This article was also published in the Financial Times.
The price my guest would have to pay when he texted a second time that he was still stuck in traffic and would be arriving even later for our lunch at The Cinnamon Club in Westminster was, I responded, that I would choose what we were going to eat.
No sooner had he sat down than I called the waiter over and ordered two mango lassi and one each of the six first courses on the à la carte menu. The waiter looked somewhat taken aback but smiled and departed.
Ten minutes later, an array of exciting flavours arrived. A small fillet of plaice with Bengali spices; an Anjou pigeon breast cooked in the tandoori oven; grilled scallops with squid and cauliflower; a chicken breast with mango and peanuts; and two very different, complex vegetable dishes. While it was tricky to find space on the table for them all, they were easy to halve and share. And with naan bread, rice and a good appetite, to get down to business.
My bill, without dessert or wine, came to £95, less than first and main courses from the à la carte menu but more than the set lunch menu. The biggest difference, however, was that without too much protein we both left the table ready for an afternoon's work.
This ultimately successful experiment was conducted in response to the entreaties of two women.
The first came from a reader who, after a dinner at the Vietnamese restaurant Cây Tre in Soho, on my recommendation, had commented that, good as her meal had been, the first courses had been far more exciting than the main courses. Then there is my wife who makes a constant habit of choosing two first courses rather than the more normal first and main course. She always prefaces this with an apology to the waiter, whom she often questions as to which order he would recommend she eats them in but rarely gets a constructive reply. Like many others, she wants the ritual of two courses without the heft of a full main course.
Chefs, I discovered, don't give too much consideration to the inherent balance between first and main courses. Instead, more attention is focused on seasonal ingredients; their favourite combinations; and, most importantly, to spreading the workload evenly among the kitchen's different sections. As Bruce Poole, chef/proprietor of the excellent Chez Bruce in Wandsworth explains, 'As far as the more general construction of a menu is concerned, it is neither science nor art. More like blood out of a stone approach in my case.'
A coffee with Daniel Boulud (pictured), who began his apprenticeship in the kitchens of his native Lyons, France, aged 14, and whose restaurants now stretch from New York to Beijing and from Singapore to London, yielded insights into not just why first courses can appeal to all the senses but also why they can outshine the more expensive dishes that follow.
'Seventy per cent of first courses are cold and invariably half the size of the first course, so you can concentrate the flavours more. Also, just as in desserts, there is usually more complexity, contrast, layers of texture and taste because they are cold. There is more acidity, more seasoning, for example, which suits spicier white wines that customers usually order with their appetisers. Chefs cannot be that adventurous with the seasoning on main courses because they are invariably enjoyed with red wine. Finally, because first courses are served cold or lukewarm, chefs have more time to play with the final dish. They lend themselves to more playfulness', he added with a smile.
And while first courses have the other great advantage of being served when we are most hungry, their role is also to stimulate the appetite for what is to follow. But main courses can appear, and taste, less exciting because they are principally large pieces of protein that account for a significant proportion of the price. Here much less consideration is given to the chefs' dexterity, the very factor that has made the first courses so appealing. Boulud added, 'With main courses there are limitations on just how much you can play with the dish because you have to keep it hot and therefore you have to plate it that much faster.'
I had already begun to formulate an idea that I subsequently put to both chefs. As first courses seem to have such a strong appeal, and many restaurant goers at lunchtime tend to have one eye on the clock and the other increasingly on their pocketbook, isn't it time to introduce a new sort of fixed-price lunch menu?
This would do away with dishes such as indifferent chicken, farmed salmon and grilled inexpensive cuts of red meat and substitute instead a choice of two exciting first courses, a soup, salad or terrine followed by a choice of two or three other first courses that perhaps had some protein but certainly much less than those on current set-price lunch menus. All of which could be served at a lower price, swiftly, and demonstrate the wit that Boulud, quite rightly, believes is the hallmark of any top chef.
Boulud believes that this type of menu could certainly work well at lunchtime, in fact following in the pattern of what he has done with the dinner menu at Daniel, his top-of-the-range French restaurant in New York. Here over the last five years the size of the main course portion has decreased by 50% as so many diners have switched to the six-course tasting menu that begins with three first courses, cold, hot and warm, before two much smaller main courses.
Poole too was impressed by my proposal. I wonder how many other chefs I can now persuade?
The photo is taken from the Cinnamon Club website.