My relationship with fine dining

Painting of the view down the sidewalk of North Side Square in Huntsville, Alabama, looking west past the entrance to the Jazz Factory.

“Jazz Factory”, a painting by Yuri Ozaki, 2010. The black awning on the right was the entrance.

My first experience with fine dining was when I walked into the Jazz Factory in Huntsville, Alabama looking for a job. Without much ado, I was asked to return for training. It was one of the very few fine dining spots in Huntsville at that time, and over the next week, I and my fellow trainees learned the menu, tasted the food and wine, and started at the bottom rung FOH as food runners, water fillers, and table bussers. I worked as a server for a while, and soon moved into bartending. I even moved two blocks away, and for about four years during my mid-20s, I grew into an adult with my Jazz Factory family. This was one of the most transformative work experiences I’ve ever had because it introduced me to the world of food as an intellectual pursuit rather than mere sustenance. In an odd way, it is thanks to the Jazz Factory that I returned to college. I would spend my days in classrooms and books, and my evenings standing over a table or the bar talking to the regulars and the random strangers, having no idea what a huge benefit this would be to my future role as a teacher. I also learned the intricacies of a menu, which ultimately benefited my doctoral dissertation. In many ways, my current life and aims have only been possible due to my time spent working in the food industry, and specifically at the Jazz Factory. My heartfelt thanks go out to all my co-workers who put up with the bumptious younger me.

I already had some experience working in the food industry by this point. My first restaurant job had been as a busser/dishwasher at an Outback Steakhouse in Columbus, GA. I left Columbus soon after I had been promoted to server, but once I got to Huntsville, I immediately got jobs at both a Chili’s and an Olive Garden, hired literally within 10 minutes of walking through the door at each place. While the training at Olive Garden was more appropriate for learning about food and wine, Chili’s had a faster progression to becoming a bartender, and that’s really what I was after at that time in my life – quick access to booze and a closer interaction with guests. So I stuck with Chili’s. I served tables for a few months, trained as a bartender, worked a few months more behind the bar, and left to peddle my new experience elsewhere, preferably somewhere more lucrative and, dare I say, more distinguished than a chain restaurant that specialized in macrobrews and 1001 different types of margarita. The corporate competitions to sell specific items from the menu proved a drain on my soul, and when I caught myself pushing Presidente Ritas on the obviously intoxicated just to get my numbers up, I knew it was time to move on. This is when I found the Jazz Factory.

The Jazz Factory opened my eyes to, among other things, what it meant to have an actual chef working in the kitchen, utilizing fresh, local ingredients before (I knew) it was cool. The regular menu was pretty great, good enough that they were loathe to change it too much from year to year. But what left the deepest impression on me was that they replaced the regular dinner service one Sunday a month for a time with what they called a Wine Dinner: several courses, each paired with a carefully chosen glass of wine, following a menu specially made for the event and often suited to the season. Many restaurants today call this a Tasting Menu, which is usually an addition to the regular menu, but some places still treat it as a separate event. In my humble opinion, the Tasting Menu is the star of haute cuisine. It allows the chef to work with the best ingredients available without having to adhere to their standard selection of dishes. Guests do have the option to request that certain things be left out of the dinner on the basis of allergy or aversion, but the decisions are otherwise left up to the chef. It can remain consistent throughout the season, or it can change every night, or even for every diner. The Tasting Menu is a chef’s playground. If you appreciate the art and skill of talented chefs who love what they do, and if you have the extra money to spend on such an experience, there is no greater opportunity for good food. For an extra bonus, add the wine pairing, too.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I really started travelling in earnest, which for me meant focusing on food as a cultural experience necessary for a well-rounded trip rather than a mere source of fuel for other activities. Nowadays my wife and I try to visit great restaurants of all types wherever we go, even better when we can share the experience with others. A great many of our meals, including some of the most exquisite, have been at a table with the Kindicks, whose companionship over the years has rendered them part of our family. Such bonds are a testament to the power and importance of a meal.

I have visited many fine dining restaurants worth mentioning since my time at the Jazz Factory. A very many more bars and cafes and family-style restaurants are memorable for their charm and authenticity, but there are just too many of these to keep track of, and very few of these have required planning ahead of time. The fine dining restaurants become part of the itinerary, and in some cases part of the reason to make the trip at all. If a restaurant has a Tasting Menu, we order it as a matter of course. Most other restaurants we tend to visit for dinner have a prix fixe, for which you pay a fixed price and select items from the menu for a number of courses. Either way – not to take anything away from the roadside BBQ sandwich or lobster roll – seek out the best restaurants whenever you can and make a meal of it. Take your time. Enjoy the food. Cherish the company. A chef’s passion makes for an unforgettable experience, even when expectations prove untenable. These memories and the stories that adorn them will last a lifetime.

