Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Tyranny of Too Much Choice

We all think we want choice when out to eat, but do we really? Perhaps we want choice in types of restaurants but when it comes to an individual restaurant the optimal number of menu options is questionable. It would be fairly foolish, for example, to think a restaurant known for Italian food would also be expert in sushi. And yet more and more restaurants are doing just that, offering multitudes of food types in lieu of expertise leaving us diners behind in a wake of mediocrity.

For most Americans going out to eat at a nice restaurant is a luxury. Every once in a while we afford ourselves a night out and entrust our dinner to a talented chef or restaurateur who will to guide us through a unique menu of his or her creation filled with seasonal ingredients paired in interesting ways.

Instead at an increasing number of “nice” restaurants we the patrons are asked to do what we used to pay chefs for: the composition of a proper plate.

Perhaps it is the influx of steakhouse concepts that is to blame. There are meats to choose: rib-eyes, filets, New York strips, 64 oz. T-bones. Then the degree of cooking- you can get anywhere from “burnt to a crisp” to “still mooing”. Add a sauce- Bernaise, peppercorn, hollandaise, or maybe you would prefer straight melted butter to add excess to excess. Don’t forget about sides, those are for you to decide too. Perhaps some jumbo asparagus in December, or spinach stewed to death in cream? And got to have potatoes! They come mashed, fried, roasted, baked, in Yukon, Idaho, and even marble sized red ones if you are feeling fancy.

If the guest is made to choose everything, why are we even going out to eat?

At a recent dinner in the exclusive restaurant of a fancy private residential building Manhattan, the sort of place where Wall Street barons and rock stars live side-by-side, I had such a meal of too much choice. My food picky boyfriend was at first excited at the selection noting that his salmon could be prepared using one of several different cooking methods and served with one of 4 or 5 sauces, everything but the cooking itself was within his control. Pastas similarly were available in a supermarket selection worth of shapes with a list of sauces so long it almost required its own menu. What my boyfriend saw as choice, I saw as a bad omen.

I am sorry to say, truly I am, that I was right and he was wrong. His salmon came dry and tasteless not redeemed by a boat of pesto on the side. Hoping for a kitchen miracle I ordered the one pasta that did not give me choice- linguine with shrimp scampi- hoping that this meant it was a chef special. The shrimp were cooked to the point of rubber and the pasta, with a thin slick of butter and white wine, would have lost a taste test against Olive Garden. The only thing “special” about this pasta was that it ranked first for Most Expensive Worst Pasta I have ever ordered.

This is sad trend where choice trumps taste is not so new to be a revelation however I fear it is getting worse. The salad offered at JRDN, possibly the only true fine dining in Pacific Beach, California, only comes in a choose-your-own-adventure format. A actual checklist complete with pencil is brought to the table with the standard menu giving the guest a selection of lettuce, toppings, and dressing. The result may good, if the chooser is lucky, and if it’s not, it can always be blamed on the guest for being a bad salad composer- a chef cop-out if I’ve ever seen one. I have eaten there on several occasions and could never shake the feeling of wonder that I was paying good money for something I could do just as easily at the take out salad bar down the street, and for a lot less money.

For those looking for unlimited options, they can cook for themselves or head to the Cheesecake Factory. For the rest of us putting good money behind quality dining experiences a chef should give us what we are paying for- his or her creativity in composition, a high quality of ingredients, and culinary expertise. If chefs would just stop trying to please everyone, do what they do well and do it right, the good paying restaurant patrons of the world will come, perhaps for more than just the special occasions.

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