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In Defense of Fussy Little Portions

March 18, 2010

On Tuesday I tackled the first of two recent comments that presented interesting counterarguments to issues I find very important.  I was very pleased that a few of you filled in some of the gaps, listing additional restaurants that do a good job of bringing the farm to the table in upstate New York, despite the short growing season.

Today I want to share the second comment, which has more to do with restaurant portions.  It was written in response to the post Living on Leftovers, where I clarified the difference between home-cooked leftovers and what one would take home in a doggy bag after eating out at a nice restaurant.

Once again let me say how much I enjoy getting comments like these.  They are thoughtful and articulate, and allow a chance to clarify my original argument so that it can address some specific concerns.

Here is what maltnsmoke wrote nine days ago:

“Ideally restaurant meals should be reasonably sized portions that do not result in leftovers. ”

Unfortunately, we cannot all be satisfied by identically sized portions. Perhaps biased by the fact that my appetite tends to be left unsated by fussy little portions, I’d prefer that a restaurant err on the side of more rather than less.

An establishment’s total cost of serving a given dish is probably not greatly affected by providing a slightly larger portion. Serving a much smaller portion at a slightly lower price point would not necessarily increase most patrons’ perception of value.

Of course a restaurateur must strike the correct balance. But giving a little more probably pleases more diners than it offends.

­Yes, it is true.  Some people have greater appetites than others.  I am not here to judge.  Especially since recently I went out for a Juicy Burger (and frings) that I chased down with a slice of Marisa’s pizza for dessert.  What I’m trying to say is that I’m not especially dainty. But just because one can pack away a lot of food, or eat an entire pizza, doesn’t mean one should.

Here’s the thing.  We go out to restaurants to eat.  But fine dining should be about more than just filling your pie hole.  It should be about providing the diner with a greater sensory experience, on multiple levels.  And really my biggest complaint about the area (as regular readers of the FLB can attest) is that many restaurants here charge fine dining prices for food that decidedly isn’t.

There are a few morsels I have had that have etched themselves in my sensory memory.

One such example was Roland Passot’s diminutive beef carpaccio that was rolled around mascarpone cheese, micro greens and a sprinkling of crunchy fleur de sel.  The contrast of textures and flavors were in complete balance: Meltingly tender beef was complemented by the sweet and creamy cheese and both were held in check by the bright, spicy, tender greens and the surprisingly satisfying crunch of the salt crystals.  It was a very simple, delicate dish.  But it was very evident that it was crafted by a master’s hand.

I could go on, but the point isn’t writing lascivious descriptions of things I have eaten.  The point is that some people feel like it’s a scam when a restaurant to charges $25 for what seems like a small plate of food.  And frankly I feel that way a lot too.

But there can be true value on that plate, especially if it provides you with sensory pleasures the likes of which you have never experienced before.  Also I should note that there are likely a lot more calories in the food than you ever dreamed could be possible.

The ugly fact about fine dining is that most of the food, regardless of its quantity, is packed with fat and calories.  This is one big reason why it tastes so good.  Ask any chef, and they will tell you the secret to restaurant food is butter and salt.

Still you may look at a plate of food in a fine dining restaurant and be disappointed with the physical size of the portion.  When diners are used to oversized plates, reasonable servings look especially small.  But the prevailing wisdom is that a reasonable portion of meat should be no larger than a deck of cards.

Yes, it is unacceptable for a fine dining restaurant to send its patrons home hungry.  However I also think part of the responsibility falls on the diner with a particularly large appetite to order appropriately.

The hungry diner can satisfy their appetite by choosing heartier dishes from the menu.

For example, instead of ordering the salad with baked goat cheese, you could order the tomato bisque topped with puff pastry.  Don’t forget to sample the breads that are offered, and enjoy them fully with a generous spread of butter.  Instead of the grilled scallops and fennel in a saffron broth, you could get the blue-cheese-crusted hangar steak with mashed fingerling potatoes.  If modest-sized portions of those dishes haven’t left you feeling satisfied, there is always dessert.  And if you are concerned that a rich, sweet and decadent dessert alone will not fill your needs, may I suggest a cheese course to precede it.

Even if the portions of these dishes seemed small, I would have a difficult time imagining that anyone could walk away from this meal feeling hungry.

