Sunday, October 07, 2007

Customer designed meals (T'afia, Artista)

There is a broad spectrum for the degree of choice that chefs can give customers..

One end of the spectrum is no choice -- the chef tasting menu. Your dinner is designed from beginning to end by the chef. At restaurants such as Charlie Trotter in Chicago and French Laundry in Napa, the chef alone decides what the customer will eat. The only choice may be between a regular menu and a vegetarian menu.

The other end of the spectrum is customer freedom. At Houston restaurants such as T'afia and Artista, a portion of the menu is a pick-and-match menu: the customer gets a choice of protein (i.e., chicken, steak, tuna, tofu), a choice between sauces, and a choice of sides. This approach reminds me of a Mongolian barbecue -- you pick all the ingredients to be cooked in your bowl. The quality of your meal is entirely up to the choices you make.

At T'afia last night, I noticed the menu has three parts: (1) the chef's tasting menu, (2) the standard menu with chef-created combinations, and (3) the pick-and-match menu. After dining at T'afia many times, I finally tried the pick-and-match, ordering tuna, coconut chutney, and eating some of my wife's quinoa. Predictably, it was the sum of its parts. The tuna was very good quality, and the chutney was interesting, but together they created no magic. Fortunately, my server knew that the best sauce for the tuna was a lime-soy mignonette. He brought some of that sauce on the side, and it was a better combination.

So which of the three menu approaches is best? At T'afia, my best experience has been with the chef's tasting menu. Monica Pope is a fantastic chef, and her choices are better than mine. Yet I rarely ever choose the tasting menu because I usually want more control over what I eat.

The debate between these approaches was highlighted on a recent episode of Top Chef. One of the chef contestants gave the diners a choice between two cheeses in a dish. The celebrity chef judge berated him for not making the choice of cheeses himself. For chefs, the issue of how much freedom to give the diner is deeply philosophical. Some see customer chosen combinations like telling Picasso to add a horse to his painting of a woman and a staircase. Others see customer choice as giving priority to the customer.

For me, true artistry is achieved when the chef makes the choice. The chef knows which dish is the best on any given night. So philosophically I know it is best if the chef chooses. Yet for some reason, my impulse more often is to want to exercise at least some of my own choice.


Unknown said...

I like my meal to be designed in the kitchen. I like T'afia but I don't like the pick and choose combinations off the regular menu, I can do (a lesser version of) that at home. The best is the option of either a chef's serving (where all my courses are set together) or a list of entrees and optional sides/appetizers that I can choose from. If I'm given a choice of sauce or meat, I always end up asking for suggestions.

Epicurus said...

I agree; it is one of the reasons I like the tasting menu at Noe so much.

Anonymous said...

On a Tafia-related note, did you taste the biscuits they served with the meal? They are completely unsalted! Maybe that is the hip organic way to prepare them but I found them to be completely unappetizing

anonymouseater said...

Jemimagold -- They serve the rolls with a little bowl of salt and a small spoon. The idea is to put a little butter on, and then sprinkle some salt. When you do that, those rolls are fantastic.