The Revisit, Redux: Some More Thoughts On My Dinner At Vetri

This month’s Revisit column has kicked up a bit of a fuss in the Comments section. Some commenters wanted a detailed explanation of my bill at Vetri, and others wished I’d kept any discussion of cost to a “sentence or two.”

So at the risk of pleasing only half of the people some of the time (so to speak), here’s the breakdown of my meal at Vetri: Two tasting menus ($135 each), one “basic” wine pairing ($90), one “grand” wine pairing ($135), then tax and tip. As some people have noted, yes, it is entirely possible to spend less than that. You could opt for a quartino of wine. Or none at all. You would, of course, be missing the uncanny pairings, which was one of the best parts of the meal, as I noted in the “shit that matters” department (it wasn’t all “teeny-bopper traveling,” Mr.’s.about.trey’s.stories).

Nevertheless, it is perfectly fair to point out that one could order the tasting menu and just drink water. It would also be fair to note that one could spend more than we did; for instance, some people would have liked to end with coffee, or insert a cheese course, both of which are natural accompaniments to the meal that we chose to forego.

Some commenters who objected to my declaration of the meal’s price (or lack of complete specificity about what the bill included) pivoted to comparisons with Per Se and other restaurants at the extreme high end of the national cost spectrum. I’ve never been to Per Se, but it’s certainly more expensive than Vetri. Whether the expense is justified—there or anywhere—is a question to be answered differently by everyone who goes. And one way to do that is to compare it to other restaurants. That, too, is perfectly reasonable, but also somewhat limiting. Life, after all, does not begin and end at the end of a silver spoon. I tried to sort through my own conflicted feelings about eating at Vetri (and let’s face it, whether the bill comes to $350 or $650, that’s a ton of money in a country where nearly one out of six people live below the poverty line) by trying to find where this meal belonged—in terms of experience, not price tag—in the broader sweep of my life so far.

I’ll freely admit that this was a hard review to write. How do you convey the splendidness of such food, while wrestling with the to-my-mind unavoidable question of how few people can afford it (me included, if not for the magazine’s reimbursement, and I’m not even close to being poor), in a way that honors the seriousness of both things? I mean, my wife and I came to the restaurant and later went home by way of the Occupy Encampment in Dilworth Plaza. It’s one of the main things we talked about over dinner. If you’re able to take in that scene and then eat a many-hundred-dollar dinner without giving a second thought to that astonishing contrast, well, you’ve got me beat.

(Commenter Joe seems to think that such issues are rightly left alone by the likes of Craig Laban, and erstwhile New York Times critics Frank Bruni and Sam Sifton. As it happens, Sifton devoted his final review to Per Se. He both noted that “[d]inner for two can scratch at $1,000—or about the same as the median weekly household income in New York State,” and tried to explain what, for him, might justify that lavish outlay.)

Whatever the case, for me the meal’s meaning turned out to be wrapped up in memories of an earlier period of my life (though well on from my teens) in a part of the world that serves as Vetri’s culinary inspiration. My aim in recounting a small portion of those memories was to demonstrate that Vetri is capable of serving food that somehow manages to connect to deeper experiences in one’s life. And that is an amazing thing–probably the highest achievement any restaurant can aim for.

For people who found my reminiscence boring, that fault can only lie with me. But for those who find it to be irrelevant or beside the point, I disagree.

So, I think, would Marc Vetri (though I must hasten to add that I’ve never met him).

In John Marchese’s 2009 profile of Vetri in Philly Mag, the chef says an interesting and, I think, very true thing. Marchese’s passage is worth reading in full:

Later, I asked Vetri to explain his philosophy of food. He e-mailed me about taking research trips to Italy, eating at Michelin-rated restaurants. But then he wrote, “We go to my friend’s house up in the mountains, and we smell wood burning on the way up. His mother is out in the field picking wild greens, his brother is jarring fruit so it lasts until next season, and his father is watching the lamb leg he had on the spit since the morning. There are vegetables marinating, salumi being sliced, and fruit from the trees roasting in the oven in the form of a cake or pie. The cafe moka pot is filled and ready to be put on the fire after lunch, the wine is opened and ready to be poured, and the stash of grappa is unlocked, so we know it’s going to be used. We laugh, drink, eat, reminisce, tell stories and carve memories in our minds that will last a lifetime. Somehow, we forget about the meals and ideas we learned at the Michelin-starred restaurants and say to ourselves on the plane home, ‘That could have been the best meal of my life.’”

But how do you recreate that feeling for a table of four at Vetri, which is also likely to recall the check for $700 at the end of the meal? “The more I think about it,” Vetri says to me later, “the more the end result — the spinach gnocchi, for example — is nothing without the experience I went through to learn how to make it, to stick it out there for you. My thinking is that you have to be able to taste that when you eat. Everything derived from an experience, the heart and soul of the food. Without that, the dish means nothing.”

Food for thought.

Vetri [Official website]

The Revisit: Vetri [Philadelphia magazine]