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You'll have what you're given!

A new wave of culinary puritans have decided that they will choose what the customer gets on their plate. A fad, or the dining experience of the future? CampdenFB investigates
London's Clove Club

Multi-course tasting menus were once the exclusive preserve of fine dining establishments, sitting alongside the à la carte, showcasing the very best the chef could offer in terms of technique and ingredients. Occasionally, you would find a restaurant offering only a tasting menu but, as in the case of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in the Napa Valley, US, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, UK, and Nuno Mendes’ Viajante in London, this generally seemed to be because the eating experience that the renowned chef had in mind was so far beyond our imagination that we needed his help to get the most from it.

However a quick look at some of the newest, and most talked about, openings in London – and beyond – suggests that this sort of no-choice, get-what-you’re-given dining is on the rise. That’s the case at the capital’s two latest hot tickets, The Clove Club (eight courses, £47 (€56)) in Shoreditch and Story (six courses, £45; 10 courses, £65) in Bermondsey, both overseen by young chefs who, while undoubtedly known within foodie circles, aren’t exactly household names. And, from Next in Chicago (10 courses, $125 (€95)) to 12 Chairs (from ¥980 (€122)) in Shanghai, via Verjus in Paris (eight courses, €60), diners the world over are having their meals ordered for them, rather than by them.

Going global
And it’s not just at the top end of the market either. Paris brasserie Le Relais de Venise was early to the scene, serving every customer a green salad followed by steak-frites (£21). It’s now gone worldwide and, as of last year, has three London branches, as well as outposts in Manchester and New York. Flat Iron in London’s Soho has a similar proposition with steak and salad for a tenner, sides extra. And at Edinburgh’s Gardener’s Cottage (six courses, £25) and Salon (five courses, £35) in London’s new foodie haven of Brixton Village the decision making is all down to the chef.

So what’s driving this? Are we getting lazy? Are chefs becoming more autocratic? According to Jason Mander, head of insight at consumer trends analysts Future Foundation, it’s a little bit of both. “In the last year, we’ve identified a trend that we’re calling ‘the end of adventure’. It’s partly to do with the economic strain people are under which means that they want value for money, but it’s also about a desire for risk-free surprises. People want to try new things but to know that they’ve been curated by someone who knows what they’re talking about. It’s a very safe way to try something new, an option to explore within safe confines.”

Mander also cites the boom in monthly food subscription services as another part of this trend. “From fresh fish and store cupboard essentials, to chocolate and coffee – the idea is that the products have been selected by the experts, they’re tested and recommended, so there’s less of a likelihood of disappointment. Outsourcing decision-making to people who know better than us ultimately saves us time and money.”

Cheap eats
The economic imperative might also explain the appeal that set menus have for the restaurants themselves, as Fay Maschler, renowned restaurant critic at London’s Evening Standard and the doyenne of the London dining scene, pointed out in her review of Salon: “If everyone is compelled to eat the same dishes in a fairly small restaurant, ordering is simple, pressure on chefs ameliorated, wastage minimised… and one day’s menu can segue almost imperceptibly into the next. Such economies of scale should be passed onto the customer but seldom seem to be.”

Adam Hyman, of London restaurant consultancy Code, acknowledges that this sort of showboating approach could be seen to shift the focus of the restaurant from the customer to the kitchen, but also argues that many will relish the restriction of choice. “It really comes down to why you’re going to a restaurant. Businesspeople who want to use a meal as an opportunity to discuss deals actually like the choice being taken away from them. It makes it easy, they don’t have to worry about choosing the wrong thing, and they can get on with the business in hand. But if you’re just after a relaxed bite, it’s not going to be the right option.”

Chef Matt Gillan of The Pass restaurant in West Sussex, where they serve exclusively set menus, agrees. “Set menus have a role within the global food offering and it’s up to the diner where they choose to eat. The feedback we receive from our guests is that it’s great to experience flavour combinations and ingredients that you wouldn’t necessarily order with a normal à la carte offering.”

However, restaurants keen to jump on the trend should be wary. “It’s not as simple as just reducing the portion size of à la carte dishes,” warns Gillan. “If you do that, the balance is off. A tasting menu should be about creating an experience; the flavour, texture, temperature and portion size of each dish is designed and created to fit perfectly within that menu.” And, if you’re a chef keen to take this route, good luck convincing the boss. “I don’t think you’d find many restaurateurs who would want to serve a set menu exclusively,” says Hyman. “They see the wider picture and want the opportunity to serve a few sharing plates and a glass of wine as well, because they know that not everybody wants seven courses.”

