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"Le Menu Surprise"


robert brown
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I've been quiet on this one but I must add that some of the best meals in my life have been at places unknown to me where friends have taken me and I've said "just ask the chef to please me."  100% success.  100% surprise.

I totally agree. I love not knowing what I am going to eat. Since I like nearly everything, I'm always satisfied. Anyway, I believe the places that dare to serve surprise menus are confident enough to know that they are not taking many risks.

Surprise menus remind me of my childhood days in the Nice mountains, when the local aubergistes who served me lunch (the school was in the village, our house was a half-hour's walk away so I didn't go home for midday meal) just tied the napkin around my neck and I had absolutely no idea of what they were going to serve me... Best food in the world, it always was.

My only bad experience with a surprise menu was at "Dans le Noir" but the food is terrible there anyway. Had it not been a surprise, it would have been just as bad.

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I agree that normally quality follows trust. I think what Robert's asking about, though, is then on the carte they allow people to choose the words "menu suprise" from the carte. When you trust someone enough to say "oh just suprise me", a gesture completely aside from what is on the carte, you'll most likely be happy. :smile:

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I agree that normally quality follows trust.  I think what Robert's asking about, though, is then on the carte they allow people to choose the words "menu suprise" from the carte.  When you trust someone enough to say "oh just suprise me", a gesture completely aside from what is on the carte, you'll most likely be happy.  :smile:

In other words, a "menu suprise" that's listed on the carte is an oxymoron. :biggrin:

John Whiting, London

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Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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[...] making a considered selection of a relatively few courses enjoyed in generous portions has been, and still remains, the best way to dine. Were it not, Auguste Escoffier, Fernand Point or Paul Bocuse would have thought to serve several courses of little portions.[...]

I've been enjoying this thread and I feel like many good points have been made on different sides of the argument. This is one point I'm not sure about, though. Fashions change, and just because a great figure in the past didn't think of something or even expressed strong disapproval of it doesn't mean that another creative soul can't make something good out of it now or in the future.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Robert's comment reminds me of Escoffier's statement that "It is one hundred times better to serve a very short menu, but well balanced and perfectly executed, so that the guests will be able to savor without haste, than to parade food in front of them and to repeat the torture of Tantalus, a long stream of dishes which they never have the time to touch." (Le Livre des Menus). Escoffer was talking about the switch from service à la française to service à la russe; the former presented the "groaning board" of dozens of dishes, entrées, removes, entremets, etc., either all at once or in two services; something more like buffet service. Escoffier moved to something more resembling modern restaurant service, where "plated" food was presented to guests.

And yet Escoffier's ideas of a "very short menu" were more like today's tasting menus than anything else -- here is an example:

  • Frivolitiés
    Mixed hors d'oeuvres
    Caviar frais
    Chilled caviar
    Blinis de Sarrasin
    Buckwheat blinis
    Oursins de la Méditerranée
    Sea urchins
    Consommé aux nids d'Hirondelles
    Consommé with swallows' nests
    Velouté Dame Blanche
    Cream soup of the "White Lady"
    Sterlet du Volga à la Moscovite
    Sterlet is a rare sturgeon that lives between the fresh and salt rivers in the Caspian
    Barquette de Laitance à la Vénetienne
    Soft fish roes in pastry boats
    Chapon fin aux Perles du Périgord
    Capon with "pearls of the Périgord" (truffles?)
    Cardon épineux à la Toulousaine
    "Spiny" cardoons
    Selle de Chevreuil aux Cerises
    Saddle of venison with cherries
    Suprême d'Ecrevisse au Champagne
    Crayfish in a cream sauce with Champagne
    Mandarines Givrées
    Sorbet of mandarin oranges, probably served in the hollowed-out shells of the oranges
    Terrine de Caille sous la cendre, aux Raisins
    Terrine of quail cooked on a wood fire ("under the ashes") with grapes
    Bécassine rosée au feu de Sarment
    Pink or pale snipe, cooked over vine cuttings
    Salade Isabelle
    Salad "Isabelle"
    Asperges sauce Mousseline
    Asparagus with mousseline sauce
    Délice de Foie Gras
    A foie gras preparation
    Soufflé de Grenade à l'Orientale
    Pomegranate soufflé "oriental style"
    Biscuit glace aux Violettes
    Iced cake with violets
    Mignardises
    Petits fours
    Fruits de Serre Chaude
    Hothouse fruits

So I share Michael's view that we haven't reached "the end of history" on menu construction. There is still scope for productive innovation.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Hey, Jonathan, bring it on!!!!! Yes, there is no end to coming up with menus that can pad the margins: summer truffles, all-vegetables, wine pairings, etc.

