First, about the 20 courses. It's only offered on some days, and you must reserve in advance. They also have 6-7 course prix fix and 12 course. Recommended consumption time for the 20 is at least 5 hours. Quantities are about 1/2 of the normal course size, and the chef says that the total food consumed is about the same as two full multicourse French meals. Recommended not to eat the day of, and very lightly the day before. Price is $150, wine not included.
Menu started with amuse geulles and moved up from starter style courses through fish courses, vegetables, 3 meat dishes, cheese, and 3 desserts. Menu was very classic in nature, heavy on seafood. Preparations were inventive, but not overly "clever" in the bad sense. About half of the dishes appear on the nights normal menu, but some never appear on the normal menu. In any menu with this many courses, there will be highs and lows. None of the lows were so low as to detract from the evening.
The food served as a backdrop to the evening, with each course really shining on its own. After about 5, you stop remembering, and instead concentrate on what is before you, and discussing it with the table. After 12 (just before the meat dishes started) we took a 3 block walk. This is not only encouraged, but recommended, and the chef came with us (he often does). At the end, we were certainly full, but not bloated. I didn't eat dinner for two days afterwards, however!
In spite of the quantity, many of the dishes were actually quite light in nature. A combination soup/starter of tomato water, carot juice, and fresh fresh calamari is one example here. Heavy cream sauces were completely absent, and in fact most dishes were sauced either not at all, or with a very light hand. Plating was clever and appropriate, not distracting.
Service was great, friendly, and well paced. We took about 6 and a half hours for the meal, and at no time felt either rushed or "bored." We asked for appropriate wines for the courses, and went with half glasses every other course or so. For some flights of 2 or 3 courses, a full glass appropriate for all was presented. The waiter was super at asking us how we were doing on wine, and approximating when another glass would or would not be needed. Wine list appeared good, but we felt we were not up to the task of attempting to plan bottle-wise for all 6 hours, especially when we weren't entirely sure what was coming up.
Atmosphere is elegant but relaxed. Many were dressed for the evening, though there is no dress code. Jeans were seen at the bar, nobody seemed to feel uncomfortable. We were in "nice but not dressy" attire. Noise level was low.
People who wouldn't like this place
It was great, and I felt worth the money (with wine, tips, and such, totalled at about $250 per). I would go again for a "normal" meal, prices on the menu seemed reasonable for portions and complexity of dishes. I probably wouldn't repeat the 20 course, just because I've done it before. I may "menu degustastion" at another place, but it would have to be different in style.
Foodwise, nothing blew me away to the level of food I've had at some other places, except for maybe that squab. Still, the quality was there, and I felt that AR is a practiced chef who understates his abilities rather than trumpetting it through the use of flash. No "Oven roasted free range quail with coffee beans and vanilla wafer" here :-)
The 20 courses is more about the experience and the
"doing of it" than just about the food, I think. The setting
at AR makes this work, not too many other places could
pull it off. One must feel at ease with the place, the
setting, the food, and the friends. After all -- you're
going to be there with all of them a LONG time.
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