But I reject the notion that the restaurant should serve an extra-large portion to all customers as a matter of course.  Restaurants need to manage their food costs.  The way I see it, portion size and ingredient quality are always going to be inversely proportional.  One of the reasons the portions are smaller at finer restaurants is because of the high cost of their ingredients in addition to the complexity of their preparation.

You will not walk out of a truly fine restaurant needing to unbutton your pants and let the belt out a notch.  But if you take your time to truly enjoy and experience the food, and order wisely, you shouldn’t walk out hungry.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. StanfordSteph permalink
    March 18, 2010 11:59 am

    I am in total agreement with you. Large restaurant portion sizes have distorted our American view on what a proper amount of food should be. I always cringe when someone equates quantity with “good.”

  2. maltnsmoke permalink
    March 18, 2010 1:00 pm

    Count me among those who are frequently tempted to compose a meal from the appetizer section of a menu. It often appears that chefs feel that they have greater license to experiment within that category, resulting in far more compelling options, from my perspective. I would never expect my pie hole to be filled by a single appetizer or amuse bouche. I suspect that the delightful sounding “diminutive beef carpaccio” would qualify as one of those.

    It was my impression that the March 9, 2010 post primarily referred to main course portions, including the entrée and accompaniments. Rather than making the more recently noted distinction between the portions one might reasonably expect to receive when ordering an obviously heartier dish versus lighter fare, the original post appeared to have been a blanket indictment of any restaurant that elected to serve a portion that the writer would not be comfortable consuming on any given occasion.

    Indeed, successful restaurants tend to heed the admonition that they need to control their food costs. However, I suspect that their portion size balancing acts are largely informed by the daily input that they receive from a wide range of patrons. My umbrage was raised by the apparent underlying attitude that what is right sized for the writer on day x should be right sized for all on days x, y and z. What was left unsaid in my argument was the “all things being equal” premise. I would not advocate for ultimate size at the expense of quality.

    Despite having enjoyed my share of satisfying meals, I take pride in never having left a fine dining establishment in anything approximating the state of undress described above. Frankly, painting those who appreciate a larger portion in this manner suggests that the writer is in fact here to judge.

    None of this diminishes my heartfelt appreciation for the FLB’s apparent mission of elevating our local dining standards, whether at home or out and about. Thank you.

  3. Sarah M. permalink
    March 18, 2010 6:20 pm

    I understand (and largely agree) with the points you’re making here, but I think your argument responds to the original comment in an imprudent way. Your criticism of large restaurant portions isn’t limited to fine dining– I think it was most famously illustrated by your trip to the Cheesecake Factory. But this entire post stays in the world of fine dining, and refers to another post on the same topic (“value”). If, as you point out here, ingredient quality is inversely proportional to portion size, why criticize portion size? Why not just use it as an indicator of the type of experience one can expect to have?

    I’m not sure that encouraging smaller portioning always results in an increase of the “value” of the plate– an (unfair) example would be the half-plates and lunch portions at chain restaurants, where you get a half or quarter of the standard meal for roughly 70% of the price. Similarly, a family-style restaurant where portion size is a selling point probably wouldn’t trade off the amount of food for an increase in quality– it’s just as much, if not more so, an issue of culture and preference. It’s universally understood that fine dining often means smaller portions, if not always understood that it’s due to increased cost of the food. Fine dining also commands fine dining prices– often when I eat in a higher-end restaurant, I’m happy with the lagniappe bread and my entree, because I can’t afford a starter, a cheese plate and a dessert on top. If I can spend $15 total on my meal, you bet that I’m springing for the giant mixing bowl of chicken tikka masala instead of an artfully composed carpaccio.

    LONGEST COMMENT EVER

  4. mirdreams permalink
    March 19, 2010 11:36 am

    I agree with Sarah about taking portions in context. When I go to Pizzeria Uno for dinner I want to have lunch for the next day or days. I know it won’t be as good as it was fresh from the oven but it’ll still taste good and be quick and easy, which some days is all I want. When I go for a fine dining experience I want to be able to savor each course and I can’t do that if I’m already full. I recently got the opportunity to do an amazing tasting menu at Europea in Montreal (http://www.europea.ca/pages_en/menusoir_degustation.html). Each course, and with the extra little surprises that the chef kept sending out it was well over 13, was a tiny morsel of delight. But by the time we were having our third desert treat and they brought over another wrapped surprise on a tray we were both relieved it was only a warm towel to clean our hands with. No portion was more than three or four mouthfuls but we were completely stuffed. And they still sent us home with cake as a final surprise :).

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