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Andrew Zimmern on 3 Spots for Fine Dining, Reimagined

Incanto

Incanto in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood.

I was 8 when my father brought me to La Côte Basque, the original Jean-Jacques Rachou restaurant that defined elegant fine dining. The food was insane, and I’ll never forget how the flowers, the linens, the service, the guests’ clothes, even the lighting combined to make everything look better than imagined. And yet dining of this style is on its way out. The luxury dining category is now populated solely by people who do it well—think Per Se or Restaurant Daniel. And even they have loosened up, because sitting in a stiff, quiet room with a snooty wait staff isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. If I’m splurging on dinner, I want to laugh with my dining companions and not feel self-conscious. I like to dirty the white tablecloth every once in a while, and I am not alone.

Proof: Grant Achatz’s Next recently devoted an entire menu to childhood favorites such as peanut butter and jelly. And Graham Elliot sits on my short list of Chicago fine-dining options, even though the wait staff might be wearing jeans and Chuck Taylors. And yet there is still that same sense of special occasion. In the New World of fine dining, the service hasn’t faltered, the food is as good as ever and beverage programs have never been more sophisticated.
 

       
Chef-partner Chris Cosentino is the main dining room at Incanto.

       

1. Incanto in San Francisco

CHEF: Chris Cosentino

LOCALE: 1550 Church Street

STORY: Boy studies abroad in Italy, falls in love with all things Italian, returns to the states and soldiers on with his engineering career, secretly dreaming of opening his own Italian restaurant. That was Mark Pastore’s story until he created Incanto in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. In 2003, Pastore enlisted chef Chris Cosentino to head up the kitchen; Cosentino is an Italian-American chef with a passion for whole animal butchery, Old World techniques and fresh ingredients.

EXPERIENCE: For Cosentino, fine dining doesn’t equate with fancy: “[It’s] about being well cared for from start to finish, having one’s needs anticipated and encountering something unexpectedly wonderful along the way.”

MENU: When it comes to offal (think sweetbreads and organ meat), Cosentino is arguably the most knowledgeable chef in the country. Expect rustic Italian cuisine, often incorporating the odd bits. “[The] menu frequently features esoteric ingredients and unusual dishes,” he says. 

WHAT TO ORDER: Choose something new to you. The grilled tuna spine sounds foreboding, but in Cosentino’s hands it’s a seafaring version of Japanese BBQ. Not into innards? No problem, you’ll also find traditional meat cuts cooked with a new perspective. Larger groups should consider calling ahead to request the “Leg of Beast” dinner or whole roast pig.
 

       
Peekytoe crab with pickled daikon radish and viola flowers at Eleven Madison Park. Photo by Francesco Tonelli.

       

2. Eleven Madison Park in New York City

CHEF: Daniel Humm

LOCALE: 11 Madison Avenue

STORY: Housed in the historic MetLife Building’s original meeting hall, Eleven Madison Park established itself as a culinary destination in a city full of them. For the past five years, Swiss-born chef Daniel Humm has headed up the kitchen. Last year, after EMP won the 2011 James Beard Foundation award for the country’s most outstanding restaurant, Danny Meyer sold the EMP to Humm and his partner in crime, general manager Will Guidara.

EXPERIENCE: Though open for 14 years, EMP has evolved with diners’ expectations. Patrons once craved extravagance—foie gras and lobster plated on delicate china, eaten with sterling silverware. These days, they seek a one-of-a-kind experience. “It comes down to these three things: the telling of a story, the experience of something new and the triggering of a food memory,” says Humm. You’ll still find the same quality and finesse, but from a point of view that’s uniquely his.

MENU: Expect a modernist take on French cuisine, catered to your individual tastes. Here’s how it works: Diners receive a grid listing 16 words that represent every dish’s principle ingredient. Select four words from the menu that resonate with you, then discuss preferences and any food allergies with your server. Then the kitchen tailors the menu to the desires of each individual guest. Yes, you heard me right.

WHAT TO ORDER: Since EMP focuses on seasonally driven ingredients, the menu changes frequently. However, the whole roasted duck glazed in lavender and honey is almost always available, and it’s beloved by many. I was lucky enough to dine there three times in the past two years, and Humm’s plucky take on fish and chips served at a birthday party was one of the best things I ate last year.
 

       
Uchiko interior. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

       

3. Uchiko in Austin, Texas

CHEF: Tyson Cole

LOCALE: 4200 North Lamar

STORY: After years spent mastering the art of Japanese cuisine, sushi chef Tyson Cole opened Austin’s Uchi in 2003. And where there’s deserved hype, hungry patrons follow—soon the intimate Uchi dining room just wasn’t big enough. So in July 2010, he opened Uchiko. Literally meaning “child of Uchi,” the restaurant was designed to allow the front and back of the house to spread out a bit.

MENU: Cole likens the kitchen at Uchiko to a “playground.” From sushi bar staples such as yellowtail and salmon belly to more out-there options (72-hour Wagyu short rib sushi), it’s obvious that the kitchen loves experimenting, but not at the expense of diners. Cole and Uchiko’s executive chef, Paul Qui, know their craft so well that even a slice of raw madai comes with 12 components perfectly chosen to make the one piece of fish memorable in the extreme.

ATMOSPHERE: A pair of Levi’s and a beer are never out of place in Austin; Uchiko rolls with that laid-back vibe while still exuding elegance. Cole brought in simple elements, such as wood planks and warm lighting, and the whole package is inviting and fun, without an ounce of snoot.

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