LAST CALL ARCHIVE
THE BIG QUESTION ABOUT SMALL PORTIONS
Why fine dining gets a bad rap when it comes to portion sizes
BY MATTHEW MEADOR
In a recent conversation with a friend, I was asked to name the most important little-known detail of haute cuisine. In other words, what is the single biggest misconception the average person holds when it comes to fine dining?
I’ve written many pieces on the intricacies of sophisticated dining and the delights found in notable restaurants but I’d never been asked to narrow down common misunderstandings to one more important than the rest. Immediately, I scoffed at the question — I could never single out one fallacy. An instant later, it hit me. Yes! There is one big misconception looming over the rest. And as big as it is, it concerns something fairly small: portion sizes.
Over and over, I’ve heard people joke about the portion sizes found in elegant eateries. I’ve seen posts on social media where someone out for a celebratory dinner shoots a photo of a classically-plated entrée, mocking the graceful empty plate space on Instagram or Facebook before he’s — yes, it’s almost always a male — even tasted his main course.
Now, let me be clear: I am a big guy with big tastes and I like big portions — I like to eat so much I’ve gotten fat. Like most people, I want good value for my money. At a chain restaurant like Claim Jumper, Applebee’s or Outback, many customers are disappointed if their plates aren’t full, even if they weren’t planning on eating everything. I sometimes find myself unhappy if portions aren’t what I was anticipating, too.
But my expectations change dramatically if I’m at an exclusive French restaurant. So let this big guy with a big appetite be equally clear on a second point: in the hundreds of times I’ve eaten in refined restaurants with a lot of empty plate space around the main course, I have never left hungry. Not even once.
“Huh?” you might ask. “You’re fat, you like to eat, you like a lot of food and yet you don’t mind a tiny entrée at a fancy restaurant? You don’t feel cheated when your main course is laughably small?” Yes, that’s exactly right. And here’s why you should maybe change your thinking when you decide to do a little fine dining.
Let’s think in terms of courses for a moment. At a common chain restaurant or diner, Americans have become accustomed to a standard three-course meal but we think of it in terms of one course: that plate with your entrée. We may enjoy a salad, soup or appetizer before and we might choose a dessert afterwards but most of our attention is focused on that one big plate. Because of this thinking, that main plate has evolved to become an always-full one. Those optional pre- and post-entrée plates may or may not be ordered so ultimately, most of our focus falls on the one main course. And if it’s not substantial, we’re disappointed. American dining has essentially become a one-course affair with perhaps one or two add-ons we don’t really consider. In a fine French restaurant, we’ll find things markedly different. Our meal will likely be built
around at least a five-course structure so portions will necessarily be smaller. Maybe even more importantly, the leisurely way we’ll meander from course to course allows generous time to enjoy our food — and we’ll almost certainly feel satisfied sooner.We’ll start with an apéritif, an alcohol beverage which will gently stimulate our appetite. We might choose a light white wine, maybe champagne or even a dry martini. This beverage relaxes us, gets us expectant and prepares our palate for the delights to come.
Next, a charcuterie board will be delivered — sliced cured meats, rillettes or pâté, canapé or crostini (like a hard, toasted baguette to enjoy, topped), tiny pickles, mustard, maybe even some nuts or olives. Charcuterie boards take several forms so you may find a different theme, created to complement your next courses. Soup or possibly a salad will follow. Perhaps you’ll instead choose a small treat like escargots or vegetable tarts. (See sidebar: I encourage you to ask questions and listen to the recommendations of your server and your sommelier. You’re enjoying nuanced cuisine, prepared by a skilled kitchen, using prized ingredients — the people serving you will be familiar with your choices and can recommend options to perfectly pair. At houses like this, the staff has sampled the menu and tasted the wine so they can suggest from both skill and experience.) A little more wine is next, then comes the plate inspiring this column. As in any eatery, your entrée is the high point of the meal, but here the focus will be on quality, not quantity. Remember, you’re enjoying numerous courses so your main dish will naturally be considerably smaller than an overloaded plate at a chain restaurant. A perennial French favorite for me is confit de canard, or bluntly, duck cooked in its own fat. It will be served with sauce and is often accompanied by a simple potato. Once you’ve polished off your laughably small entrée, you’ve got plenty of room for dessert, right? (That was sarcasm, in case you missed it — by this time, you’re going to feel much more sated than you imagined.) But something light like a crème brûlée or a crème caramel might be perfect. Of course, I usually follow it up with a digestif — ordinarily I prefer some form of brandy — and possibly a coffee while I’m awaiting my dessert. So let’s review. A pre-dinner cocktail, one appetizer, another appetizer, a main dish, dessert and a post-dinner brandy and a coffee. That’s a lot of food. By the time my entrée is placed in front of me, I’m not all that concerned about its size. Like I declared earlier, I have never finished dinner at a fine French restaurant — yes, the ones with all the empty plate space around the entrée — and departed with my belly less than full. By the time I’m done, I’m reflecting on the magnificence of my dinner and marveling at my satisfaction with life. That’s what an excellent French meal will inspire. Like me — a fat guy with a big appetite — you’ll have forgotten all about portion sizes.
