Tahlequah Daily Press

October 23, 2008

Five-star dining: A once-in-a-lifetime treat


TAHLEQUAH DAILY PRESS — How much would you be willing to pay for a six- or seven-course, out-of-this-world meal at a four- or five-star restaurant? It’s a tough question. Especially if you have no clue what type of cuisine is served at such an establishment – or how their fare differs substantially from what you can get, say, at the nearest Chili’s.

One hint, though: If you’ve never been out of Oklahoma, you’ve never eaten at a four- or five-star restaurant, at least by Mobil Travel Guide standards – because Mobil hasn’t graced any of our state’s eateries with that designation.

Mobil uses a variety of criteria to achieve ratings for hotels, restaurants and spas across the country and in Canada. The availability of seemingly small amenities – like a particular brand of bottled water, for instance – could come into play. A five-star restaurant is a rarity, indeed; in fact, Mobil only lists 17 this year. The four-star rating is a tad more common, but even then, there are fewer than 150, and the nearest couple are in Kansas City or Dallas.

According to Mobil’s Web site (http://mobiltravelguide. howstuffworks.com), every restaurant that has a Mobil Star Rating of any kind is recommended: “Those with a higher Star Rating have passed a rigorous inspection and service evaluation and are among an elite group of restaurants, known for exceptional cuisine, service, décor, and presentation.” That’s true: One of our favorite Tulsa restaurants, Bodean Seafood, has three stars, and our absolute favorite in Oklahoma City, La Baguette, has two stars.

The Web site also indicates Mobil’s inspectors “evaluate several hundred objective restaurant criteria, including food quality and presentation, service, and atmosphere to provide a rating that you can depend on... [Four-star restaurants are] exceptional restaurants featuring food that’s creative and complex, and emphasizes seasonality and culinary technique. A highly-trained dining room staff provides refined personal service and attention.”

AAA – of which my family is a member, and which I recommend to anyone who travels – has a different scale. There are maybe two five-star places in Oklahoma on that list, and a few four-stars as well. But on either scale, these restaurants are hard to find, and they always come with a breathtaking price tag.

Despite the unavailability of such top-drawer restaurants in the area, and despite the cost of dining at one should it be available, there are a surprising number of “foodies” in Cherokee County who would relish the opportunity to dine like royalty. At least once. And preferably on someone else’s dime.

With the holiday season looming, several area residents are scouting out warmer climes for a brief vacation respite. If higher temperatures are a priority and cost is a factor, your best bets will be the Orlando area in Florida or Southern California. And if you’re really audacious and have saved back some extra cash, you might want to try a new dining adventure.

My husband and I dined this year at our first Mobile four-star restaurant, one of only 11 in Florida. It’s actually listed as Central Florida’s only five-star restaurant with AAA. This is not a privilege we could normally afford, but thanks to a special “gift,” we were able to indulge in this exceptional treat.

The restaurant is Victoria and Albert’s, and it’s at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa at Walt Disney World. We’ve never stayed at the Floridian – it’s the priciest of the Disney World lot – but we’ve strolled through it and eaten at another restaurant there, Narcoossee’s, which was also very good.

V&A;, as it’s affectionately called by Disney cast members, features a “fixed price” menu that changes daily, depending on the available freshest ingredients and the whims of the chef. Sit down and take a deep breath before you read on. The minimum cost is $125 per person for the six-course meal. Accompanying wine courses are another $60 per person (but if you enjoy wine at all, you’ll want the whole package, and I’ll explain why momentarily). For each course, you’ll be able to choose among three or four offerings, and some of these cost extra (like the “Kobe” beef entree, $35, or the golden Osetra caviar appetizer, a staggering $150 for a half-ounce!).

So, depending on what they actually consume, a couple dining at V&A;, after taxes and gratuity, will spend – are you ready? – anywhere from about $310 to well over $1,000. Having happily foregone the caviar and some of the other extras, we got out for around $500.

I know what you’re thinking: It couldn’t be worth it. But I can assure you that, especially if you have some cash to spare or have a generous benefactor, a meal at V&A; is, indeed worth the price. Even if only once-in-a-lifetime, on a silver or golden anniversary. And for comparison’s sake, it’s really not any more costly (and could be considerably less so) than a few hours at a decent spa.

