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Consistently Amazing

November 9, 2012

First the old business.

#1 Lest you forgot the latest Fussy Little Giveaway ended last night. Out of 24 eligible votes, selected #6 which maps to Reba. Congratulations to you. I’ll be in touch about getting you your brand new, sealed pack of City Dining Cards. Use them in good health.

#2 You people are amazing. Thank you for all your support with the Bellini’s Restaurant recipe contest. As of last night my Tuscan braised pork with white beans and shaved red cabbage was in the number four slot, which is good enough to earn a place in the finals. But we are still in the home stretch and I don’t want to get complacent. The semi-finals end today at 1pm. If you haven’t “liked” the dish yet, please do so now.

Now on to the new business.

Actually, the new business is also kind of old business too. Because there was a question asked this week that really deserves its own dedicated response. I hope that Burnt My Fingers is sitting down, because his knees might buckle at perverse notions that I’m about to unload about restaurant dining.

But it’s his own fault. Earlier this week he wrote on the notion of consistency:

The average restaurant-goer doesn’t necessarily want to be surprised each time they order a familiar dish, even if it’s at a fine dining restaurant. They like that dish and may have gone to that restaurant specifically to enjoy it. They are spending a lot of money, and are investing a fair amount of time in the experience. To think that the chef can instead pull rabbits out of a hat and they’ll consistently be delighted is just unrealistic and not a recipe for commercial success. What do you have to say to that?

First, for those of you who are unfamiliar where I stand on the idea of restaurants and consistency, I have a little homework assignment for you to read.

Let’s back up for a moment. Food is an agricultural product. Just like there are no two identical snowflakes, there are no two identical apples. Let’s stick with fruit for a second, but move onto peaches. Burnt My Fingers knows a thing or two about peaches.

The reason we have peaches throughout the summer is because there are tons of different cultivars that ripen different weeks. Some are sweeter, others have better flavor, still others have brighter acidity. Some may be better for baking into pies, others might be ideal for macerating in wine, while others still are best cooked down into a compote.

At what I consider to be the best restaurants the chefs are given a new palate of flavors every week. And the best chefs take full advantage of that. Even if they don’t buy into the local, seasonal, organic ethos, a supplier may come in with a fantastic side of lamb, or an especially good looking catch of fish.

Now you might argue that this is the role of menu specials. To take advantage of these opportunities.

But you know what? If I’m going out to a really nice restaurant, I want the entire menu to be special. Seriously. Ideally, I want it to be written every day. But I’m also comfortable allowing for a little more planning, which can take the same philosophy and translate it into a weekly menu.

What this means is little to no consistency in the actual dishes that are on the menu week to week.

Last time you were in, you may have fallen head over heels for the buffalo mozzarella appetizer. But this week, the buffalo have moved from grass to hay, and the milk just isn’t as good, so it’s off the menu. Tough noogies. Guess what, there’s another cheese dish that’s on the menu that’s even better.

Although, even in a menu like this there is room for one or two signature dishes. You know, for the people who want to know what it is they’ll be getting before walking in the door of the restaurant.

It kind of reminds me about going to a Rolling Stones concert. I really don’t want to hear their greatest hits live. But I understand that some people pay a lot of money for a ticket and want to hear all their pretty songs that play on the radio. It’s kind of soulless. And it’s not for me. I mean, they can fake emotion on stage when singing Sympathy for the Devil for the bazillionth time, but it’s not the real deal.

The real deal comes in the moment. It’s not the same day in and day out. There is still technical mastery, without a doubt. But it’s open to variation. Even experimentation. Some things will not soar to the highest heights. Sure, by sticking to the tried and true, and constantly banging out the same old stuff over and over again, your food may be technically perfect and delicious.

But it’s missing that all important spark of life.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary E McDonald permalink
    November 9, 2012 11:01 am

    I think you are mixing apples and oranges :-) Consistency can mean two different things. If you your restaurant is a true farm to table, seasonal restaurant, then yes, the menu should change regularly. There is a restaurant at the golf course in Lake George called the Farmhouse at the Top of the World who does this quite well. If you are not this type of restaurant, then you must be consistent with your meals or you will lose business. Not all restaurants can close in the winter and only serve local seasonal items during the rest of the time (in this part of the world). You can still be consistent and serve up seasonal sides like winter squash, apple pie, etc. A restaurant needs a style and needs to stick with it. If one day you are a steakhouse and the next day you are serving fish and vegetarian pasta dishes you are not going to stay in business.

    • Mr. Sunshine permalink
      November 9, 2012 11:56 am

      I’m with BMF and Mary McDonald on this one, Daniel.

