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Value in Moderation

September 16, 2009

Last week I had another little rant about one of the things I hate about restaurants, portion sizes and their resulting leftovers.

Really I was surprised that I did not get more people commenting in defense of the doggy bag.  Especially since so many Yelp reviews (locally and beyond) look favorably on going home with an additional meal from their evening’s entrée.

Mrs. Fussy reminds me that when people walk out with leftovers, they feel like they received good value for their money.  But I beg you, and I am not often inclined to beg, please do not conflate quantity with value.

There is plenty of value to be had in a restaurant meal with modest portion sizes.  Or at least, there is the potential of value, should the restaurateurs choose to provide it.

#1 Restaurant Quality Ingredients – Some restaurants have deep relationships with suppliers/farmers/ranchers and can give their guests food that cannot be acquired by the home cook at any price.  Chez Panisse in Berkeley immediately comes to mind, where farmers will bring the best of their best produce to the altar of California cuisine.

#2 Time Intensive Preparations – While the partner of one of our intrepid local food journalists made a three day braised pork dish, most people do not have the time or the knowledge to safely make such time intensive preparations at home.  This is what good restaurants excel at doing.  Whether it’s the 12-hour barbecue brisket, the three-day braised and glazed Berkshire pork shoulder, or multi-week dry-aged beef, a restaurant creates value when they put in the labor.

#3 Specialized Restaurant Equipment – Things like 1800°F broilers that can sear and char steaks, wood-fired ovens for roasting meats, and professional deep fat fryers produce food that is out of reach to the home cook.  One of the best things I ever put in my mouth was the freaking garnish on a steak dish at Masa’s in San Francisco.  Deep-fried bone marrow.  Not a deep-fried marrow bone, mind you.  Achieving such a feat with a crisp, greaseless crust and a warm but not melted interior is mind-blowing deep-frying execution.

And those are the first broad strokes on the food side of how to achieve value without adding more food to the plate.  I suppose one could argue that adding more food to the plate creates the illusion of value – it is obvious and visceral.  But I maintain that providing customers with things they cannot get elsewhere is where true value is found.

There is also the part about the restaurant’s atmosphere: table linens, silverware, dishes, glassware, menu design, lighting, flooring, art, music, chairs, etc.  Plus the part about the well-trained service: serving from the left and clearing from the right, taking away and replacing utensils as needed, never letting a glass go empty, always being there when needed but never hovering, etc.

Instead we get quantity.  Tonight my entrée at Marché was a roasted duck breast, braised duck leg and thigh meat with wild mushrooms, and a walnut crêpe rolled into a small burrito shape and stuffed full of sautéed spinach.  Honestly, it almost sounds like three different entrees on one plate.

I would love to have ordered an appetizer and desert as well, but as I mentioned last week, I do not like to waste food and do not think fondly of restaurant leftovers.  And as it turned out many in my party didn’t finish their entrees.  While I did finish mine, it was indeed a ton of food.  Even without an appetizer, I had no room for dessert unless I wanted to leave the restaurant feeling overstuffed.

So maybe that is another element of this puzzle: the gradations of satiety and what we find desirable.  Sounds interesting to me.  But we will save that for next week.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. brownie permalink
    September 16, 2009 11:37 am

    This is why I advocate my EatHalf™ charity solution: pay the same price, but half your meal is scuttled to a doggie bag and shipped to a starving child in Ghana. Only available at restaurants serving steak larger than 10 oz., or two or more starch-based sides on one dish.

    Think of the children, fatties.

  2. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    September 16, 2009 12:52 pm

    You are spot on, Mr. Fussy.

  3. September 16, 2009 2:49 pm

    i could go either way. lots of smaller places like Casablanca in Albany give alot for a little so a doggy bag is great.

    in europe, you eat what they give you and nuts to you if you don’t finish. though there are few and far between european eateries that pile on the food like they do here in the states

  4. September 16, 2009 9:22 pm

    yeah, i’m kind of 50-50 on it. if it’s good, bonus, i get more to eat later. but likewise if it’s too much of a bad thing, i’d rather they just shrank it into good food instead.

    i don’t eat out a crazy amount, so it’s usually a little treat if i take something home. then again, i’m also a fan of take out, so… uh, yea.

  5. Kate C. permalink
    September 17, 2009 10:45 am

    I think, Mr. Fussy, that you are creating a false dichotomy: quality vs. quantity. Readers, do we want to eat crappy restaurant food? No? OK, that’s settled.

    Now to the question of portions and leftovers in good restaurants. Restaurants have to decide on portion size; just right would be perfect, but since each diner’s appetite is different, I’d rather they erred on the side of slightly too much rather than slightly too little. It makes me anxious, to pay a lot of money for a tiny portion of even meticulously sourced fish with three organic beans from the restaurant’s own garden on the side. It makes me feel like someone else is putting me on a diet, and I’m paying for it, and where’s the bread basket. Even if it’s perfect, I want enough to fill me up (and it doesn’t have to be the pricey protein part).

    So, ok, what do you do if the portion’s slightly too big? Would you really consign a third of your lovingly curated three-day braised pork to the trash can if you were full? Or should you stuff yourself, and waste it inside your body instead? You should take it home of course! And you should let the fact that you CAN take it home allow you to stop eating when you are full–or even before you are full, so you can order that dessert you wanted.

    The braised pork would probably even improve the next day . . .

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