I can't possibly imagine myself in a decent restaurant without asking what's in the larder and not having made a mental list of target products such as something regional, with a short season, or insuring I can try something the place is known for.

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Robert's comment reminds me of Escoffier's statement that "It is one hundred times better to serve a very short menu, but well balanced and perfectly executed, so that the guests will be able to savor without haste, than to parade food in front of them and to repeat the torture of Tantalus, a long stream of dishes which they never have the time to touch."  (Le Livre des Menus).  Escoffer was talking about the switch from service à la française to service à la russe; the former presented the "groaning board" of dozens of dishes, entrées, removes, entremets, etc., either all at once or in two services; something more like buffet service.  Escoffier moved to something more resembling modern restaurant service, where "plated" food was presented to guests. 

And yet Escoffier's ideas of a "very short menu" were more like today's tasting menus than anything else --  . . . .

One might add that nouvelle cuisine added the contemporary style of plating where an esthetic effect is achieved in the kitchen by the chef. Some of my earliest memories of fine dining in Burgundy, in particular, are of tableside service where perhaps a fowl is carved and plated by the waiter right at one's table. Who's to balme for dishes flambeed at your table and was it such a bad think or had it just become a cliché. I'm of the opinion that even the best food and dining needs a shake up every now and then or it stagnates. Is Adrià's use of the Teppannitro (photo here) to prepare dessert at the table, an innovation, or a return to the tradition of Crepes Suzette. Were crepes flambeed at the table as bad as they were later seen by gastronomes, or do we just become tired of anything we allow to become a cliché?

At any rate, Jonathan makes a convincing argument that in some ways tasting menus may be seen as a return to the traditions of Escoffier and his times. Change is perhaps the only constant. Fashions, customs and tastes may run in cycles, but each cycle is different enough. I don't embrace change for its own sake, but sometimes change is a relief if not an improvement.

I don't dismiss Robert's looking to assure himself that he's not missing a local specialty and particularly not one of the chef's specialties. Often enough, they don't appear on a surprise or tasting menu, although in Spain, at least recently, it seems as if every avant garde chef has roast suckling pig on his tasting menu and invariably, it's a knock out dish of great simplicity. Tasting menus to fool the eye or pocketbook of tourists may not have the chef's best food, although I've not generally detected a mercenary attitude at any restaurant deserving of the term "great." At the same time, tasting menus meant to attract the local gentry who have eaten the chef's specialties many times, tend to skip those dishes for which the chef is already known. While I am most often willing to put myself in the chef's hands, I have eschewed the tasting menu for selections from the carte. Generally, I'll pay more for three à la carte selections than for a six course tasting menu. The tasting menu is often an economical one in spite of its expense. At the same time, budget considerations are rarely the reason one eats at a great and grand restaurant.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Bux, I think what you mean is that you haven't encountered a great restaurant that's transparently mercenary; but that are degrees of mercenariness that don't necessarily ruin the visit. Moby's visit to Michel Bras sounds to me, in the context of knowledge of the way the restaurant used to be, as mercenary, but not necessarily mean-spirited given the national economic framework. (If you want proof positive of a restaurant becoming truly mercenary, talk to someone like me who during the past ten years has been dined at Le Louis XV every year or two). However, unless I have failed in expressing myself, the primary basis of my disdain has more to do with diminishing autonomy and parsimony. Never have I said, or meant to say, that tasting or surprise menus preclude the possibility of having a satisfying meal.

Escoffier's prototypical menu at first glance sounds like el Biulli in the 1920s. However, do we know how big the portions were and the way diners went about eating? Were there little portions or full-size portions served generously enough so that you could skip a coourse entirely, take a few mouthfuls, or eat the entire course? I don't see any reference to parts of animals, anything served in pieces, or even portion size. So in the face of a dearth of knowledge, I would be loath to state that todays's tasting or surprise menus bear significant resemblance to the restaurant tables of 75-100 years ago.

