The New York Philharmonic of dinner

On Monday night I had my first dining experience at a Michelin 3-star restaurant. For my fortieth birthday, I chose to celebrate with the summer tasting menu at Jean-Georges.

To me, it felt like the New York Philharmonic of dinners, or like riding in a Rolls-Royce. All of the food and all of the service was precise, elegant, choreographed. Each dish was excellent, well composed, assembled from the finest ingredients, presented beautifully. A birthday cake showed up at the end with my name and age written in chocolate.

It was, all in all, an exquisite experience, but maybe not my favorite kind of food experience. Like the Philharmonic, it’s a cultural event that feels fancy and unfolds over a couple of hours and is satisfying, where everything is right and there are charming moments and even surprising moments, but never anything really shocking or unexpected.

So the thing is, the New York Philharmonic is not my favorite musical experience. I am glad to have gone to the symphony a number of times, and to have grown up with regular visits to the San Francisco Phil. A couple of years ago, a night of Hungarian music at Avery Fisher was moving enough that it inspired me to go to Budapest and Vienna. But you know what I like more? A hot, sweaty night at a small club with a band that blows your mind with a groove you can’t stop dancing to. Antibalas in Fort Greene Park, or Primus at the Warfield, or 25,000 people jumping up and down and screaming, “FUCK YOU, I WON’T DO WHATCHA TELL ME!” in unison for the cause of Tibetan freedom. Or else some music from the other side of the world that expands my whole conception of what music can be, like my first all-night concert of classical Indian music, or hearing gamelan and Kechak for the first time, or Tuvan throat singing.

And food-wise, it’s pretty much the same thing. My birthday meal was incredible, and I’m glad I’ve had the experience. But I think I get more excited about discovering, say, Tajik food in Sheepshead Bay, or the crispy eel at Nice Green Bo Restaurant in Chinatown. Still, for my fortieth birthday, Jean-Georges was just right: indulgent, graceful, luxurious. Life is full of bumps and ruffles, and most of the time I love the excitement and the mess. But it’s nice to know that as I enter my fifth decade, once in a while I can take the time to enjoy perfection.