  2. November 9, 2012 12:19 pm

    I suppose this idea is similar to what River Street Cafe does in Troy. I’ve only eaten there a couple of times, but both times he had the same menu but made adjustments to each dish depending on what ingredients he had. Sort of a variation on a theme. Maybe that’s not as extreme an example of what BMF means… a little change can be good if you’re confident in your talents (which the chef at River Street certainly is, or he would be out of business) but if I go to a restaurant with say, a mexican flare, and suddenly they’re serving italian, I’m going to be a little weirded out. That’s not interesting or unique – it’s bizarre and shows a lack of direction.

    Although to be fair, the only consistency I’m really interested in is whether or not a restaurant is consistently good, in terms of quality of food and service.

  3. November 9, 2012 1:23 pm

    Continuing with your spirits analogy, -you could use a similar example with wine. A “blended” Beaujolais village wine from a negociant like Drouhin or Duboeuf will be “consistent”. Certainly not as great as a single cru wine from a great vineyard, or even cru village like Fleurie, or Morgan, or Moulin a Vent, but you do know exactly what you are going to get – bottle to bottle, cases to case, and most times even vintage after vintage. With a single source wine, it can be extraordinary, but it can also be crap. You take your chances. If the dinner crowd is adventurous, and appreciates the potential (and the risk) we’ll break out the good stuff. For Thanksgiving with 20 people, I need to know exactly what is in the bottle. (and also half of them won’t know the difference anyway) A Beaujolais Village or Bourgogne Rouge will be the choice. Choosing a restaurant is no different. I like to know what to expect. Save the adventures for the specials. I agree with Mary too (but I have to or she’ll beat me) To everything, there is a season.

    • November 9, 2012 10:05 pm

      About 10 years ago, my husband and his family were on business in New Orleans. C, foodie he is, investigated restaurants. His sister complained. She finally rebelled and went to TGIFridays one night, stating, “At least you know what you’re getting.” I put DeBouef on the same level as Fridays. (As in, something I won’t choose willingly.)

      I can understand the comfort people take in this, but for me, I’d rather be adventurous, any day of the week. Including Thanksgiving.

      • November 11, 2012 11:43 am

        Never been to TGI Friday’s, but I get your point – and agree. (And if you and other adventurous palates were the only guests at my dinner table, I would keep the Village DeBoeuf in the cellar)

  4. November 9, 2012 3:09 pm

    Seasonal menus are fine (though yes, there should always be a few staples, a few specialties of the house that stay there for the creatures of habit). The key is to be consistent about the quality of the food — if I order a spring-vegetable pizza, then go back six months later and order a pumpkin-ricotta pizza, they may be different, but I expect them to both be good pizzas, made to a consistent standard.

    • November 9, 2012 10:03 pm

      This is what I think of when I think of consistent. Well-stated.

  5. November 9, 2012 4:29 pm

    We’ve been going to New World Bistro Bar for a while now, not so much in the Summer but about once a week otherwise. We like the concept of small plates rather than some large entree. They have been pretty consistent but the “new” Fall menu is pretty much the standard menu with a tweek here and there. Yeah, they have a few nightly specials but the spark is dying. Staff seem new too, maybe there was a bit of a shake up, we’ll see haow it plays out.

  6. November 9, 2012 6:54 pm

    Yay! So excited about the city dining cards. My husband complains we only ever eat out if we have a coupon. Now we’ll have to get out there more with all these great options. Talk about a good deal though, if you already shop at Honest Weight it half way pays for the deck since you can redeem one there. Thanks Professor, and your city dining cards sponsor, we look forward to trying out some new places!.

  7. November 9, 2012 9:05 pm

    Yes, I am sitting down as I read this. And I’m going to beat you about the head with the Rolling Stones analogy to prove my point. The Stones have not penned a new song in what, 30 years? Fans go to see them perform “Satisfaction” and “Time Is On My Side” but they will wink at each other when they hear the covers of the blues songs from the South on the early albums, thinking nobody knows but them. And everyone will be thankful that nobody has a heart attack (as yet, anyway) onstage.

    Similarly, the vast majority of diners visit a restaurant looking for both major chords and what they consider creative riffs that actually been strummed by the chef many times before but are obscure only in a relative sense. The fan who orders hanger steak may revel in his or her secret knowledge but that dish, while served only 5% as often as New York Strip, still might see 100 orders in a month.

    Chefs don’t have time to continually experiment when they are in a production line scenario. They can improvise, and be inspired, by the fresh ingredients of the day. But this concept of the madly creative chef is out of the Disney movie Ratatouille, not real life. And in fact, the greatest “consistency” may be in figuring out how to take variable ingredients and create a consistent result day in and day out.

    Of course there are exceptions. There have some inspired dinners over the past few years in the Cap District in which people willingly subjected themselves to whatever the chef wanted to put before them. I’ve been to some of these, missed others. But they are a chef’s hobby and a way to gain visibility, not a money maker. Creative consistency rules.

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