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Being a cook, I really don't like to work so hard when I go out. I don't want to 'suck' the best out of the chef, I'm willing to be surprised and actually enjoy turning myself over to the kitchen. I know that they will try harder. Maybe it will be a hit, and maybe a miss, but I learn something from every meal I eat, good or bad.

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Sometimes it's a matter of "sucking" the best from Mother Nature as much as the chef. I suppose a rough comparison is putting the names in a hat of all the dramas and musicals on Broadway and then spending the money to go to whatever production whose name you pull out of the hat. At a certain price level and infrequent occasion you owe it to yourself to "suck".

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Robert, yes of course the times change in ways we wish they wouldn't and some of the changes have a domino effect that ultimately makes it impossible to maintain certain aspects of what we like. Whether one feels Robuchon's recent restaurants are an intelligent response to changing conditions, or simply a way to cash in on his fame and make a quicker buck, it's hard to argue with the premise of his statement a few years ago that haute cuisine as we knew it, are dead. The technology, or lack of technology, that made Point and Dumaine's locations so valuable have changed, but they are not the major reasons the cuisine of la Pyramid or la Cote d'Or won't be replicated.

Perhaps we've been at the wrong points in regard to tasting menus and surprise menus. While each of those has contributed some of my best meals in the past couple of years, I have no doubt unscrupulous restaurateurs will use them for abuse of an unsuspecting clientele. They are however, in my opinion any more suspect than a dozen other things. I'd have greater fear of a new restaurant representing itself as serving old fashioned haute cuisine. In the end, we will only know what we like after we've had it. To some extent, we rely on guides when traveling or choosing restaurants to visit for the first time. They are no infallible sources be they Michelin, Campsa, Gambero Rosso or eGullet Society members. Even among members whose opinions and taste I respect, there are differences in opinion of restaurants. You and I have diametrically opposed views of one restaurant near San Sebastian as I recall.

Kichpig, I often share your view of not wanting to work when I eat out. Perhaps I'm just lazy, but I'd prefer to eat where I can trust the chef to take good care of me. That said, it's always going to happen at a strange restaurant and sometimes I have to work to get the best meal out of a restaurant and do it in a way that seems in line with what Robert tends to do more often.

A couple of my best meals this past year were neither a tasting or surprise menu, nor leaving it in the hands of the chef, not completely under my control by ordering a la carte. In a couple of cases, my menu was decided after some negotiation with the waiter and the chef. I don't know if Robert would have arrived at the same menu under those circumstances, but I think he would have approved of the process. The two meals that come to mind were had in Madrid and Valencia, so I'll leave off the details as off topic to this thread.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Bux, I'm not entirely sure where you come down. I approach every restaurant the same way unless the people absolutely refuse to give me any latitude, cut me any slack, however you want to put it. I owe it to myself to do so. Not that I intend to boast, but fairly often my presence of mind has improved the possibilities and the outcomes for my dining companions. If people want to dog it, that's their concern. Laziness often begets laziness. But more important, does anyone know what Robuchon means by "haute cuisine?" Maybe he's talking about it in France, but would anyone say it is dead in Spain, Italy, England and America?

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Pan, I was assuming that serving many little portions was simple-minded enough that the leading chefs of the day must have considered and dismissed it at some moment. However, I am willing to concede that maybe they didn't because they assumed that serving large portions and all of something was the only way to purvey their cuisine. Of course I am betting on the former. I also believe, however, that almost all change is economy-driven and that the changes we are seeing in cuisine are no exception. The only thing I'm not sure of is (prix-fixe menus excluded) degustation menus could have started out in the 1970s as a heartfelt effort to make available to non-regulars what the chef though were his best dishes. Almost all else that has happened since then is, however, economically-driven and determined.

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I was paraphrasing Robuchon and don't have the exact quote. In any event, the operative words are probably "as we know it," rather than "haute cuisine." I believe at the time he was referring to the style of four star Michelin restaurants and their dependence on a large staff of underpaid workers, apprentices and stagiaires. The cost of operating such a restaurant where the staff out numbers the diners is getting harder to accomplish each day.

