Petra and The Beast takeout. Elizabeth Lavin

From the Dining Critic's Notebook

What Does the Experience of High-End Dining Mean in the Age of COVID?

An essay on what we miss and what we gain.

In reporting on our city’s take-out high-end dining options, in a piece that went live yesterday, I plunged, momentarily, back into a world I’d abandoned. A world left in suspension since March when restaurant dining rooms closed and coronavirus shutdowns forced us to halt in our tracks.

We shook off our stupor—the chefs did so at lightning speed, as the devastating situation required. Then a new reality set in before us: of takeout only, with all the ingenuity and unlikeliness that entailed. I watched Dallas chefs take a beat and dive back in with two-, three-, or four-course takeout menus or à la carte items.

I’d seen this across the country, as well, in Michelin-starred fine-dining bastions in New York and San Francisco. Dan Barber was doing meals in a box from Blue Hill at Stone Barns, calling it The Restaurant Unpacked, bringing the restaurant to you. At San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn, Dominique Crenn’s Crenn Kits guided you from soup through a bread course of buttery brioche and dessert in your living room. Here, they seemed to say, take these experiences into your home from places where a menu lives, literally, as a brief poem.

In Dallas, too, the first forays back into fine dining were fine dining…but on the edge of the universe. There was the impromptu tailgating party on a fog-drenched night in the parking lot of Petra and the Beast, a scene as though pulled from Blade Runner in which the Baylor hospital lights cast their eerie luminescence to the magical glow of a surreal still life comprising a skull and larder goods in the window where foraged herbs and flowers dry. We tucked into containers whose contents whispered to us even in the dark, treating it like our last night on earth.

There was the sunset picnic: spreading a blanket outside Mot Hai Ba to nibble pan-fried dumplings that matched the multilayered flavors and aromas of a menu now executed by a skeleton crew.

The crudo eaten in my car that reminded me of the specific rightness of lime zest, ponzu, and flounder and that there could still be jewels of raw fish.

I closed my eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply at the first bite of housemade pasta from J Chastain’s tiny team at The Charles, letting the extra firing happen in the brain as it registers balance and layering. It had been a minute since I’d been transported completely elsewhere by garlic, white wine, and lemon.

Like others, I’ve opened my freezer and pulled out leftovers from Kalachandji’s and found it conjured an atmosphere that encompassed all the senses. Similarly, flapped paper takeout boxes have become treasure chests, scattered with borage blossoms. They’ve become precious.

When people say dining is experiential, they usually mean the interior of a restaurant and the interplay of service that builds intimacy. But COVID-19 has made us more aware of everything experiential means. Chefs continue to create something for us we can’t create for ourselves. The new high-end dining is both fine technique—the years of training do come through, in the slice of acid or the gloss or texture of a sauce—and the impact of a single morsel.

Like the space of learning or loving or communing or worshipping, the restaurant space has become fluid. Still, we find it in the architecture of a bite.

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