This might explain why, at The Clove Club in Shoreditch, alongside the tasting menu restaurant, you’ll find a bar area serving… small plates to share. But for purists who won’t be swayed, innovation is key. “Because we’re always on the lookout for something new, there’s a danger that if the menu doesn’t constantly change, it will become, literally, a once in a lifetime experience,” says Mander. “In London and other similar-sized cities, that sort of thing is sustainable in the medium-term, but outside of the big metropolitan areas, unless you become a destination restaurant, you’re going to exhaust your audience quite quickly.” For now, though, with the likes of Story and Next both booked solid for the next three months at least, it doesn’t look like our appetite for dictated dining will be waning any time soon. Flat Iron in London’s Soho has a similar proposition with steak and salad for a tenner, sides extra. And at Edinburgh’s Gardener’s Cottage (six courses, £25) and Salon (five courses, £35) in London’s new foodie haven of Brixton Village the decision making is all down to the chef.

So what’s driving this? Are we getting lazy? Are chefs becoming more autocratic? According to Jason Mander, head of insight at consumer trends analysts Future Foundation, it’s a little bit of both. “In the last year, we’ve identified a trend that we’re calling ‘the end of adventure’. It’s partly to do with the economic strain people are under which means that they want value for money, but it’s also about a desire for risk-free surprises. People want to try new things but to know that they’ve been curated by someone who knows what they’re talking about. It’s a very safe way to try something new, an option to explore within safe confines.”

Mander also cites the boom in monthly food subscription services as another part of this trend. “From fresh fish and store cupboard essentials, to chocolate and coffee – the idea is that the products have been selected by the experts, they’re tested and recommended, so there’s less of a likelihood of disappointment. Outsourcing decision-making to people who know better than us ultimately saves us time and money.”

Cheap eats
The economic imperative might also explain the appeal that set menus have for the restaurants themselves, as Fay Maschler, renowned restaurant critic at London’s Evening Standard and the doyenne of the London dining scene, pointed out in her review of Salon: “If everyone is compelled to eat the same dishes in a fairly small restaurant, ordering is simple, pressure on chefs ameliorated, wastage minimised… and one day’s menu can segue almost imperceptibly into the next. Such economies of scale should be passed onto the customer but seldom seem to be.”

Adam Hyman, of London restaurant consultancy Code, acknowledges that this sort of showboating approach could be seen to shift the focus of the restaurant from the customer to the kitchen, but also argues that many will relish the restriction of choice. “It really comes down to why you’re going to a restaurant. Businesspeople who want to use a meal as an opportunity to discuss deals actually like the choice being taken away from them. It makes it easy, they don’t have to worry about choosing the wrong thing, and they can get on with the business in hand. But if you’re just after a relaxed bite, it’s not going to be the right option.”

Chef Matt Gillan of The Pass restaurant in West Sussex, where they serve exclusively set menus, agrees. “Set menus have a role within the global food offering and it’s up to the diner where they choose to eat. The feedback we receive from our guests is that it’s great to experience flavour combinations and ingredients that you wouldn’t necessarily order with a normal à la carte offering.”

However, restaurants keen to jump on the trend should be wary. “It’s not as simple as just reducing the portion size of à la carte dishes,” warns Gillan. “If you do that, the balance is off. A tasting menu should be about creating an experience; the flavour, texture, temperature and portion size of each dish is designed and created to fit perfectly within that menu.” And, if you’re a chef keen to take this route, good luck convincing the boss. “I don’t think you’d find many restaurateurs who would want to serve a set menu exclusively,” says Hyman. “They see the wider picture and want the opportunity to serve a few sharing plates and a glass of wine as well, because they know that not everybody wants seven courses.”

This might explain why, at The Clove Club in Shoreditch, alongside the tasting menu restaurant, you’ll find a bar area serving… small plates to share. But for purists who won’t be swayed, innovation is key. “Because we’re always on the lookout for something new, there’s a danger that if the menu doesn’t constantly change, it will become, literally, a once in a lifetime experience,” says Mander. “In London and other similar-sized cities, that sort of thing is sustainable in the medium-term, but outside of the big metropolitan areas, unless you become a destination restaurant, you’re going to exhaust your audience quite quickly.” For now, though, with the likes of Story and Next both booked solid for the next three months at least, it doesn’t look like our appetite for dictated dining will be waning any time soon.  

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