Private Dining

As lockdown restrictions ease around the world, restaurants reopen. Take-out is no longer the only dining option. There’s outdoor seating with plastic shields between tables. Indoors, there are caps on the number of diners and a break between sittings to deep clean the restaurant.

Fresh from a 7 month long trip around the world, I can’t say I’m eager for restaurant food. Sometimes, we ate out three times a day. Not all of those meals were Michelin star quality. Since I like to cook, I’d just as soon stay in my own kitchen. I suppose you could call it private dining.

I’m also struggling with the idea of dining out in corona times. The New York Times recently ran an article on the restaurant experience pre-corona. It was like reading a history book. Remember when restaurants were crowded?

A pre-theater restaurant in New York is the opera before the opera, and the waiters make their money from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. We needed the nerves of a marksman and the steady cheer of a courtesan as we turned two, possibly three seatings of our sections in those three hours.

Alexander Chee, “More than a meal” in The New York Times International Edition, 18 June 2020

So if it’s comme il faut to take a walk down Memory Lane, let me tell you my tales of dining out while on the road.

Vietnam private dining

I perch on the back of the scooter. My husband steers us through traffic, across rice paddies and into no-name villages outside of Hoi An, Vietnam. We have no idea where we are and that’s the whole point. But on this particular occasion, I have an address for a restaurant I found online. Maybe we can make reservations?

The Joi Factory is empty when we arrive. I forget that this is the low season in Vietnam. Tourists won’t arrive until the Christmas break. The guy behind the bar turns out to be the chef, Tru Lang. He says, sorry, guys, we’re closed for the season. But, hey, wait, would you be interested in private dining?

I don’t know what this is so Tru explains. Apparently, you set a budget and communicate any food allergies you might have. After that, it’s up to Tru to choose the menu, which he’ll do based on the freshest fish, meat and produce he can find.

Private dining in Vietnam
Tiramisu with Vietnamese coffee, coconut, lime.
Photo credit: Karen Kao

Some of that produce we harvest while walking around the Tra Que herb gardens. Tru tells us that the same families have farmed this land for generations. It’s all organic. Fertilizer comes in the form of the sea when it floods this part of town. The soil is tilled, raked, sown, and harvested all by hand. Tru picks up some star fruit, fistfuls of herbs, and some micro greens to adorn our plates. The 5 course result is superb.

Tru Lang’s restaurant is now called Múa. Same place and, judging from the Instagram food porn, same quality.

Omakase

In Kanazawa, Japan, my husband chooses the restaurants. Tonight, he has two addresses for sushi bars near our hotel. Option #1 turns out to be full. It’s quiet at option #2 with just 2 female diners at Sushi Haru. They nod politely at us and go on sipping their sake.

We wait for our menus. And wait and wait. Eventually we realize this is an omakase restaurant, where there are no menus.

omakase changes with each occasion, with the chef making decisions about what to cook mid-course. The truth of omakase lies in the word itself—directly translated, it means “I leave it up to you.”

Jacob Dean, Kitchen Language: What is Omakase? in Michelin Guide, 4 Sept 2019
Omakase dining
Omakase dining. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Our chef speaks no English. Luckily, our fellow diners do. One used to live in my hometown of Los Angeles while her husband attended medical school. The other is a stewardess with impeccable English. All 4 of us are staying in the same hotel and found this omakase dining experience on the internet.

The chef serves the 2 women first. Maybe he’s testing us. To see if Frans needs a fork or if either of us balks at squirmy things. Apparently we meet his standards because, soon enough, we all get the same dishes. All 13 of them, each one unbelievably good. I’m eating so fast I forget to take photos. I capture just 2 of them: horse mackerel (bottom) and chawanmushi, a steamed egg custard with snow crab, shells and all (top).

Adam

There are more memorable dining experiences on our trip. Cambodian street food meets haute cuisine at a Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap. Vegetarian bibimbap in the Korean slow food village of Changpyeong. A decadent lunch with ditto wine flights at the New Zealand winery, Pegasus Bay.

Now that we’re back in Amsterdam, we try to support our favorite local restaurant by ordering take-out. But at Restaurant Adam, you can’t stick your food in the microwave to warm it up. There’s a video that tells you how to heat each element separately and then assemble the whole into a fine dining experience.

Fine dining in Amsterdam
My dessert plating. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Restaurant Adam even ran a competition. Design plating for the dessert course, take a photo and post it on Instagram. If you win, you get dinner for two. No prize announcements have rolled in yet so I guess it’s private dining (aka home cooking) for now.

Or I wait for the day when it’s okay again to cram into a hole-in-the-wall bouchon in Lyon, France. To sit cheek to jowl and knee to knee in a place with total strangers. Where you

eat and drink without inhibition. You talk to people at the next table. You shout. You sweat. You laugh hard.

Bill Buford, “More than a Meal”
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