When the Best Just Isn’t That Good

Last night Beth and I had dinner at what Zagats rates as the single best restaurant in Orange County. I won’t name names, because they were nice enough, and I don’t want to slam them. The food was good. The service was good. The wine list was excellent, though unfortunately neither of us was drinking. The seating was wonderfully spacious and private, far better than anything you’ll find in New York, where any restaurant worth eating at has crammed the seats together closer than RyanAir. But at the end of the meal our general reaction was, “That’s the best restaurant in the county?”

The meal was OK, but hardly memorable. It certainly didn’t rise to the level of world class restaurants like The Gotham in New York, Commander’s Palace in New Orleans (at least pre-Katrina; I haven’t eaten there lately and I’ve heard it may have gone downhill), or ‘t Fornuis in Antwerp. Food-wise I don’t think it matched the much less pretentious local Chaparosa Grill. Only one dish, the tuna tartare appetizer, really impressed us; and that was offset by a salad that just didn’t work. The remainder of the meal was about average for a nouvelle cuisine restaurant in this price range.

I suppose that’s only to be expected. When in New York, I wouldn’t expect to find the best restaurants in Westchester County or Long Island. Then again, for years one of the best restaurants in New Orleans was on the West Bank. Maybe we’ll have to try eating in L.A. next time. But still, you’d think there’d be room for one world class restaurant somewhere in the O.C.

Maybe the problem is that Orange County is Mecca for people who can’t tell the difference between expensive and high quality (or don’t believe there is a difference). Just watching the cars go down Pacific Coast 1 is enough to prove that. The restaurant is located in a hotel; and when we walked past the faux Roman statues, columns not actually supporting anything, and ostentatious fountains, all wrapped in genuine imitation marble, all I could think was, “This must be where People Like Us shot the nouveau riche tasteless segment.” Driving up to the valet in my 2008 Prius, I felt distinctly underdressed. At least I didn’t pull up in one of the $750 clunkers I used to favor. (On the plus side, in sunny SoCal dressing for dinner means putting on a collared shirt and slacks. There may not have been a tie anywhere in the restaurant, and there certainly wasn’t a jacket.)

Interestingly the restaurant pulled a couple of tricks like sending us home with a breakfast cake for the next morning that I’ve only previously encountered at the now-closed Ducasse, another restaurant that confused expense with quality. However, Alain Ducasse at least had the cooking chops to match his extravagance. This one, sadly, did not.

3 Responses to “When the Best Just Isn’t That Good”

  1. D Says:

    I’ll take chowhound recommendations over Zagat’s any day.

  2. Farialima Says:

    Zagats doesn’t tell you what is the best restaurant in town: Zagat tells you what zagat readers have found to be the best restaurant in town. It means that Zagat is just as good at judging restaurants, as their readers are. It’s the quality of the community that makes the quality of the product. My experience is that the Zagat community isn’t great, or, at least, is too different from my taste. Getting into subjective matters, I find the Zagat community to be more sensitive to presentation, cleanness (dare I say “aseptic” ?), omnipresence of waiters, etc… rather than originality or food taste (if I was nasty I would say that Zagat readers have “american tastes”). It’s probably especially the case in Orange County, but it is also in San Francisco.

    The same thing happens, of course, on the internet: communities are only as good as their members. However, maybe because using the internet, and even more *writing* on it, is still a slightly elitist activity, but rather because we select, consciously or not, our sources to match our tastes, we are kind of used to find advice we like. I find Yelp quite good for me. Possibly also, the internet (especially sites with user participation) has some complex ability to select, filter, match, information to people who need it. You could call that an “invisible hand” ability at selecting quality. I wouldn’t believe much in that, but what is clear is that we are now used to rich, variate, information, which a book can’t provide. Zagat is also disappointing to us, because it’s a much more “rigid”, “unidimentional” media than the internet.

  3. Michael Says:

    I usually like Zagat a lot, though it will naturally be a year or two behind in catching the small but exceptional places. But for reasons I don’t understand, the Orange County guide is far below the quality of the rest of the series. It is full of chains and misses nearly all the interesting restaurants that aren’t at the very highest price level. It isn’t the fault of the surveyors, but of the editors. None of the interesting places even make it to the ballot, and it gets really tiresome to write in all the good places (I’ve been an LA/OC surveyor).

    I get to Anaheim from Silicon Valley every January for an annual trade show, and I have found plenty of great restaurants in the county, including the best Thai restaurant I’ve ever visited. The trick for convention folks is to have a car or get a ride so you can get a few miles away from the ultra-tourist culinary desert near Disneyland and the Convention Center. Orange County is still the suburbs, so you’re unlikely to match the best of New York or New Orleans for European-influenced food. But I doubt even New York can match Orange County for a lot of Asian cuisines, including Thai and Vietnamese.

    Chowhound has some fantastic posts on Orange County that have been a huge help on my annual trips. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten in Irvine, but there are plenty of great places in Stanton, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Westminster, Orange, and even pricier areas like Laguna Beach. But the best places are not always obvious, and you usually can’t check them out as a pedestrian like you can in New York, so more advance research is sometimes required. Good luck!

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