When did the tables turn in fine dining? And how can you get a decent meal at a decent time with a decent number of courses without ingesting “fish milk”?
A few months ago, I organised with some friends to go to a successful Sydney restaurant. Like most of its ilk, it required a booking at either 6.30pm or 8.30pm — we chose the early time. As he sat down, one of my friends calmly signalled the waitress: “I’ll have a Negroni, thanks, and that 8.30 deadline? We won’t be leaving.”
I sat, stunned, waiting for the roof to fall in. This could get us thrown out — was he crazy? The waitress smiled sweetly — “That’s not a problem, sir” — and went off to get drinks. We had a lovely, leisurely meal during which I felt like Rosa Parks. We had taken on an unjust system and won.
I’m not sure when the balance of power in a Sydney restaurant swung from the paying customer to the chef, but it feels like it’s been that way forever. Once upon a time you booked a convenient time to eat, ordered from a menu, then paid your bill at the end. In Sydney, in what I can only assume are end times for fine dining, that seems as quaint as a game of croquet.
I recently searched the websites of several upmarket Sydney restaurants to book for a special occasion. For one of them, you emailed through a request and they told you when they could seat you. Almost all of them had degustation menus, which I think is a bit like eating at your mother’s — “eat what you are given and no complaining”. And one of them required a deposit of half the cost of the meal upon booking. I’m not sure what the consumer watchdog would say about being charged for a meal before you’ve eaten it, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.
I blame Ferran Adria and Noma’s Rene Redzepi, who took the French concept of degustation — a series of set, small courses — and injected it with steroids. Restaurants love set menus because it keeps food costs down, not that you’d know that from the bill — at the top end, food with matching wines is nudging $400 a head. Some Sydney eateries now serve up nine or 10 courses, which is an impossible amount of food — after the fourth course, it’s simply culinary torture. One of them suggests allowing two hours for 11 courses, which is one plate of food every 11 minutes; if you can eat that without feeling ill, your digestion is better than mine. The end result of this is the final scene of La Grande Bouffe, where the patrons literally explode.
And what if you don’t like something? Searching the online menus, I found tripe (disgusting), “chlorophyllic broccoli puree”, “goat tartare” (I’m assuming it’s raw) and, god help us, “fish milk”.
The final straw is that waitstaff have copied Noma and insist on describing each course at great length. This becomes really intrusive — if I’d wanted to spend all night interacting with the waiter, we’d be out on a date. And by the way, we can all read.
Restaurants, of course, are a low-margin business, and chefs are entitled to do all they can to stay afloat. And complaining about fine-dining eateries is obviously a first-world problem. But our tiny victory over the departure time has encouraged me to think that if you fight back, you can actually beat the system — Sydneysiders, stand your ground!
As usual, the French have got it right. In an interview with the Financial Times, famous Parisian chef Alain Passard was asked if the customer was always right.
“Yes, always. I am there to serve others’ commands, and I always do what I am asked to do. I put aside my own concerns when faced with a client who orders a dish cooked a certain way or asks for a certain seasoning.”