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Raison d’Etre

May 4, 2010

Can you taste passion?  Or to ask it another way, all things being equal, would you rather eat food that was cooked with love and care or food that was just churned out to close a ticket?

Restaurants are a business, yes.  Generally they are not very profitable businesses.  Still, their function is to be moneymaking operations.  But the best restaurants are created when a chef has a vision.  And around that vision the chef builds a restaurant that has a specific identity, a specific purpose.

One of my favorite restaurants in Napa was Bistro Jeanty (regrettably I have heard sad reports that it has gone significantly downhill in recent years).  But it opened when the executive chef decided he was through cooking high French and wanted to cook the food of his childhood.

Specificity is key to having an identity.  If a restaurant tries to be all things to all people, it is nothing.

Yesterday B wanted to know which place or places I thought had problematic menus.  Today I’ll focus on one.  You are probably tired of hearing about Marché, since I am tired of writing about them.  But it is a great example of this problem, and one that is on the top of my mind.  The new menu from the Hollywood Brown Derby also leaves me scratching my head, although let’s save that for another time.

Marché doesn’t have a menu.  The restaurant has three menus.  It has a small-plates menu, a bistro menu, and a fine dining menu.  And really each of them fails in its own way.

The small bites menu features sixteen different dishes and is called, “A fun approach to fresh dining.”  A shocking proportion of it seems to be fried: chicken wings, crabcakes, empañadas, crispy shrimp rolls, the ubiquitous calamari, artichoke hearts, grilled cheese, and risotto balls.  Even things that aren’t fried like the tuna tartare or the spinach-artichoke dip come with fried chips.  Certainly I agree that fried is fun, but I’m not so sure how fried works with the idea of fresh dining.

Plus, there is nothing that holds the small bites section together.  Some dishes combine elements of different cuisines like the duck confit quesadillas.  Others are tarted-up comfort food like the truffled grilled cheese.  Still others are moderately straightforward dishes, like the risotto balls stuffed with provolone with a pesto sauce.

Then there is the bistro fare menu that is broken down into soups, salads, sandwiches, and bistro entrées.  This menu has eighteen selections in all.  Now part of the problem here involves a pet peeve of mine, which is taking names that have meaning and applying them willy-nilly to serve one’s own purpose.  A bistro is a thing.  And that thing is French.

The bistro menu does include actual bistro items like steak frites and even leads off with French onion soup.  But it also includes an Asian tuna salad and two mysterious Italian pasta dishes, one of which butchers a Bolognese with chorizo and vodka tomato sauce.  Obviously chef Brian Molino does not share my belief about the sanctity of traditional dishes.

But the main menu is simply called fresh dining and is composed of appetizers, salads, entrées, and “74 State classics.”  The classics consist of three first courses, three entreés and three desserts, which can either be ordered a la carte or combined into a $40 three-course fixed price meal.   It’s a complicated scheme, and depending on your choices may only save you $1.  Seriously.

All in all there are nineteen items on the fresh dining menu.

When I think “fresh” I think seasonal.  And this menu starts off on the right foot with the Risotto du Jour made daily with fresh, seasonal ingredients.  Although I would think it should be “risotto del giorno,” but this clearly isn’t an Italian restaurant.  Which makes me wonder why anyone would think it would be a good idea to order the risotto.  (B will probably make me talk about this one further too, but I’m getting off topic.)

Getting back to the idea of seasonal food.  It seems as if every season has been worked into this menu, which is no small feat.  Spring has the asparagus salad, and other menu ingredients like mushrooms and ramps.  Shrimp cocktail is a quintessential summer dish, being high season for the crustaceans as well as tomatoes.  Fall marks the return of oysters, pears, and butternut squash – the free range chicken with flageolet bean ragout, roasted hen of the wood mushrooms, tarragon jus really speaks to the season.  Winter calls for warming stews like bouillabaisse, hearty vegetables like cauliflower, and seasonal treats like roasted chestnuts.

Marché has them all.  And as far as I can tell, they have them all year round.

When all three menus are taken in total, on any given night the kitchen should be able to prepare 53 different dishes.  And let’s recall that when I was there for a midweek dinner a few months ago, the place was almost empty.

How on earth can it be fresh?  It’s certainly not seasonal, at least not in the parlance of our times.  Given these conditions, it is no wonder the prices seem out of line with restaurants of similar caliber across the country.