I'm not sure I can articulate exactly how I enter a restaurant and suspect it varies to a degree at each restaurant and from the first contact, it's a matter of responding to any leads I get from the restaurant. I imagine that's not really much different from the way most people act. I do enter a recommended, or fine, restaurant with trust and an assumption I'm going to be well cared for. Why not? If it's the case, it's precisely the attitude that will make my host want to take even better care for me. If it's not the case, and the owner, or chef, are out to get as much as they can and give as little as they can get away with, I'm lost anyway.

That said, on my last visit to Paris, I had more disappointments than ever before. (Poor planning may well have taken it's toll, while a morbid curiosity about restaurants I suspected were over rated added to the problem. I can be my own worst enemy in that regard.) While I've expressed a sense that food in France is improving lately, I don't feel it's anywhere near what it was thirty to forty years ago. At the same time, I don't ascribe any particular greed to this. I'm certainly not going to fault workers for wanting to earn a better salary, and that's put a burden on owners who fear clients won't pay more. A 19% tax on restaurant meals certainly doesn't help French restaurants compete in value with those in Spain or the US. Robert can better tell us about Italy.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I've read this thread with interest. I've never eaten in a restaurant that offered a menu surprise, and indeed the only one I've heard about is l'Astrance. I may or may not order one if it were presented. I don't see it as any indication that there has been a decline, anymore than I see a decline evidenced by the fact that some restaurants have no choice menus, either alone or along with a la carte offerings. If I don't want these things, I would simply go elsewhere. There are many restaurants in Paris that offer choices. Sometimes I order individual dishes and sometimes I order menus. If I don't want only one set menu, I go where I have choice, and usually pay more for the same quality of food, which seems very fair to me.

I looked at some old menus from three star restaurants of the past, just to see if I could see any noticeable differences. Frankly, I don't, although the menus only go back to the '60's. Although Fernand Point died in 1955, his widow carried on for a number of years, and I doubt she changed much. On the 7th of March, 1964, the carte from Restaurant de la Pyramide had a menu of five courses, including cheese, that is remarkably like the one I had at Taillevent last month in composition. Madame Point's menu offered two choices for most courses, and ours didn't, but then we also had an additional course. The menu I have from la Pyramide dated March 23, 1978, was almost the same, although the price had gone from 45 francs to 160 francs in those 14 years. The a la carte section had 10 entrees, 7 seafoods, and 6 meat/poultry offerings. When we are at Taillevent, they had 8 entrees, 6 seafoods, and 8 meat/poultry offerings. Taillevent had two fixed menus to one for la Pyramide. I don't really see a significant decline in the choices. The prices have gone up significantly, but then in 1964, one could buy a house in southern California for about $25K that now costs $750K or more. At 135E, I thought the menu at Taillevent was a bargain.

Comparing Bocuse's menu from 1978 with that of today, (and with the one I had there in 1989, little has changed. In '78, he had 10 entrees, 5 seafoods, and 10 meats/poultry offerings. He also had 2 fixed menus. Today, he has 9 entrees, 5 fishes, and 11 meat/poultry. He now offers 3 set menus. As when I was there, most of his signature items are included on the set menus. Many of the dishes are the same as they were in '78, and in '89 when I was there. I doubt that they are executed much differently, although they seem a bit out-dated to me now.

I thought the food on our recent trip to Paris was excellent. I think there have been changes over the years I've been going there, but I don't see a decline. My taste has changed in the past 16 years, and some of the things I liked then now seem less interesting. I think that is normal for everyone. I applaud the young chefs who offer a great meal at 30 or 40E. Mon Vieil Ami gave us 2 very nice meals (with adequate choice) at about 38E. I thought Les Ormes gave us a superior meal (again a la carte). The degustation menus at Le Troquet and Le Pamphlet were better than I usually get in the US for the more money, even with the bad exchange rate.

The three star places in Paris seem to have more than enough patrons, even if some of them have very high prices. As far as I see, they still offer good choice or fixed menus. They can command the prices they do because there are some people who don't really care what things cost. The same can be said for the great wines of the world. It's supply and demand. Perhaps, taxes on restaurants in France should be reduced. I doubt that would have any effect on the prices to us, however.

