As a restaurant critic, I’ve always favoured restaurants with small menus. I found my reasons for this bias reinforced during my recent interaction with MasterChef judge, chef and restaurateur George Calombaris. His top-rated Melbourne restaurant, The Press Club, lists just 12 dishes on the menu and guests can turn these into 4-, 6- or 9-course meals. At the other end of the market, he has the Jimmy Grants chain which serves just Souvlaki, Salad and a few sweets.
Narrowing down the range of their offerings is something many of our traditional food businesses do really well. Take, for instance, Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Basavangudi, which has just four dishes on its hugely popular menu, or Tamil Nadu’s favourite Murugan Idli Shop which thrives by selling idlis and, at the most, dosas.
It’s the casual dining and so-called fine dining restaurants that seem unable to give customers the pleasures only a small, highly specialized menu can offer. So, we have Andhra restaurants serving hakka noodles and sweet corn chicken soup; even chefs who set out to deliver gourmet class can rarely settle for a menu that has less than several dozen dishes.
The concept of small menus can work for both customers and restaurateurs. For the diner it means an assurance of freshness; long menus mean many dishes that are cooked ahead and stored. When a kitchen cooks fewer dishes, these can be prepared with greater care and attention to detail and the dining experience is enhanced.
For the kitchen team, it certainly means less stress. The chef and his assistants need to master fewer dishes and have a better chance of perfecting them. Inventories are smaller and restaurateurs can pay for better quality ingredients. Serving staff, too, can have a better understanding of, say, 60 dishes, rather than trying to remember what goes into 120 menu items.
And still, even the smartest chefs and restaurateurs are wary of cutting down the number of dishes on their menus. They worry that it will evoke that constant complaint of ‘Not enough choice’. The worry is justified, for Indian customers do indeed want to see huge menus and find satisfaction in the notion that they are spoilt for choice. They don’t seem to grasp that restaurants that attempt too many things, do not get most of them right.
Clearly, we are still some time away from diners patronizing restaurants with small, specialized menus. Meanwhile, I’d love to see at least a few adventurous restaurateurs have the confidence to present small menus, backed by the belief that they are putting out their very best.