The Cost of a Night at Minibar
While I was on maternity leave, I started watching Chef’s Table on Netflix. A few of the featured chefs and restaurants were ones I had heard of, but most were not, and I was fascinated. I started looking at the rankings of the world’s best restaurants, visiting their websites, and salivating involuntarily every time the artsy food cinematography would appear on the television during a new episode. Perhaps it was watching all those episodes over the course of two weeks or so, and perhaps I was feeling some cabin fever with a new baby who was nursing every two hours or so, but I wanted to get out of the house and taste delicious food and wine that would challenge my palate.
Remembering the Michelin rankings and reading our local restaurant reviews, I knew how I could achieve my new dream: minibar. It’s an avant-garde restaurant offering creative fare in the category of “molecular gastronomy” from local chef-entrepreneur José Andrés. And I suddenly needed more than anything to go. I believe what happened exactly was this: I sat on the sofa watching Chef’s Table while simultaneously ogling the minibar website. “Honey,” I started saying, “Remember how last year we had a really fancy dinner out for your birthday, and you said we could do a special restaurant this year for my special birthday?” “Yes…” he responded, hesitating just enough to know that what was coming up would be big. “What if we did minibar?” There was a definite pause, and then he said, “Yeah, I’ll look into it.”
We talked about what dates might work and whether my mom could babysit. Then, when the reservation window opened, I reminded him and he took care of the booking. Only later would he mention in passing how much the dinner for two cost: nearly a thousand dollars. I remember pausing for a moment to do some mental math, comparing this figure to what we’d paid for a couple other very special meals in the past (nowhere near as much). It turns out that he had gone ahead and purchased a wine pairing as well, and that all together — food, drinks, taxes and tip for the two of us — totaled $996. I was a little stunned. Sure, this was what I had asked for. But thinking about the actual money took me aback. It is a LOT of money — why on earth would anyone do that for one night’s meal?
Well, the answer is because it is an amazing experience. In fact, the word “experience” comes up quite a few times on the minibar website. You don’t make a reservation – you “book the experience.” Dinner isn’t just dinner, it’s “a communal experience in avant garde cuisine.” Even the wine pairing we chose was “The Experience Pairing,” and the confirmation email wanted to know what they could do to make our evening “the experience of a lifetime.” Obviously a lot of thought went into using that word, because the meal we experienced was unlike like any other dinner we’ve had before, or will have again for a long time. Not in cost, or style, or interaction.
From the moment we walked up to the door and gave our names, we were treated like special, long-awaited guests. Before being shown into the main kitchen/serving area, we were led to a small lounge to relax and transition from the hustle and bustle of the outside world with a drink. Once our drinks were finished we were shown into the dining area and brought into the kitchen/staging area where we were introduced to the culinary team and given the opportunity to ask questions. We were then shown to our seats, and asked if we wanted glasses of sparkling wine (yes, please), and did we want our water to be still or sparkling (more bubbles please!). We sipped our drinks and watched as the staff prepared everything, and grew excited as the last couple were shown to their seats at the kitchen bar, and the dinner/show was about to begin.
We were given a small plate of snacks: something we were told was olives and looked like olives, but was not olives, and instead burst in our mouths when the flesh was pierced. A cup of what looked like green tea, but was actually a gin drink that managed not to taste like gin. A spoon made of cheese that was dipped into a green foam. Delicate butterflies made of beets and yogurt. Tiny curls of “shortcake.” Sea urchin to be eaten in one slurp. Blinis topped with caviar. A tiny bánh mì sandwich on bread that was not bread. Prawns in a sea of cream. Snail eggs on a dish with a smoking rosemary plant. A flash-frozen pumpkin tart so delicate that it could not be touched with hands, and was instead fed to each attendee using a spatula. Morels and peas that even a mushroom hater would adore. Rabbit surrounded by peanut foam. A tiny and perfect piece of lamb. A salad which literally melted in your mouth. An egg custard made to look like an egg. A crispy bite of pistachio baklava. A “freshly fried” donut. A small “serving tree” of sweets that looked straight out of Dr. Seuss. A perfectly decadent chocolate whoopie pie to celebrate my birthday. And a chocolate egg to end the night.
Each dish was lovingly plated and paired with an appropriate beverage. There were as many (if not more) staff in the restaurant as there were patrons. Their movements were crisp and choreographed — no one bumped into each other, and wine and water were poured and empty glasses whisked away without knowing that anyone was ever behind you. The chefs were meticulous in their duties, but simultaneously happy to answer any inane question: “How long does it take to develop recipes?” “Who picks the music?” “What’s behind that door?” Every time we so much as looked like we needed something, some member of staff was there to answer a question, or point the way to the bathroom.
By the time we had finished our meal and were led outside to catch a car home, we were in a haze of wonderment — and also likely a haze of light drunkenness, because we’d had about four or five full glasses of alcohol by the time we finished everything. The whole meal felt unreal; we had been led by the hand through a culinary wonderland, and were now ejected to go out and live in normality once again. Once got into the car home, we looked at each other, mouths agape. How had all of this happened? We gushed and smiled the entire ride home. When greeted by my mother with news that the baby was sleeping, we happily tiptoed around while trying not to wake her and glorying in these last moments when there was still a memory of wine on our lips and a perfect fullness in our bellies. This gastronomic reverie would be rudely interrupted a few short hours later when a hungry baby woke us up, but even now, weeks later, we find ourselves telling people about this meal and saying, “It was the best food experience of my life. If you can do it, GO!”
Did it feel excessive? Decadent? Before we made the reservation, maybe. After we paid the bill, perhaps. But then I look at my meal-prepped lunches and Costco stock-ups and realize that it’s possible to have a balance. For so much of our lives, food is a thing we use as fuel, and while we enjoy it, it’s not anything special. But every once in a while, when the occasion merits, we let food and dining become an all-encompassing experience, and it is worth every penny.
Maggie is a librarian who is going to be extra cautious about which shows she binges in the future. Read more of her writing at maggiekeller.net.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Experience Series.
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