What comes to mind when you think of fine dining? If you’re anything like me, you probably think of a potential minefield of faux pas involving a choice between oyster or salad forks, the (mis)pronunciation of French words, and somehow wearing the wrong shoes, tie, or dress. Add to that list a snooty maître d’, obsequious server, and the high potential to spill red wine all over the crisp white tablecloth. Yep, that’s what I used to think of fine dining; in short: not for me.
I was raised in Midwestern small towns. My father is a farm boy, and my mother never stands on ceremony. Family nights out to eat never got close to anything like “fine dining”—places like that were certainly not places for us. We ate country fried chicken, homemade spaghetti with meatballs, Mississippi catfish, and grilled steaks. It was great, but we never called it fancy.
I say all this simply to preface what I’m going to say next, so that you know a bit about who I am and where I come from. When I first began working at Söntés, I really knew very little about fine dining; I had worked for department store restaurants that put a lot of effort into an impressive atmosphere, but still served mashed potatoes that came pre-mashed and frozen in a bag. I’ll admit that I was intimidated at first to work in such a nice restaurant. (If you think that it’s nerve-wracking to sit at a table and worry about spilling your fancy wine, imagine carrying those glasses on a tray and trying not to toss them all over a nicely dressed guest!) But all of that—the intimidation, the fear of fine dining, the self-consciousness—changed when I got to know Söntés.
Tessa Leung, who has always been steering the Söntés ship—is really someone who appreciates things for what they are. That’s why we focus so much on quality ingredients and supporting local producers. Chef Bryce is masterful at balancing and bringing out the subtle flavors unique to each ingredient. Tessa chooses wines and drinks of good quality made by experts of their crafts.
Tessa’s appreciation goes for people, too. She liked my spirit, quirky artistic side, and determination to do a good job, so she took me in and let me learn. That’s why she doesn’t care what you wear when you eat at Söntés, or if you choose to order a sweet white wine with your steak. Tessa and the rest of the staff just want you to be comfortable and to have fun while you’re there. Take the opportunity to try something new or different, and don’t be intimidated to ask the server about any dish you’re not familiar with.
There’s one thing that I learned at Söntés that I’ve carried with me ever since, and that is that a love of worldly cuisine and international flavors doesn’t have to be an exclusive thing, reserved only for those who can speak to snooty maître d’s and have perfect French pronunciation. In fact, many dishes that are often perceived as “fancy”—paella or confit, for example—were developed as everyday food for working class folks. It just so happens that they taste darn good and were picked up by chefs from all over the world. So you see, no matter the technique, no matter how different it may seem from the dinners you and I cook for ourselves, it’s just food, there for you to taste and enjoy.
At Söntés, we don’t really use the words “fine dining” to define ourselves so much (if we do, it’s “fine dining without being stuffy!”), although some others do describe us that way. We’re less concerned with the definition than we are with the product: fresh food, good drinks. When you really strip it down, that’s what we strive to serve. If you like either of those things, I hope you’ll take it from me: try everything on the menu, particularly those you’ve never heard of, and discover a few more ways to eat really tasty meals.