Featured image used with permission of the artist, Yuri Ozaki:


Adventures in fine dining

This is a list of restaurants I consider worthy of mention from my culinary adventures, followed by the chef at the time and the year I was there. The food selection ranges from Tasting Menu (TM) to prix fixe (PF) to regular menu selection (RM). They are in reverse chronological order, to the best of my memory, and I’ve marked my favorites with a ~. The stars noted are Michelin. *Las Vegas no longer received Michelin evaluations as of 2010, but since Vegas restaurants didn’t technically lose their stars, I’ve kept them in brackets where applicable.

  • ~Laurel, Philadelphia, PA – Nick Elmi (2017) TM
  • ~Momofuku Shoto, Toronto, ON – David Chang (2017) TM
  • Peter Pan, Toronto, ON – Noah Goldberg (2017) RM
  • ~Res Culta Pop-up, North Wales, PA – Sam and Jen Kindick (2017, 2014) TM
  • Amada, Philadelphia, PA – Jose Garces (2016) TM
  • Cotton Row, Huntsville, AL – James Boyce (2016, 2013) RM
  • ~Noble Fare, Savannah, GA – Patrick McNamara (2016) TM
  • Vic’s on the River, Savannah, GA – Kerry Stevens (2016) RM
  • ~Atelier Crenn, San Francisco, CA – Dominique Crenn ★★ (2016) TM
  • Aatxe, San Francisco, CA – Ryan Pollnow (2016) RM
  • ~Res Culta Pop-up, Greyrock, NH – Sam and Jen Kindick (2016, 2015) TM
  • ~Volver, Philadelphia, PA – Jose Garces / Dave Conn (2015) TM
  • Morimoto, Philadelphia, PA – Masaharu Morimoto (2015) TM
  • ~Vetri, Philadelphia, PA – Marc Vetri (2015) TM
  • Joël Robuchon, Las Vegas, NV – Claude Le-Tohic [★★★] (2015) TM
  • ~Sage, Las Vegas, NV – Shawn McClain (2015, 2014, 2013) PF
  • Cochon, New Orleans – Donald Link / Stephen Stryjewski (2015) RM
  • Paramour, Wayne, PA – Eric Goods (2014) TM
  • miX, Las Vegas, NV – Alain Ducasse / Bruno Davaillon [★] (2014) PF
  • Aureole, Las Vegas, NV – Charlie Palmer / John Church [★] (2014) PF
  • ~Frasca, Boulder, CO – Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson (2014) TM
  • ~Black Cat, Boulder, CO – Eric Skokan (2014) TM
  • ~Nobu, London, UK – Nobu Matsuhisa / Mark Edwards ★ (2014) TM
  • Alain Ducasse at the Dorcester, London, UK – Jocelyn Herland ★★★ (2014) TM
  • ~Olive Tree, Bath, UK – Chris Cleghorn (2014) TM
  • ~Jean-George Steakhouse, Las Vegas, NV – Robert Moore (2013) PF
  • American Fish, Las Vegas, NV – Michael Mina (2013) PF
  • Le Cirque, Las Vegas, NV – Gregory Putin [★] (2013) PF
  • ~The Crossing, St. Louis, MO – Jim Fiala and Brad Watts (2013) TM
  • Niche, St. Louis, MO – Gerard Craft (2013) TM
  • ~Farmhaus, St. Louis, MO – Kevin Willmann (2013) TM
  • Cobalt Grille, Virginia Beach, VA – Alvin Williams (2013, 2011) RM
  • ~Greyrock, Newbury, NH – Sam and Jen Kindick (2013, 2012, 2011)
  • Taverna Angelica, Rome, Italy – ?? (2012) TM
  • ~Ristorante L’Antica Scuderia, Tavarnelle, FI, Italy – Maria Abbarchini (2012) RM
  • Cinque di Vino, San Casciano, FI, Italy – Silvia Papi, Marco Baldi (2012) RM
  • ~Loiseau des Vignes, Beaune, France – Mourad Haddouche ★ (2012) PF
  • Chez Guy, Gevrey-Chambertin, France – Yves Rebsamen (2012) RM
  • ~Tante Margarite, Paris, France – Bernard Loiseau† / Pedro Gomes (2012) PF
  • *Tallahassee restaurants will have their own post (2005-2017)
  • Uchi, Austin, TX – Tyson Cole (2005) PF
  • 801 Franklin, Huntsville, AL – Matt Martin (employed 2004-2005)
  • Jazz Factory, Huntsville, AL – Gevara Teebi (employed 2000-2004)

