Wine, Food and the Pace of Things to Come

Time Stands StillIt was on the occasion of our good friends’ final night in town that saw us all dine at Torc yesterday evening. Torc is a new restaurant in downtown Napa. This experience left me thinking about the importance of pace and role it plays not only in a fine dining experience, but in so many other areas of life.

“Pace” is a concept that is about more than just speed—slow, medium or fast, and often goes unappreciated and uncelebrated. I tend to think of “pace” as the way by which an experience unfolds. There is a certain speed and timing, for example, in the way a grape growing season unfolds over the course of the year. It has pace. In a wine tasting room there is a pattern, timing and method to the way wines are presented to visitors. The pace of a tasting can make or break the experience. For anyone who has ever judged at a wine competition or even imagined such a thing, there is also a pace at which judges are expected to evaluate a panel of wines, before having them removed, seeing another selection of wines delivered and continuing on with the inspection.

Despite the most common uses of the word (“pick up the pace” or “pace yourself). the idea behind it really is about more than timing. Finding the proper pace of  something is the difference between an experience gone bad and when it goes well. Finally, one of the reasons why a proper pace of things usually goes uncelebrated is because when a well-paced experience is underway, it lays the groundwork for something much more memorable than pace—for something more tangibly experienced. Successful pacing is often made invisible by the access to the spectacular it can provide. Fine dining is perfect example.

The best example of pacing gone bad in a restaurant is when the main course is delivered to the table before the serviceappetizer is finished. This awkward, meal-destroying experience provides the diner with a memorable example of how proper pace is a combination of many things: the diners’ distraction of good company, the watchfulness of the wait staff, communication between wait staff and the kitchen, the demands of a busy dining room, and much more.

On the other hand, proper pacing during a fine dining experience is the foundation of the joy that keeps us returning to restaurants, of the praise we might heap on an establishment and of the comfort we feel when having been well-cared for in the course of experiencing a meal.

Sit too long before being greeted by your wait staff at the beginning of the meal and the diner feels abandoned. Not a good way to start off the meal. Being greeted before you can adjust your rump to the chair and a feeling of rush overtakes the experience from the beginning. But meeting your wait person after having just enough time to get accustomed to your seat, survey the room, look over the table and settle in, and you are off to just the right start. Pace.

When surveying a menu of many options, it can be very off-putting to have an order demanded of you by a rushed wait person before you have had a chance to weigh the impact of following that beautiful looking gnocchi with either the lighter Steelhead or the more substantial New York Strip, as well as what either combination is likely to say about the prospects of adding a dessert at the end of the meal. Given just enough time to make your decision before having to announce it and not being forced to sit too long with the implication of your choices lays the groundwork for moving on happily to the conversation among table mates that is foundation for wanting to dine among friends in the first place. Pace.

Then there is the pace at which things happen between the order and the first course. There are a lot of moving parts here that, when carried out in the right order and with the right timing, gives the diners a feeling of truly being cared for. The bringing of the bread. The placement of the correct stemware. The filling of water glasses. The serving of the wine. If this doesn’t happen at all, the meal is in danger of be sabotaged. If it happens quickly right before the first course is served, a jolt is felt at the table. If this all unfolds at a deliberate and proper pace, the diners barely notice and the ambiance of the table and the delight of a good conversation is allowed to develop. Pace.

Then there is the centerpiece of proper pace at a restaurant: The timing between the removal of plates and flatware from the first course and the arrival of the second course. There is a specific amount of time that needs to pass, yet this time can’t be specified. It’s about feel and moment. Here is where proper pace is accomplished by the expertise of your waitstaff and the kitchen. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens just right. There is a certain amount of time that passes after the debris from the first course has been taken from the table and the diner is ready for the second course.

torcThere must be time to allow the food to settle, for the diners to evaluate what they have just consumed, for discussion of the culinary execution to be considered and for memories of similar dishes to be recalled and recounted among the table mates. Palates need to be cleansed with water or wine. The next wine needs to be readied and poured. And a certain gearing up of the senses has to occur before the next course is delivered.

Bring that next course before this has all been accomplished and a case of Dinus Interuptus spreads across the table. But spread out too much time before the first and the second course and impatience ensues, leading often to a strange rush to consume food when the main course does arrive. However, pace this transition perfectly, and the diners are primed to appreciate the next course —and in fact the entire meal—more so than they might otherwise. Pace.

If dessert is in mind, the same process must happen again, though this time with a second menu to consider. Properly pacing this movement in the meal always seems easier (or at least is given more leeway) if what has come before has unfolded nicely.

Proper pacing can’t be underestimated if joy and contentment is the goal—of nearly any experience, including dining.

Our meal at Torc was perfectly paced. The food was wonderful. The ambiance was cheerful and joyous. Torc pleased us all and a quick return is in the cards near the top of the deck. The restaurant is located at 1140 Main Street in downtown Napa in the same building where Ubuntu once resided. It is highly recommended.

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5 Responses

  1. fredric koeppel - February 18, 2014

    Beautifully done. One of the best descriptions I have seen about the dining experience.

  2. Tom Wark - February 18, 2014

    Thanks, Fredric! Very kind of you to say.

  3. Kurt Burris - February 19, 2014

    Reading this just before lunch was pure torture, in a good way. I may need to go to my favorite tapas place for a nicely paced, wine soaked lunch, instead of being productive this afternoon.

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