Although fine dining has a reputation for stuffiness, things have relaxed in recent years. And in the laid-back Pacific Northwest, French dining is marked by our characteristic easygoing attitude and our affinity for using local ingredients to elevate even a classic discipline like la cuisine française.
Don’t worry if you don’t speak French or you’re unsure about a particular dish — you’re not alone. Your server won’t hold it against you. After all, restaurant staff had to learn it all, too, and they’ll be happy to help you. Common sense and the good manners you already use on special occasions will go a long way.
If you’re offered sorbet or another option for cleansing your palate between courses, take it — there’s a reason it’s being suggested. A refreshed palate is primed to enjoy the subtleties of the next dish.
Don’t be ashamed to ask about wine — most people are only nominally familiar with a properly curated wine list. Even if you’re fluent in wine, the staff will likely have fitting suggestions not immediately obvious. A sommelier is put to better use making recommendations, offering explanations or answering questions than simply pouring.
It’s not a bad idea to explore any restaurant’s website if you haven’t yet visited in person. You’ll be able to view the menu and learn details like price and dress code, if there is one.
Altogether, French cuisine is all about celebrating life — and it’s way too delicious to avoid just because you’re worried about not knowing everything or about violating some rule. Give it a chance. Odds are, you’ll find a lot less reason for worry than you think.
UNFAMILIAR WITH FRENCH DINING?
BY MATTHEW MEADOR
I used to tell a story that began with one line: “I swear I’m not a wine snob but...”
The tale took place when I served as a wine steward at a four-star hotel known for its carefully-curated wine cellar. At a private event, a woman approached and asked me for a zinfandel. Noting her clothing and hairstyle, I suspected she was asking for something else.
“You are aware zinfandel is a red wine?” I asked.
“Yes, I know,” she said. “It’s kind of pink.”
“No, no, no,” I replied, in my friendliest tone. “Zinfandel is a robust red wine which some of its fans even describe as a little rowdy,” I continued. “You’re undoubtedly thinking of white zinfandel. Let me see what I can find.”
Knowing we had no white zinfandel anywhere, I left my post and moved into the back. To the howling glee of waiters, other wine stewards and kitchen staff, I poured a glass of riesling, adding just a splash of pinot noir for color before I delivered the cheery pink abomination to my customer. She was delighted — she ordered three more over the next couple hours.
Other than the obvious, there’s just one problem with this story.
Yes, it really happened. But despite my protestations, I truly was a wine snob when the event occurred back in the mid-1990s and when I first began to relate the story shortly after — it was all a big joke. The customer was a pleasant woman who was out of her element and almost certainly knew it. After presenting her with the first glass, I talked with her, describing classic zinfandel and white zinfandel — at no time did I mock her. Technically, I gave her a taste close to what her palate expected, my own faux (pas) white zinfandel. But the story I later related over and over was told using terms somewhat less than flattering. And I nearly always got a big laugh.
At the time, I was a cocky young waiter, bartender and wine steward who thought he knew a lot about wine. True, I had learned enough to work exclusive private dining in luxury hotels with notable chefs and talented sommeliers. I was trusted to serve high-profile guests who demanded perfect white-glove service. I had learned a lot and was proud of the knowledge and skills I’d gained from my efforts. I could take the orders of a 12-top table without using a pen and paper — and this was years before today’s portable electronic ordering tablets. I was pretty good but I knew it and was way too brash about it.
Looking back, I was an idiot.
Almost 25 years later, I know there’s so much I don’t know. I know I could spend the rest of my life studying oenological topics and never reach the end. I’ve built on my early knowledge but I’ve also gained personal maturity which tempers my former arrogance. The biggest lesson I learned is to have a little humility. Wine has humble roots — it’s such an innate part of the human experience, we need to keep our perceptions at reachable levels, accessible to everyone. That’s the joy of wine.
I’ve learned the so-called rules of wine tasting are remarkably subjective and that the first thing a novice wine taster needs to do is relax. A person new to sampling the fruits of the vine might be best advised to approach tasting as a child would: no preconceived notions, no explicit expectations, a perfect reliance on senses and the trust to turn those impressions into words. It’s really that simple. Only a fool (read: pompous waiter) might disapprove.
Just as I aged and mellowed myself, many of the uptight aspects of wine have been relaxed. No rules now? To be sure, centuries of history mean we’ve got volumes of knowledge and experience to guide us. But exploring the world of wine has never been more accessible and welcoming to everybody, everywhere.
For the last decade, I’ve used my experience to share the joy of food and fellowship with others. I’ve written features and regular columns in a variety of publications celebrating Northwest fare and drink. I’ve rated countless wines. I even served as editor-in-chief of a monthly craft beer magazine. Now I’ll contribute to Cheers Northwest, where I hope to continue celebrating the magical cuisine and beverages of the Pacific Northwest. Aside from our world-famous wines, award-winning craft brews and possibly the best coffee anywhere, we boast an abundance of local ingredients that both famous and up-and-coming chefs are using to create dishes of true distinction. I can’t think of any region on the planet where I’d rather eat and drink.
Oh, I still tell the wine snob story once in a while. But I’ve added the element of an overconfident young waiter who thought he knew a lot more than he did. The tale still gets laughs. But the story possesses an appropriate measure of humility, making it less judgmental and more encouraging. Pretty much like what’s happened to the world of wine in recent years.