I usually try to avoid becoming political on here, but it seems that there is a political bent to this discussion, so I will make a few comments in reply. In the US, our restaurants are not taxed as much, and they often use labor that is grossly underpaid and often not documented to work here. The rest of us subsidize the worker's healthcare and some other necessities- through government programs and in more subtle ways. (I suspect there is some of that in France as well, but I doubt it is nearly to the degree we see here.) And compared to what I see in the US, Paris is still a great restaurant city.

Edited for typos.

Edited by Carlsbad (log)
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Carlsbad,

I tend to agree with you, i lived & worked in Paris last spring/summer & this year went to NY, not really in the same league. As i'm sure has been mentioned Spain offers v.similar menu structure to France, especially michelin rated. Seems fairly redundant topic especially so as i assume Robert never tried the surprise menus. Robert i tend to agree with you as far as economics driving restaurant ops, i think it's a shame that the consumer has to pay for all the PR crap & associated bullshit that comes with sleek haute cuisine operations, it used to be about the food(& credible critique rating system!)......i have come to appreciate more restaurants driven by chefs who cannot afford the trappings of michelin(although i believe michelin is recognising as much themselves slowly) & cook for themselves & the integrity of the ingredient & season. The more haute cuisine restaurants that inflate their prices the greater the expectations( with more likely negative results) of the consumer. Should the margins be at the expense of the employees??(in Spain, France, US or wherever) the food... ? ? I would hope that the humane response would be no. I have become bored of tasting menus myself, yet if a restaurant cannot adequately perform a degustation menu why should they be so much more competent at a la carte??? I would like to pick Senderens & Guerards brain over recent trends in France i'm sure it would be enlightening!

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Just to be clear, I didn't mean to imply that haute cuisine in France isn't what it used to be in quality. The decline I've sensed is in the middle range and lower middle range, but that's come back in the 90s or even earlier to a great degree. There was a time it was hard to get a bad meal in France. That's less true today, although I will admit I'm far less easily impressed today than I was in the 60s.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I love the way this discussion has turned. Basically what I'm learning from Robert it is that the more work you are willing to put in to know the dishes, the chef, what's in season, what a particular place is known to do well, etc., the more likely you are going to experience the best that a chef can offer.

Pulling it a bit more down to my own level, it reminds me of the many times I have gotten into long food discussions with chef/owners at restaurants that serve simple 3 or 4 course meals and only cook in season. They appreciate it once they see I'm truly interested, they love what they do, and they love it that my husband and I appreciate the fruits of their labor.

When I go out, in my mind of course is the idea of being able to relax, not to have to break my back all over town sourcing ingredients, allowing the establishment to lift the load from me in the actual labor of cooking, I don't have to do the work of setting the table, or planning and coordinating the meal. But when I go out, under no condition would I ever want to just lay back and allow my mind to stop working. If anything, this discussion convinces me that Robert would be an excellent dining companion. :smile:

Maybe it will be a hit, and maybe a miss, but I learn something from every meal I eat, good or bad.

As far as learning from a bad meal, well, if given the choice, I'd much rather learn from a good one.

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This has been a rather interesting discussion that I will delve into, albeit a bit late. Ironically, I am late for having been delving into the Parisian dining scene and not focusing so much on events here.

As with most discussions there are elements of truth and enlightenment on both or all sides of the argument. There is certainly nothing wrong with Robert's approach and if that is his preference than by all means he or anyone else who prefers that style of dining should venture forth that way.

If I am at a restaurant that I frequent or already have a direct sense of and it is one that lends itself to a la carte and I have specific preferences, I do that too. However, my preference when at a restaurant directly new to me although I may be familiar with it from discussions here or elsewhere, is to explore as wide a range of preparations as I can. If it is a reputable restaurant, I expect the chef to prepare for me what he (or she) deems best at that time. I have rarely been disappointed with this approach.

As for whether this leads to a "surprise" menu or simply a degustation, it really doesn't matter to me. Over the course of the past week plus I have had three "surprise" meals. The first, just over one week ago was at El Bulli. It was stunning. The second, one week ago, at Rafa's in Roses was because I asked Rafa to prepare a meal for us from whatever he wished. The resulting meal was extensive, delicious and inexpensive (relatively). On Wednesday past, in Paris, we had the opportunity to sample the Menu "Surprise" for lunch at L'Astrance. It was sensational and each course came directly from the a la carte selections of the day. The best part, though was that it was also much more affordable than had we ordered a la carte.

