Monday, February 13, 2012

Dueling Bloggers: How Much Is It Worth To You? (Part I)

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?


Wilson said...

Book it. We spent 2 days trying various pintxos and drinking txakoli at numerous places throughout San Sebastian, and loved the interaction with the locals that only standing up and eating can provide. But while that was nice I have no truly transcendent specific memory of my time there - it was all quite pleasant and enjoyable but 4 years later it all runs together in my mind. I think it would have been worth it to have spent more money to have a specific memory of an amazing meal that will stay with you years after the meal is done.

willifred said...

Only 2 days is SS? Comeoooonnnn....There are some places other than Arzak, Mugaritz and about Casa Julian for a fabulous chuleta, Elkano for one of the best fish meals to be had on the planet (and the views on the drive are amazing), or Etxebarri for my FAVORITE meal in the area, although a bit more of a drive. Each to his own, but I enjoyed these three over the previous ones for sure. Just where your head's at. Personally I don't give a damn about a bowl of potatoes that have a stone in them to crack a tooth on, or small little cubes of things that make sense about half the time. I've had one too many ultra expensive meals only to reflect later that I would have rather had a more "honest" one. That said, of the three, I'd do Arzak over the other two.

By the way Peter, I've forgotten the name of the place in Madrid I was supposed to tell you about. I'll get it to you soon....assuming I haven't pissed you guys off. Rene didn't exactly utilize my info for Barcelona, maybe I'm waisting my keyboarding skills.

cristy said...

After having trouble getting a table at Arzak last summer our concierge was able to score us lunch at Martin Berasategui nearby, another 3 star restaurant in the neighborhood. I don't know what I missed out on at Arzak, but MB was the highlight of the dining on our trip, even winning out over some of the famous names in Paris, Passard, Bocuse, Ducasse. Definitelty worth checking out. Enjoy your trip!

Rene said...


Not true, your info came in handy as all trip info does, but I can't only go to places you recommend. Plus I couldn't get into two or three of the spots you recommended. Your keyboard skills are much appreciated, trust us.

Anonymous said...

When I tally up my expenses every year they do not include dining in French restaurants run by Paul Bocuse or dining in any restaurant for that matter. Who gets to reduce their taxes with those kinds of deductions? I guess that's why people go to law school.

Tim Geithner said...

Guessing you dont make any income off of dining out. Don't fret, chances are they can only deduct half of their expenses, if that.