Fine dining, that is, dining that is dear, is often like poker--at a certain point you end up playing pot odds. You've already spent so much, it seems silly to quibble over another sawbuck you'll just end up owing to Citibank. Such was definitely the case at a recent meal at the Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch, the getaway of legendary lovers Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Jackie and JFK, that paragon of a certain civility only money can buy, that place where a tofu dish, admittedly divine, will set you back 30 bucks. That can put the oy in your soy, or you can just say, "Well, that's what I signed up for" and enjoy. You will.
I'm not going to run through the whole meal, or try to capture the charm of a room surprisingly intimate and pleasingly warmed by a hearth roaring on a drizzly night. But I do want to discuss dessert, for the Stonehouse offers a baked Alaska for two. While we might think this dessert is some Mad Men era creation, what with its sense of excess, its hat-tip to the just-a-state, its caloric abandon, it actually comes from the late 1800s, from the famed Delmonico's in NYC, and then the French took it up and carried it all about their brasseries in a food fest of fin-de-siecle-ness. So, yes, it is grand--coffee ice cream, rich chocolate cake, and then a helmet of meringue. The Stonehouse shapes meringue to look like the sun sending off a passel of solar flares, and then goes one better--lights the dish tableside. Ice cream afire, mon dieu!
I can't remember the actual price for the Baked Alaska for two (perhaps I've blocked it out), but you're at least partially paying for Theatre Flambé, so imagine my disappointment that they managed to bring the dessert to our table, light it and let it extinguish...while I was in the restroom. That just seems like sloppy service at a place that should know better. The good thing is it's far from just a showpiece--that meringue, with its flamed crunch and then gooey inside, the luscious ice cream and its caffeine kick, the cake, richly chocolate without turning one diabetic after a couple bites.
And as for the pot odds, the Stonehouse serves Chateau d'Yquem by the ounce, for a crazy $35. But not as crazy as us, as we got it and sipped and shared and savored--you have to for that price at that volume. But you have to as its magic, too, the only wine that leaves you tasting it, no not just sensing a finish but sensing its middle, for nearly a minute per minuscule sip. There are sauternes and then there's Yquem (as I've tried to capture before), and while I almost wrote just like there's writing and then Flaubert, it's actually more like there's Flaubert and then there's that passage in Bovary about the tunes for a dancing bear that even in translation slays with its music, insight, its taunt you could never write as well.