Rene: Got your reservation at Arzak yet?
Peter: Yeah, but probably going to cancel.
Rene: Don't. You will regret it.
I have never been one to wince at spending a few dollars on a fine meal. During law school summer school in Lyon, I made it to 4 out of the 6 restaurants run by Paul Bocuse, including his flagship in Collonges. I celebrated my second to last semester in law school by dining at The French Laundry during the week before finals. (Wow, those pictures are awful.) And when I tally up my expenses every year for my tax return, The Folk Singer usually has a few comments about how many starving children in Africa that we could feed with the amount of money that I spent on food in the previous calendar year.
In anticipation of our upcoming trip to Madrid and Basque country, months ago I began the ritual of research and debate as to where we would be dining during our week long journey. My first stop is always whichever episode of No Reservations features Bourdain's visit to our area of travel, and any certified fan boy of Tony immediately knows that his not-so-secret dream is to be adopted into the family of Juan Mari Arzak. So while we would have counted ourselves lucky to eat at Mugaritz or Akellare, we have decided on Arzak for our blowout meal of the trip.
Or did we? Once we settled on where the main event would be held, I began scouting potential locations for the undercard rounds. You know, the other 12 meals that we will presumably eat in Spain. And a funny thing happened during my research: I became more excited about the hundreds of tapas and pintxos bars that I read about than I did anticipating what could be the meal of a lifetime at Arzak. And I started to wonder: With only 2 days in San Sebastian on the agenda, was I willing to sacrifice precious tapas crawl and general exploration time to spend a significant amount of time and money on one meal?
The answer to that question is still to be determined. The Folk Singer has vowed to go with the flow, though she is perfectly happy with drinking cava and eating jamón ibérico de bellota and patatas bravas for 6 days. Rene's opinion is encapsulated in the opening paragraph - a once in a lifetime meal is just that, so embrace the moment while you can. (He will offer his thoughts tomorrow in Part II.) And as I said before, I am still undecided.
But in the process of weighing my decision, I have come to a few conclusions on how to measure the "value" or "worth" of a meal, based on my past experiences.
First, unlike women's shoes and handbags, price is not the determinative factor. I have paid $10 for meals that were better values than spending $150 on foie gras and roasted venison, and that's not because the more expensive food sucked. Certain eating experiences just fit when it comes to the mood of the parties, the reason for celebrating, the expectations, and numerous other factors. A dozen raw oysters and a cold bar can be the most fulfilling dining experience man can ever want, if a dozen raw oysters and a cold bar is what man so desires. On the flip side, a high price tag brings high expectations, and one cannot help but determine value in terms of dollars spent. Will a meal at Arzak be 8 times more fulfilling than an evening of munching on croquetas and pulpo al ajillo and drinking bottles of txakoli?
Second, "once in a lifetime" applies to meals at every price point. The chances of me having another opportunity to eat at Arzak are the same as me having another opportunity to eat tapas at La Cuchara de San Telmo a few blocks away. The unknown factor is the same for both - my only knowledge of either comes from accounts produced by other people. So who is to say that I would not receive more joy from one than the other? The potential level of regret, however, would be much higher for a restaurant like Arzak, which has been lauded and anointed by the wise souls at Michelin. After reading a number of the "I Ate At El Bulli Pieces", I got the sense of what "once in a lifetime" really meant, at least to the authors.
It's a tough decision, and one that will likely not be made until a few days before we make the drive from Madrid to San Sebastian. So I ask: WWBORD? How much is it worth to you?