The Best Meal Ever

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had? Don’t think too hard about it or try to impress me–just let whatever comes to mind pop in there. Was it at Chez Panisse or Cyrus? The French Laundry, Syrah or maybe Spago?

Or was it that awful Thanksgiving that mom burned the turkey and the whole family went out for Chinese? Maybe it was simply a crisp, cold apple fed to you by a lover; a plate of warm scones just out of the oven; the first time you ever tasted tandoori chicken; or Vietnamese noodles with barbeque pork at that little dive down the street.

It’s a fun trip down Memory Lane. Try it in the car or during an especially dull meeting at work.

I spent most of the weekend thinking about it after stumbling upon a totally tangential fact in the new book Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, a new biography by Thomas McNamee. Here’s the fact: In October 2006, the Chicago restaurant Alinea was named by Gourmet magazine as the Best Restaurant in America. (Chez Panisse got bumped to number two). Out of millions of restaurants in this country, this hyper-modern, semi-surrealist spot was, in a word, the best.

Which is really weird, because I just ate at Alinea. You may recall this as Chicago’s haute-experimental restaurant where my dining companion and I spent four hours snickering at the over-the-top-earnestness of the courses set before us. (How do you keep a straight face while serving bacon suspended on a wire? See the review.) Don’t get me wrong–it was very cool and probably the most inventive (and expensive) meal I’ve ever eaten–but really? This was ostensibly the best meal (best restaurant=best meal, right?) I might have had the pleasure of eating in the entirety of the United States?

Hmmm. Had I missed something?

So, I looked at the rest of the Gourmet list to see where else I’d eaten–what other potential “Best” meals I might have absent-mindedly snarked my way through. Of the fifty restaurants selected by Gourmet in 2006, I’ve eaten at five–that’s a respectable 10 percent. They include Alinea (1) along with Cyrus (15), Higgins (28), Zuni Café (37) and Paley’s Place (46). But here’s the thing: Not one of them was the best meal of my life. They were great, fabulous, incredible, lovely meals. But not even a top 10 of the best meals of my life.

Just off the top of my head, if I were to put together a mix tape of my Culinary Greatest Hits, it would start out with the lettuce ravioli that I shared with friends in Florence, Italy. Or the picnic of buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes and bread we all shared in the Boboli Gardens.

I’d also have to include, closer to home, Pho Vietnam takeout on a Friday night, cuddled with my main squeeze; the warm baked pears with butter, cinnamon and fresh cream delivered to my bed on Mother’s Day morning; a plate of freshly cut Sonoma County greens and fresh goat cheese drizzled with vinegar and oil; Strauss Creamery butter on an Acme baguette; a basket of Oregon raspberries picked fresh from my ex-father-in-law’s backyard on a summer night; spinach leaf cups filled with dried shrimp, sugar cane syrup and ginger and peanut at California Thai; Dungeness crab from Swan Oyster Depot; Swedish pancakes with melted butter and Meyer lemon juice from my own lemon tree; and quite honestly-a Double Double at In-N-Out after a hard night of carousing.

And that’s pretty much just what I ate this week. Heh.

Without minimizing the artistry of chefs like Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and Grant Achatz it comes down to this: Haute spots with linen napkins, water menus and cheese carts don’t have a lock-up on Best Meal contenders. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the bill is $5, $50 or $500, or if you’ve made the reservations three months ahead of time. For me the “Best Meal Ever” is a magical sensory imprint of time, place, flavors and people that goes well beyond what’s on the plate and which celebrity chef made it. It’s that perfect moment when your mind, your palate and your soul have all been sated.

Which is a long way of saying I’m still searching. Funny thing is, I have a feeling I’ll find it where I’m least expecting it.

What about you? Where was your Best Meal ever? Tell me.

See Gourmet’s Top 50 Restaurants 2006 list.