Staffers put the money where your mouth is at Stage, but is the cuisine worth the price, one reader wonders?
Reader’s complaint takes center stage
A reader was upset recently by my 3 1/2 -star value rating of Stage, saying, in part: "The place is obviously a ripoff. ... Maybe she should start paying for the meals with her own money and then will (sic) see some true ratings. She should not place value on what a SINK thinks, but the public in general, especially people with familys (sic).
"If someone paid for all my meals, everything would be a great deal. If a Big Mac cost a $100, but someone paid for it, I'd give it 4 stars.
"I'll be looking forward to a comment in an upcoming review."
I anticipated that response and appreciate it because it gives me an opportunity to address the value issue that will continue to arise with the recent spate of high-profile restaurant openings. I have also been grappling with the value issue since prices started soaring within the past year in response to higher operating costs associated with the rising price of rents, utilities, shipping, etc. I've been shell-shocked myself when opening menus recently.
In the re-analysis, I think I overreacted to Stage prices precisely because I was spending company money, working within a budget which I felt limited the number of dishes I could order. The prix fixe menus posed a dilemma because they require that all parties at the table order the same thing, which also doesn't work for a review. I felt more constrained than I would spending my own money.
And would I spend my own money there? Yes. I'm looking forward to going back soon.
Could I afford to eat there often? No. But I don't think anyone would consider it an everyday sort of place.
Is it worth the 3 1/2 stars I bestowed upon it? It is, for quantifiable reasons, just as those who understand fashion can argue the merits of, say, a $1,000 Louis Vuitton handbag versus a $20 department store model.
There is a lot of marketing and hype behind LV wares, for sure, but there is also history, craftsmanship, a designer's aesthetic, high-quality materials and hardware and weeks of labor versus an hour of work and lesser materials for the cheaper bag. Is that worth a $900-plus price difference? It's a judgment call, but for the price you get a long-lasting bag that will retain or appreciate in value over time, rather than another throwaway item destined for the Goodwill bin.
WHEN IT COMES to Stage's cuisine, for the price I know I am getting food made with artisanal ingredients sourced to local farms and top-notch boutique mainland purveyors. I am paying for accountability, rather than for crates of anonymous produce grown in Third World countries under indeterminate conditions (need I remind you of the recent pet-food scare) and possible clouds of pesticides.
I am paying for intensity of flavor from food incorporating quality wines, liqueurs, fine chocolate, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and more. Those who cook know how costly these ingredients can be, and few kitchens have the resources and privilege of using the best, but the difference is recognizable.
I am paying for the talent of the executive chef for food and sauces made laboriously from scratch, rather than reconstituted, plopped from a jar, pulled from a freezer or deep-fried in days-old oil.
In addition, I am also paying, in part, for architecture, design, energy and theatricality that add up to a unique experience.
I've often written of restaurants as sources of entertainment, and Stage embraces this concept to its fullest. Face it, if all we wanted from breakfast, lunch or dinner is to silence a growling stomach, we'd stay at home and cook.
THERE ARE MANY levels of food appreciation, and if you measure a restaurant's prices against what it takes to feed a family, or if you look at a tomato and see only a tomato, you are not taking into account the dedication of the farmer who grew it, the soil in which it grew and all the labor and effort that brought it to your plate.
Nothing wrong with that. We all have different values. I, for instance, understand others' desire to possess the latest, greatest, biggest TV set, but I live with a junky 19-inch set so old it lacks DVD inputs. I simply do not value the TV-watching experience as much as I enjoy living, but my sacrifice doesn't give me the right to begrudge anyone's right to enjoy the latest, greatest 60-inch TV.
Unlike magazine writers, who cater to specific demographics, the general nature of newspapers means my columns are read by people with many different value systems. My role is to be descriptive enough to help each one "place" a restaurant within their sphere of experience and appreciation and decide whether it's for them. I think I've done my job if I convinced this e-mailer that Stage is not for himher. Why be angry about it?
But for those who entertain, enjoy novelty and pride themselves on being ahead of the cultural curve, Stage is easily the most exciting restaurant to have opened in Honolulu in recent memory. The food isn't perfect, yet, but it is worth experiencing at least once to judge for yourself.
Thanks for the free column -- a cost-averaging technique for the moneywise -- and bear with me as Cassis, Tsukiji Fish Market, Roy's Waikiki Beach Walk, Nobu and the revamped Epic have opened at the same time. I'll try to intersperse those with affordable choices.
And BTW, if a friend offered to buy me a $100 Big Mac, I'd decline and suggest we go elsewhere. I prefer the Big N' Tasty at its current price.