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Fine dining for dummies

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
AE Fine Dining Dummies DT 1-25-08
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What you read is not always what you get, especially when it comes to the menu in a fancy restaurant.

Just because it’s listed as a salad on the menu doesn’t mean that you should expect a plate of iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing when the waiter delivers it to the table.

At a really nice restaurant it’s more about the quality of the food than the portion size, and the word salad can take on a whole new meaning. That would explain the small ruffle of spinach leaves and slice of goat cheese served to diners at the simple, yet elegant, Mirabelle restaurant across from the east Beaver Creek entrance gate.



The first lesson that one should be prepared to learn iwhen dining at an upscale restaurant is this: Don’t expect the typical and don’t be afraid to try new things; having an open mind is crucial.

“We actually look forward to the people that are going to have questions and who are really interested in finding out a little more about the menu,” said Mirabelle waiter Jeff Cloonan.



There are many items on the menu at most fine-dining establishments that the rookie or novice may not recognize. It probably won’t help that most of those items sound scary when described, or worse, just plain gross.

When tossing the dice in a fancy restaurant, remember, you are in the hands of professional chefs that know how to prepare food and make anything taste delicious.

“The creativity that comes out of the kitchen will make you enjoy your meal, will make you want to come back because it’s different and it has a flair,” said Dean Zingraftta, food and beverage manager at Da Vinci in Vail.



If it appears on the menu, there’s a reason for it: It’s popular with the clientele. That doesn’t mean that you will like it, but you shouldn’t be afraid to try it just because you don’t know how to pronounce it.

“Don’t hesitate to ask or be educated about something,” said Daniel Joly, executive chef and owner of Mirabelle.

Joly believes it’s also a matter of trust-building. He meets people from all different places and with varying backgrounds and believes that they should all be able to rely on the staff for solid recommendations and service. For this equation to work, the customer must feel comfortable asking questions and the staff must be knowledgeable and confident about everything on the menu.

So, you’ve made it past the weird names and “different” textures and now you’re wondering what makes fine-dining so special, other than the food.

“Presentation plays a very high role in fine-dining experiences,” Cloonan said.

He explained that the way the food is placed on a dish and garnished with sauces and vegetables is all pre-planned for maximum beauty and function. Each item on the plate is designed to compliment the others. In other words, each dish is an individual work of edible art.

“It’s not your burger and fries and everything is just dumped on the plate and here’s your ketchup and have a good day,” Cloonan said.

It is also fair to expect above-average service from the wait staff, given the price tag likely to be attached to the meal. One should feel like they are receiving a lot of attention.

“You would think you would get the best service and the best food possible for the money,” Zingraftta said. “People should expect a higher standard of service.”

And unless you’re a culinary genius, please take the advice that the staff gives. They are not ignorant when it comes to fine dining and likely know more than you about what you’re ordering. If the waiter tells you that elk is best prepared medium rare because it preserves the texture and taste, he’s probably not steering you wrong. And when it comes to wine with food, trust the experts. A good wine menu can seem overwhelming with all the dates and regions to choose from but a good server will know which red will pair best with your lamb t-bone. The selected wine should compliment the flavors of the individual courses without overwhelming them.

“Keep your elbows off the table.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

We all remember getting yelled at for such table-manner misdemeanors as a child, but how much do they really matter when you’re an adult?

There are many rules and regulations attached to fine dining that really aren’t adhered to very often, Cloonan said. Resting your elbows on the table or reaching across the table for salt isn’t as frowned upon as our parents would have us believe.

“I think that a lot of those quirks that we heard when mom and dad took us out to dinner and stuff like that have fallen by the way-side, for the most part,” Cloonan said, although he did make it clear that some establishments are stricter than others on dining dogma.

And then there’s the silverware. What spoon goes with what course? Which one is the salad fork?

“It’s never inappropriate to use the wrong piece of silverware,” Cloonan said.

Of course, working from the outside in is the easiest way to remember the order of silverware use and avoid confusion, Cloonan said. He also said that the server should take used silverware away and replace it with new silverware once it’s been used. To signal to the server that you are not using the silverware anymore, just leave it on the plate and it will be taken away after the course.

If you’re worried about getting the stink-eye from other diners for doing it all wrong, don’t be. They’ll be too busy munching their own food to notice you eating your soup with a dessert spoon.

After the last bites have been swallowed and the bottle of wine emptied, take a moment to sit back and take it all in. Relax. Reflect.

Fine dining is meant to be enjoyed, not stressful and complicated. If everyone is doing their job, then you should feel like a king enjoying his spoils after a well-fought battle.

Remember that the chef, waitstaff and managers all want you to like what they have to offer and want you to return someday or tell others about your wonderful experience.

“That’s what makes you sleep good, you know,” said Chef Joly on the feeling he gets when a customer walks away happy.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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