My new question is, “Why would anyone write a menu like this when it seems so out of line with their raison d’être?”  I contend that if they took some lessons from Restaurant Week, this restaurant could be truly special.  Right now, it’s not.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 4, 2010 9:03 am

    I can’t get the horror of “Bolognese” with chorizo and vodka sauce out of my head!

  2. AddiesDad permalink
    May 4, 2010 11:46 am

    A wide menu ensures that someone won’t be offended by limited food choices. Chefs of bigger restaurants like Marche fell they have to appeal to a broad base. It also ensures that many items are “good enough”, can be prepared by the line cooks, and be made with whatever is available through Sysco.

    Also, smaller menus with seasonal ingredients take a lot more time, effort, and creativity, something that only the most passionate of the region’s chefs are willing to do. Could you imagine Marche of Jack’s offering a white asparagus menu like nearly every restaurant in Germany does?

    My comment on the previous post dovetails with this almost perfectly. We are a region of Applebee’s, Panaeras, and Chipotle’s. Safe, consistent, and bland food. (And I love Chipotle’s, but it still fits).

  3. May 4, 2010 1:18 pm

    Good read, Daniel. Great breakdown.

    You’re totally right that this is overboard, especially if all three menus are available all the time (as I’m sure you know a lot of places in the area have different menus for different service).

    It sounds like the “74 classics” is a great idea but it begs the question, why not open up the entire fresh dining menu to the prix fixe option.

    I’d love to hear your breakdowns on other area menus. I doubt any chef/owner wouldn’t want to hear a (thoughtful) point-by-point critique. And no, I can’t make you talk about anything you don’t want to talk about… I’d probably need henchmen and giant lasers for that or something.

  4. May 4, 2010 4:33 pm

    No question I would rather eat food that was cooked with care and sourced as fresh and/or as local as possible. I am a fan of small menus. The ideal small menu for me would be similar in size to the menu at Beekman Street Bistro (and please don’t quibble about them calling themselves a bistro when they are not a French restaurant, I fear that may be more fussiness than I can take) I believe at Beekman Street there are 3 or 4 categories with 5 or so items each.

    Even restaurants that I like suffer from monstrously large menus. I think NWBB could be cut in half at least and Max London’s could use a little paring down as well. Those are restaurants that I enjoy but I think they get caught up in trying to appeal to too broad a taste. As far as I am concerned, when it comes to food businesses, a narrow focus is a good thing.

    Though I wholeheartedly disagree with you on fusion items. I have no problem with stuff like that as long as it’s done well and ultimately tastes good. There is no such thing as a pure cuisine. All cuisines borrow from others. Witness the ubiquity of noodle dishes or dumplings across the world.

  5. May 4, 2010 5:21 pm

    I have to (gasp) agree with you. I am much more impressed with a small menu, be it for food or wine. To me, a small menu says “We only have the best that is currently available,” rather than “We bought everything and you, the guest, must determine which items are outstanding.” Maybe I’m just not good at making a decision, but I seriously get overwhelmed by too many choices and underwhelmed by a chef/restaurant’s inability to focus on what is best. Were you at least impressed by Cafe Capriccio’s restrained menu?

  6. beck permalink
    May 4, 2010 6:03 pm

    I liked this post and it addressed some of the things I find myself thinking about when dining out.

    I recently tried D’Raymond’s for the first time. Italian food is not one I often seek out as it’s easy enough to make at home, for me, and it’s not my favorite, but D’Raymond’s has a good word-of-mouth reputation, so, despite the fact that the superfluous apostrophe in the name drives me batty, we gave it a shot. Aside from diners (which I generally love, for what they are), this restaurant has the biggest, most unwieldy menu I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know what to do. I was truly overwhelmed and found myself wishing for many fewer options. After all was said and done, the food was just average, and overly heavy, so big or small menu, we will probably not be returning.

    I am a fan of NWBB, but agree with jenh that its menu is perhaps a bit too large, too. Where I will disagree with Daniel is that fusion is always bad. And while I can appreciate the desire to maintain language at its purest form – as in the word bistro, for example – I guess I’m not quite so fussy as to let that bother me.

    I hope some restaurateurs are reading these words and giving it some thought. I can understand the fear alienating customers, but by trying to cater to every potential customer, restaurants, as you’ve laid out in this post, Daniel, run the risk of completely muddying any clear goal they may have started with.

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