Set in our ways

Michael Beauer’s writing about thwart[ing] a chef’s creativity got me thinking about the tendency many of us have to order the same dishes over and over again. Sometimes we call them old standards or favourites, but mostly it seems to be a choice motivated by fear–we eat what we know in case we don’t like another dish. Eating out, for me, is about experimentation, exploring new flavours. Where’s the fun in always getting the same thing and ignoring the rest of a multi-item menu?

Mark Gordon had a great comment when he said that he would like diners to trust the restaurant and the kitchen to produce excellent food at every visit. This is why he changes his menu frequently, he explains, because he wants his guests to try something new, to eat outside the box, and to enjoy it. This is a sentiment I can agree with–the restaurants I frequent have my business not because they do one thing really well, but because they do lots of things really well, and I can feel “safe” ordering anything from the menu and knowing that it would be delicious. Diners who consistently order the same thing might want to question their reasons for doing so. Where’s the joy in eating out if you can’t rely upon the staff to cook really good food for you?

Although I do wish more establishments here offered an amuse bouche. Perhaps because most people in Fort Bragg don’t know what an amuse bouche is, I suspect this is a wish which will never be realized. But we can all dream.

I was thinking about the issue of changing menus when I ate at the Albion River Inn recently. Although they have a formidable wine list, the menu remains much the same as it did a year ago, or three years ago. I can’t help but think this must be awfully boring for the kitchen staff, who never have much of an opportunity to experiment. It seems like it would terribly dull to prepare the same dishes over and over again, to never play around with the menu and pique appetites in a new and interesting way. Now, granted, there are probably thousands of potential food and wine pairings, and if I was more of an oenophile I would probably frequent Albion just for the opportunity to taste their cellar. But when it comes down to it, I eat out to explore, revel in, and embrace food, not to get lime ginger prawns every time I go to the Albion.

The Bistro, on the other hand, changes the menu seasonally, and it’s often tweaked inbetween. This makes eating there exciting, especially at the change of seasons. I never know what’s going to pop up next and the change of menu usually represents a crisis for me because I want to order six things at once. But it also tells me that they are taking advantage of seasonal produce and wild crafted products. It signals to me that they are working with the best ingredients possible at the time, and that’s what makes each dish there so distinct and so good. I feel confident ordering anything from the menu there (although I do adore creamy pasta, more than is probably good for me), because I know that it will be prepared with inspiration and dedication. Not many places up here play around with their menus, perhaps because they feel oppressed by old standards.

It’s a sad thing to see a restaurant become famous for one dish (like, say, crabcakes). As a result of the fame, diners always expect to see that dish on the menu, prepared in exactly the same way, and they are unwilling to explore other options. (Thereby shafting themselves out of some amazing food experiences.) It’s a sad thing when outcry erupts over the removal of one item from the menu. Apparently the culture of fear extends to the dining room as well.