V&A; is not for the kids, unless as a special treat for, say, a magna cum laude graduate. And in any case, children under 10 aren’t allowed inside. (But Disney resorts have baby-sitting services you can employ while you sneak away for a romantic dinner.) This is a reward for a landmark achieved. And you’ll be dressed for the occasion. Ties are required for gentlemen, and evening wear forladies. Reservations are required; you can call up to 180 days out, but if you wait until the last week or so, you’ll won’t likely get in. Besides, they need time to prepare your own menus, which you’ll take home, with a beautiful, long-stemmed rose. (Even traveling back to Oklahoma, mine lasted almost two weeks.)

Upon walking into this restaurant, the first thing you’ll notice is the exquisite decor and gracious staff. V&A; consists of a few small, intimate rooms, each with four or five tables spaced amply. We were seated in a tastefully decorated parlor, where a portrait of the “real” Queen Victoria and her Prince Albert is poised over the mantel.

At all times during the meal, two or three staff members were moving unobtrusively about through the room. You barely notice they’re around, until they lean over the table to explain the viands and wine you’re about to enjoy. They detail the ingredients in each dish, and tell you how the wine has been paired to complement your food.

The wine, as I already said, is imperative. My husband and I know very little about wines; like most folks, we just “know what we like.” And generally speaking, if we have wine with a meal, it’s just one type – red or white, all poured from the same bottle. But in this case, every course is served with an ideally suited wine, and one sip tells the whole story. Even if you don’t know wine, you just know. It’s a perfect match each time.

For the express purpose of sampling as much as we could, my husband and I selected a difference choice for each course. And each artfully composed plate presented a palette of food with flavors that melded in an almost indescribably complex way. The portions were not large, yet they were so rich they were completely filling. The meal seemed precisely timed, too; there was plenty of opportunity to chat in between courses, yet no uncomfortably long gaps in the flow.

But, let me described some of what we experienced.

After we each had a flute of Domaine Meriwether Brut Rosé to start, my husband ordered jumbo lump and Dungeness crab with asparagus salad, accompanied by a sauvingnon blanc. My first course was tamarind-ancho marinated shrimp with heirloom tomato vinaigrette, with a glass of Italian white – Cantina del Taburno Falanghina.

Next, he had poached quail with black mission figs and Fuji apples, a melt-in-your mouth delicacy, set off by a zinfandel. My second course was my favorite: pan-roasted foie gras withpeach tart and mostarda di cremona. With it I was served what the host described as “Napoleon’s favorite wine” – Royal Tokaji Azsú 5 Puttonyos, Mád Tokaj-Hegyalja (couldn’t say it if I tried). Technically that’s a dessert wine, so it’s sweet, but it married flawlessly with the goose liver.

Then, he tried Florida black grouper amandine with bean ragout and Marcona almonds, while I had Alaskan king salmon with pickled onions and a cup of smoked salmon. Again, the wine pairings were stellar, especially mine. His main course was Australian “Kobe” beef tenderloin with smoked garlic pureé, served with Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages from Sonoma, while I had lamb with hedgehogs and English peas, with a Piedmont.

Moving right along, I had heavenly white chocolate gelato with shavings and micro mint, and he had a selection of cheeses, both with tasty dessert wines. And finally, dessert: vanilla bean creme brulé for him, and chocolate pyramid, Hawaiian Kona chocolate soufflé and Peruvian chocolate ice cream and puff pastry for me. Outstanding! My husband is a real coffee aficionado, and he was especially impressed with the “vacuum pot” they used to brew it right at the table.

When all was said and done, we had spent more than 2-1/2 hours enjoying this feast fit for a king – without the least regret, even after we saw the check. We even took a few truffles and a sumptuous spice-and-fruit cake back to our resort room.

Granted, such a meal is not inexpensive, and maybe it’s out of range for most of us, in these trying times. But it’s something to keep in mind for a special evening, one you will remember for the rest of your life.