I think if one has the time and the ability to research in minute detail a new restaurant, cuisine or local seasonal ingredients and the need or desire to control the specific course of dinner, that approach cannot be faulted. I am still very much in the learning and experience gathering mode and the degustation approach, surprise or otherwise affords me the most intense experience for the time I am able to give to it.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Doc, your posts never put me to sleep.

Don't you think it would have been useful at L'Astrance to know in advance what they would serve you? Then you could have asked if there were any differences between the "menu surprise" dishes and the a la carte ones in such aspects as size, cuts, bones, etc. I'm assuming that once one asked, the restaurant would agree to let the cat out of the bag and remove the element of surprise. Did anyone tell you, at least, that your meal would be comprised of a la carte dishes?

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Doc, your posts never put me to sleep.

Don't you think it would have been useful at L'Astrance to know in advance what they would serve you? Then you could have asked if there were any differences between the "menu surprise" dishes and the a la carte ones in such aspects as size, cuts, bones, etc. I'm assuming that once one asked, the restaurant would agree to let the cat out of the bag and remove the element of surprise. Did anyone tell you, at least, that your meal would be comprised of a la carte dishes?

Robert, Thank you. I enjoy yours as well. In this regard, although I see, I think, where you are coming from, I see it a bit differently. Sitting at the table with my family, including our three sons of 15, 14 and 6 years, it was fun to have that element of surprise. No-one had the time or the ability to reflect on whether or not they might dislike something. Not given the choice, our 6yo ate extremely well. The course sizes may have been greater on the ala carte selection, but we were satisfied by our meal at a fraction of what it would have cost ala carte.

I believe that this is simply a case of different dining styles. I honestly applaud you for your determination and resolve in seeking your optimal dining experience. I am too fickle a diner and often find it too difficult to choose. At a restaurant of the caliber of L'Astrance, El Bulli or Rafa's I trust and appreciate their ability to satisfy me in ways that I might not previously have considered. This for me has been an excellent way of expanding my taste repertoire and culinary experience. Am I necessarly getting the best possible meal this way? Perhaps. Perhaps not. At this caliber restaurant, though, I have never yet been disappointed.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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John, your post made me recall two points I have been meaning to make. First. in certain situations I do order tasting menus. One would likely be the situation you were in of having a couple of young eaters and another when I am with difficult dining companions who would wear you out trying to place a diverse order. In other situations when I'm with another gourmand couple, it's challenging to give the maitre d'hotel a workout and put together meals that often have a similar variety to tasting menus, but with a la carte ordering (two half portions, etc.) I will even go so far to say that I have ordered tasting menus on those occasions when I sense that I can do no better otherwise. I even described one I had at da Vittorio in Bergamo, a restaurant I trust 100%. Vittorio's daughter endorsed it highly and it turned out to be exceedingly generous and delicious all the way through.

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Sometimes it helps, when seeking to understand choices, to explore the extreme cases.

At one end, we have the "suspicious diner" model, where the assumption is that most chef/restaurateurs are motivated solely by profit. If he could torch an industrially produced chicken, slice a few canned truffles over it and sell the resulting mess as poulet de Bresse en demi-deuil for 90 Euros a plate, he would. The diner has to barrage the restaurant with questions: was that beef from the Charolais or the Limousin? How many times was the chop turned in the pan? What kind of butter went into the sauce? Was the fleur de sel collected with the left or the right hand? At some point, these questions cross a line from the engaged, interested, knowledgeable diner to the meddlesome one. In any event, ordering in this model becomes a contest between the crooked chef and the canny diner. Only one side can win.

At the other end, there is the view that chefs and restaurateurs are "not in it for the money" (a claim that many of them make), and that the diner's best move is generally to trust the restaurant and ask them to order for you. You wouldn't tell your doctor what medicines to prescribe, would you? (Well, some people would. But not in this model.)

For me there are times when it's interesting to engage the waitstaff (and sometimes the cooks) in discussion, to visit the kitchen, to ask lots of questions. But I see this less as a way of defeating rapacious restaurateurs who would otherwise cheat me than, as Lucy says, of getting more energy and commitment out of the kitchen.

And there are times when it's a pleasure to allow the staff to choose, especially once they've come to know you a bit and you to know them.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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