

When I voiced that I found the concept self contradictory on Twitter, it set off a stream of comments, a bit of which stopped short of saying that I am biased against fine dining establishments. Amongst some of the lighthearted jabs and sprinkling of vitriol, there was one question which I took very much to heart: Is there a meal in Houston which I think is worth more than $20?

Intrigued by the thought, I did an informal set of interviews among people I encountered for the next few days, asking them if there was a meal they felt was worth at least $20 in Houston. The answers informed me as to what people considered in what is value for their dollar when dining out. Most people will gladly pay more than that just for good wine. Taking drinks out of the equation, most immediately mentioned steak or sushi as being worthy of the greater than $20 tab. A few mentioned being willing to pay for exceptional service, but not if the food was mediocre. Just a couple mentioned paying for the exceptional skill of the chef - and what better demonstration of skill is there than to take a really humble ingredient and make it transcendent in its final form - although put on the spot, the people who mentioned this couldn't specifically name a Houston area chef.

Truth be told, good seasonal ingredients are cheap and easy to come by in multicultural and prosperous Houston, and classic simple treatments of these ingredients result in fantastic meals without much effort. Which means that we have a fair population of local inexpensive restaurants with great food, and "fine dining" establishments (whatever that means) are hard pressed to provide additional value for the higher prices under most circumstances, moreso in the current economic climate.


  1. An analogous debate I often hear among foodies (that I just don't understand) is the beer or wine debate. Why not both?

    There's a difference between a $20 meal and a $100 meal. You expect the $100 meal to be *perfect*. You expect the flavours to surprise you. And you expect there to be layer upon layer of flavour.

    I expect much less from a $20 meal, and yet I think I also discriminate at that level. I like filet mignon, and I like brisket.

    I've only had a few medium priced-expensive meals in Houston. Cafe Annie for my graduation gift from my PhD advisor (which was good, but not worth the price in my opinion - take that however you like). And the Daily Review. Quite a bit better, not near as expensive as Cafe Annie. And quite worth the price.

    But the best meals of my life are certainly the most expensive. Like Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal. And Restaurant Eve in Washington DC. Wickedly expensive. And perfect on *every* level.

  2. FYI, Cafe Annie is going away, to be replaced by a new Robert Del Grande concept called Bar Annie. Not sure what that is to be like.

    I do agree that for a meal to be $50 (a price that can readily feed four adults well in many restaurants in Houston), I expect it to truly wow me. Yet I am hard pressed to remember such a meal in Houston, save for the omakase dinner at Sushi Jin. The immediate response I get for suggesting such good food in small, typically ethnic minority spots is: "Well, do you get filet?"

    Which is a poor barometer for good dining, if you ask me. It is an oversimplification of what a worthy luxurious meal should be. And I do agree, when a meal is $80, $100, $200 a head, I expect perfection, I expect surprise...and I won't be counting pennies.