Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dueling Bloggers: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Last Saturday while poking around the Farmer's Market, a devoted reader who is not related to either of us, asked, "You guys should debate restaurants that never change their menus." The reader went on to note that they had gone to Lilette the night before "for about the thousandth time" and that the menu never changes. "We really like Lilette, but come on!" he implored. So without further ado, let's debate menus and restaurants.

Rene: The idea of the ever evolving menu at a restaurant is a relatively new one. Well, that is not entirely true. Places like Chez Panisse and the thousand of French restaurants it was inspired by have served different menus everyday. Certainly a restaurant with an ever changing menu has become very popular in the last ten years. This is mostly due to the proliferation and abundance of farmers markets along with a growing sense of seasonal based cooking. All of which is a long winded way of saying, while I enjoy restaurants that are always challenging themselves to work with what God gives them, I am not sold that a restaurant has to use that formula to be considered great. The idea of a restaurant constantly changing its menu is more a reaction to what the consumer wants. Through magazines, shows, etc... the way a restaurant appeals to consumers is by being "market inspired". While it is a noble and delicious goal, it tends to make many restaurants seem monotonous. I want more personality out of a restaurant.

Peter: You know what lacks personality? Tomatoes in December and oysters in July. Should a chef force himself to use scientifically altered produce and frozen seafood just because his customers want to eat the same crawfish etouffee in November that they did in May? Or does it make more sense for a chef to talk to his suppliers, figure out what the harvest brought this week, and decide what to tailor his menu toward the freshest ingredients available? Changing your menu to reflect the seasons is not monotonous; serving Oysters Rockefeller and Baked Alaska everyday for 170 years is.

Rene: Distilling it down even further, there are chefs the world over who have created dishes people travel to taste. I am thinking of bites like Robuchon's pommes puree, Thomas Keller's Oysters and Pearls, or Drago's chargrilled oysters. Dishes define restaurants. No trip to Herbsaint is complete for me without an order of spaghetti with guanciale and fried poached egg. There is no reason for a menu to change completely when there are dishes that can stand the test of time. I don't begrudge either tactic a restaurant may take, but I get cravings for specific dishes or specific approaches to food more than I get cravings for a specific restaurant. Imagine the horror if you walked into La Boca and learned they had become vegetarian?

Peter: My worst nightmare is walking into La Boca and having Jared tell me that the sweetbreads and hanger steak have been replaced by watermelon carpaccio and eggplant stuffed with bulgur wheat. That being said, I understand that sometimes I can order flash fried brussels sprouts with my skirt steak and other times I have to settle for asparagus. Just as the crops change with the seasons, so do my tastebuds, which is why I'm more likely to opt for a restaurant that serves vichychoisse in the summer instead of one that insists on serving gumbo even when its 110 degrees outside. And maybe if we as consumers are more willing to accept the fact that we can't always order what we want, then our ecosystem will become more sustainable and less reliant on foods with artificial preservatives.

Rene: Take for instance, Boucherie which is always cycling in new dishes, cuisines, and techniques into their repertoire. Go there this month and Indian may be the theme. However, one is always guaranteed to find a few select dishes - the boudin balls, the grit cake with blackened shrimp - never leave. They don't leave the menu because they are an anchor to the chef's vision. A constantly changing menu is a sign of a chef who is both continuing to learn and also unsure of his or her food personality. I don't mean to say a chef should ever stop learning and expanding, but rather I like them to know a hit when they taste it.

Peter: You have enunciated what is known as the Great Compromise, a/k/a the Three-Fifths Compromise. If a restaurant allocates 60% of its menu to the greatest hits and the other 40% to dishes comprised of seasonal ingredients or the chef's own innovations, then harmony is achieved both by giving the people what they have come to expect from the kitchen and by allowing the chef enough room both to stay creative and to take advantage of nature's cycle. Boucherie and Herbsaint are great examples, but Susan Spicer has it down to a science at Bayona. On the left side of the menu are the signature dishes - goat cheese crouton, garlic soup, sweetbreads with sherry mustard - and on the right side of the menu are the nightly specials that change with the chef's whim and whatever raw ingredients are available. A little something for everyone.


Matt said...

Great post. Great Friday Night Lights reference in the title.

Anonymous said...

Can you please let me know what the dish is in the photo..and where to get it? Thank you!