Ask the average person what a la carte is, and he or she might fumble. “Umm, I’ve seen the word used in menus in posh restaurants. It’s basically a fancy word for a menu, right?” This is understandable. Until a few decades ago, a la carte was the predominant menu style in restaurants, and is the only ordering style that many are aware of.
It is obvious why a la carte is the most popular menu style of all. Literally translating to “according to the (menu) card”, it is a style of ordering where you choose dishes out of a series of options on a menu, and pay for only the dishes that you order. You have the option of cherry-picking things that you like.
I for example, am not a huge fan of gravy dishes in Chinese restaurants; I often find the sauce stodgy and in the worst-case scenario, almost gelatinous thanks to an exorbitant amount of cornflour. I prefer a dry chilli pork or a stir-fried kung pao chicken to go with my noodles. And that is something I can do in an a la carte menu; choose things according to my preference.
You might be forgiven to think that a la carte is the only style of ordering food in a restaurant. But the last decade, there has been a rise of the buffet-style restaurants with places like Barbeque Nation. Unlike an a la carte style ordering where you can taste only the things that you order, a buffet spread allows for variety.
You can try a little bit of everything, and then maybe gorge on the two or three dishes which you like the most. Maybe you run into some dish which you wouldn’t have ordered off a menu but after a taste, you are hooked. From dirt-cheap buffets to more elaborate fare in places like Westin and Marriott, buffets are getting increasingly popular.
The concept of unlimited food is also of immediate appeal, which is why places like these are the perfect choice for people who can eat a lot. Since the price is fixed, people who can eat more can basically get a bigger bang for their buck in such places.
Another big advantage of having a wide array of dishes on offer is that it is perfect for big group outings, where you don’t need to bother about whether 4 plates of butter chicken would suffice for a group of 10 or whether everyone gets an equal number of shami kababs.
A la carte and buffet are by far the most popular menu styles in restaurants today, and for good reason. There are two other styles though, that are slowly gaining prominence. I don’t think they will ever overtake the old styles in terms of popularity, but these styles have a charm of their own.
The first of these is the set menu or prix fixe menu, also called table d’hote in French. It is a multi-course meal, with a limited number of options for each course; you pick one dish from each set according to your preference. And it is a prix-fixe or fixed price menu; so you’re paying the same price for the whole meal, irrespective of whether you decided to go for the salmon or the pork belly.
Indian restaurants often provide separate vegetarian and non-vegetarian set menus, with the former being priced a little lower than the latter. Ordering from a set menu is like choosing questions in a test paper: answer one question from each of the sections A, B and C. Places like Yauatcha do a great set menu, where you have multiple courses with 2-3 options in most of them.
A set menu, however, doesn’t always feature the top dishes of a restaurants, including which might affect the pricing. You’re unlikely to find the 1500-rupee New Zealand lamb chop on the set menu, and for good reason. What a set menu does is allow the diner to sample a decent number of restaurant favourites. It is a good option for a diner who wants to try out some of the recommended dishes without being bogged down by a lot of choices.
The last and final style is probably the newest; originating in France in the 70s and becoming popular in the West in the 90s. Only recently is it being featured in Indian restaurants, and even now it tends to be limited to the high-end places. I’m talking of the degustation or tasting menu.
Some world-renowned restaurants like Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in London or René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen feature only a tasting menu, without an a la carte option. Indian tasting menu like in Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent or Jiggs Kalra’s Masala Library are present as an option, along with the usual a la carte options. Vegetarian, vegan or gluten free options are also available for people with certain diet and lifestyle choices.
A tasting menu is the exact opposite of the a la carte. The diner is served a large number of dishes in small portions, the number of which can run to 10 or 15. Unlike a set menu where you have some choice from a limited list of dishes, the tasting menu does away with any choice whatsoever, except maybe in the main course. And this lack of choice can be stifling for most diners, especially those who are particularly inclined to one style of food (too spicy) and are not open to too much experimentation. Oysters? Over my dead body!
For the more open-minded diner though, the tasting menu can be a gastronomic experience of a lifetime. It is the restaurant equivalent of going to someone’s house and dining on their specialities. It is the restaurant equivalent of “amaze me”. In a tasting menu, the diner takes a back seat, allowing the chef to surprise and dazzle him with his fresh produce and culinary skills.
In the wrong hands however, a tasting menu can go terribly wrong. It takes effort and thought to craft a tasting menu. There is no room for excuse on the part of the chef in a tasting menu. If you are serving something, it better be good. And this is why tasting menus tend to be pricey and usually limited to high-end places.
So, if you’re the kind of person who invariably orders mixed fried rice and chilli chicken wherever you go, or if you’re the more adventurous kind looking out for exotic buffets or bold tasting menus, there are a myriad of options out there. Just build up an appetite, and go for it.