Road food

Holiday travel for us means long road trips. About 2,500 miles or more, depending on the year. Spending an obscene number of hours driving means that we also consume more than our fair share of road food. I’m not particularly fond of fast food chains, so we avoid these. This certainly makes finding a meal on the road a bit more difficult, but thanks to the modern marvel of the smart phone, we research local restaurants on the fly, usually gravitating toward barbeque. A decent pulled pork or brisket sandwich beats a mcwhatever any day of the year.

pig-silhouetteSome people have very strong feelings about barbeque, but there are so many styles to appreciate that digging in your heels about any particular one means you miss out on some pretty awesome tastiness. There is some variety in meats and cooking styles, but the distinguishing characteristic tends to be the flavor imparted by a primary ingredient added to the meat either during the cook or as a condiment. There’s the molasses of Kansas City, the dry rubs of Memphis, the vinegar of North Carolina and the mustard of South Carolina, the white sauce and coleslaw of Alabama, and the hot sauce of east Texas. I enjoy it all, so long as it’s given the proper love. I must admit that not all barbeque joints bring the love; in fact, we tend to bat about .500, but most of the mediocre ones are still better than fast food and the best ones are extraordinary finds that we try to hit again and again. Guides on the various styles of barbeque can be found all over the internet, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. To me, the important thing is to know how to find a place to stop while traveling, adding as little extra time as possible. To that end, I’ve outlined a few steps that will make it easier to avoid the fast food chains and find some good grub.

First, and this goes without saying, you have to plan ahead. Billboards are sometimes helpful, but you can’t expect those exit-sign food listings to offer much guidance beyond fast food. Try to take the time to locate some possibilities before setting out, a necessary step if you’re traveling alone and don’t have the luxury of doing research on the phone while driving. If you’re like us and always running behind schedule then you might end up looking for a spot in an unforeseen area anyway, so this is where you get to enjoy the true thrill of the hunt, finding good food within a reasonable distance, well before the hangry sets in. Start looking for spots by location based on WHEN you’d prefer to eat, but no less than a good half hour down the road. Cities are easiest, but by no means does quality of the food equate to the ease of finding it (as evidenced by the ubiquity of fast food). Smaller towns or even the boonies often have the gems that are worth visiting more than once. Make sure they’ll be open when you’ll be passing through – don’t count on any place to serve past 9 pm, and many places in the Bible Belt are closed on Sundays.

Once you’ve found a good candidate, check the reviews. You should never allow one or two bad reviews to dissuade you from trying a place, nor should you commit based on one or two great reviews, but you can get a feel for a spot’s food and service by reading through what other people have to say. Keep in mind that it takes a certain kind of person to post a review at all, plus it may be that only the most memorable (for better or worse) food compels the most comments, but this step could save you from wasting your time. If you see that a place receives several complaints about any specific thing, find somewhere else. This is especially true for the service, as food tends to be more subjective than attention or attitude. You can afford to be a little picky since there are usually several options to choose from.

Most places now have a menu available online, and you can use this to order ahead to save time. Barbeque is usually ready for pickup in about 15-20 minutes, but you can always ask them to have it ready at a specific time. Still, people forget things, so I wouldn’t call more than about 30 minutes ahead of your arrival. Consult your GPS. And yes, you might have to drive a mile or so away from the interstate, and one of you will probably need to get out of your car, but calling ahead will get you back on the road quicker than a chicken on a junebug.

Finally, ordering barbeque. You’re almost guaranteed to see a pulled pork sandwich on the menu, and you’ll definitely want to order it since this is usually a signature item. You can tell so much about a restaurant’s priorities, methods, and standards from just this one item. For future reference (for both the restaurant and your personal preferences), consider the bread, the chop of the meat, the seasoning, the sauce, and any toppings. If any of these things are sub par, the rest of the menu will be, too. Common sides we enjoy are fried okra, baked beans, mac&cheese, and coleslaw. Try any unique items you see, such as corn fritters, fried pickles, and Brunswick stew. And be sure to distinguish between poor quality and personal preference. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s poorly made, but it’ll be helpful for you when ordering the next time.

Finding good food on a road trip is not all that difficult, plus it’s an enjoyable activity for what can often be a monotonous journey. Even if you’re not into barbeque, there are lots of local restaurants that serve all kinds of things, and most of my general recommendations apply broadly to these as well. The main thing is that you don’t need to feel obligated to eat fast food from a mega-chain. Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t eat the mcwhatsits. I’m just saying you can do better.

Noteworthy BBQ locations from our recent trip(s):

Bradley’s Pit Bar-B-Que & Grill in Sweetwater, TN – We’ve been here a couple times now, and everything has been good. Try the pulled pork sandwich and the sliced beef brisket sandwich, especially.

Three Li’l Pigs Barbeque in Daleville, VA – They offer several varieties of BBQ, so this is a good place to try if you want to sample a few different types.

Painting hanging over the bar inside Three Li’l Pigs Barbeque in Daleville, VA