F&W’s Salma Abdelnour tells why she’d rather let the chef choose her meal than deal with à la carte angst.
Something strange happened a couple of months ago at the restaurant Susur in Toronto. I met an old friend there for dinner, someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. As we sat down, I told her about a disturbing dream I’d had the night before after eating way too many heavy meals in a row—an occupational, and no doubt spiritual, hazard. She told me about her fascinating research in the psychiatric field of psychosomatics, which led into some funny stories about how her kitchen appliances keep self-destructing. But the weird thing about the evening wasn’t my insufferably bourgeois existential anxiety or my friend’s bad refrigerator karma. The strange thing was that we got through our meandering conversation without ever having to stop awkwardly, stare at the menu and puzzle over what to eat—and without a waiter looming over us (once, twice, three times) to ask if we were ready to order.
Why? Because at Susur, there is no menu. To put it more accurately, Susur doesn’t give you menu options to choose from—just a list of the dishes you’re going to eat that night. You come in, you sit down, you are fed. The only thing you have to do is tell the waiter if there’s an ingredient you won’t eat; the rest is in chef Susur Lee’s extremely capable hands. On the night I was there, the seven-course dinner was a series of spectacular dishes: prosciutto-wrapped bison with blue cheese and Marsala sabayon; garlic-roasted Cornish hen with partridge salad; mushrooms in poppy-flower vinegar. Since Lee comes up with different inventions every day, his inspiration stays fresh. And since he’s a brilliant cook, there’s little chance of disappointment. I can’t think of a more pleasant way to eat.
I hate menus, and I wish more restaurants would just toss them out altogether. I don’t necessarily hate them because they can be pretentious, or derivative, or inscrutable or dull (although I often hate them for those reasons, too). I would just rather not bother with menus at all. When I’m in a restaurant, I don’t want to agonize over decisions, I don’t want to deal with pressure and I don’t want to second-guess my choices. I do enough of all that in my daily life. All I want to do is kick back, have free-flowing conversation and eat delicious food.
To some people, the absence of choice would be frustrating and disempowering. As contemporary restaurant-goers, we’re programmed to think of going out to eat as more like a shopping trip than like a dinner party or a performance: a series of active choices rather than a relaxed, somewhat passive experience full of surprises. I find the restaurant as dinner party or performance a much more appealing paradigm. Once I decide to go out for dinner, having no more decisions to make is the ultimate luxury.
Just as many diners bristle at the thought of giving up control, most chefs seem unwilling to seize it. Another Toronto chef, Claudio Aprile, told me he was toying with the idea of going menuless before he opened the molecular-gastronomy-inspired Colborne Lane in February, but he decided against the plan: "Chefs dictate what you eat; sommeliers dictate what you drink. I don’t want to do that."
In a January 24 piece in the New York Times Dining Out section, critic Frank Bruni argued that restaurants today have too much power, dealing high-handedly with customers in everything from wine pairings to menu-substitution policies. Bruni asked, "Are a diner’s whims being trumped by a chef’s wisdom?" I, too, hate being bossed around by pushy reservationists, waiters or sommeliers, but I’m convinced that’s just a sign of bad staffing. If the chef is a fantastic cook, I’m happy to have my whims trumped.
In Japan, the pleasures of menuless eating have been expressed for centuries in the styles known as kaiseki (a Kyoto-born tradition of carefully sequenced dishes) and omakase (a set meal, loosely translated as "chef’s choice"). Many restaurants outside Japan specialize in those styles, but most offer an à la carte menu, too. That defeats the purpose, since—like the tasting menus handed out in so many restaurants these days—it only creates more documents to read and decisions to grapple with. Happily, a few new Japanese restaurants in Manhattan do things the old-fashioned way—with no à la carte. At Sasabune, for instance, the daily omakase from chef-owner Kenji Takahashi is a parade of ultrafresh sashimi and sushi, like perfect toro with impeccably vinegared rice, and various crudo-style fish lightly brushed with dressings like a tart yuzu sauce. On a recent night at Rosanjin, the kaiseki meal included thrills like a creamy custard of dried mackerel topped with minced yam, egg yolk and shimeji mushrooms.
A few restaurants elsewhere are staking out a middle ground. At Paris’s Les Saveurs de Flora, Flora Mikula, who trained under Michelin-starred chef Alain Passard, offers a "Menu Gastronomique Surprise" in addition to à la carte choices. Other restaurants will gladly create a spontaneous dinner for any guest who asks. Johnny Monis, an F&W Best New Chef this year and owner of Washington, DC’s Komi, says customers who ask him to cook for them are his favorite kind: "That’s a huge compliment."
The earliest restaurants, which started popping up around France in the 18th century, were on the right track. Guests sat at a table d’hôte (host’s table) and ate communally. Individual tables and à la carte menus didn’t come until later. I prefer separate tables to communal ones, but I can’t help thinking that restaurateurs threw out the baby with the bathwater when they gave up not just communal tables but menuless meals, too.
We might have Sigmund Freud to blame for the demise of the table d’hôte. According to the noted French psychoanalytic scholar Didier Anzieu, Freud was dissatisfied with his own 1901 book On Dreams "because it seemed to him like the kind of cheap, ordinary meal you eat with strangers at a table d’hôte, unlike The Interpretation of Dreams, which might be compared to a carefully chosen menu, served à la carte and at separate tables." My guess is that Freud was just going to the wrong restaurants.
Admittedly, there is a huge catch to the menuless idea. Even more so than at regular restaurants, the food at menuless places has to be delicious—delicious enough to prevent diners from wishing they could eat something else. As a friend whispered to me at the start of what turned out to be an outstanding meal at Paris’s menuless, year-old Le Comptoir, "If they’re giving you surprises, they’d better be nice surprises." I couldn’t agree more. But that comes down to the chef being skilled enough to make guests happy in the first place, and guests losing their control-freak tendencies.
If chefs think menuless dinners are too risky to do nightly, how about offering them just part of the week? For her always-packed Sunday Suppers at Lucques in Los Angeles, chef-owner Suzanne Goin (an F&W Best New Chef 1999) offers a three-course set menu—with only a choice of two entrées—and posts it ahead of time online.
Going menuless (or nearly menuless) has added benefits: When chefs can better predict how much of each ingredient they’re going to need, they save money and can offer more value. Lucques’s three-course Sunday meal is just $40; at Le Comptoir, dinner is around $60—a bargain for Paris, especially since the chef is cult star Yves Camdeborde.
Inevitably, there will be diners with dietary restrictions, but chefs should be willing to accommodate those, within reason. "I’d never tell people, ’We have à la carte,’ " Susur Lee says. "But if someone asks for just one of the dishes, or wants me to cook something else, I’ll do that." He says he gets such requests only three or four times a month.
I certainly don’t think every restaurant should be menuless, but I hope more chefs will take the leap—and I hope more diners will be willing to let them. In these days of chef worship, the biggest talents hardly need more excuses to throw around their egos. But if chefs can revolutionize the restaurant experience—enticing people to let the chef cook for them like he or she would cook for a friend—then I say, more power to them.