Wandering along west London’s All Saints Road recently, my eye was caught by a very beautiful thing. It was a menu and it was extremely short. The restaurant was called Wolfe and the food proffered for dinner that night – the place didn’t open for lunch – consisted of three choices to start, three mains and two puddings. There was a white wine and two reds to pick from. To start, you could choose gravadlax, rarebit fondue or chicken liver parfait. Main course was lamb shoulder, hake or sesame ramen, and for pud it was chocolate mousse or baked apples. I called to book a table for that night. The man who answered – it was owner Wolfe Conyngham himself – said it would be shut that night because his girlfriend was having a baby.
This was my kind of place, clearly run by man of passion and very few staff. So I booked for the following week – tonight, in fact. Because I dream of restaurants like this. It’s the sort of place I conjure up in mind when I go loopy and think about opening a restaurant myself. The establishment is small, a few tables of happy folk, eating what is fresh from the market or suppliers that day. Economically it’s tidy, and philosophically it’s just right.
For how ghastly is the experience when you enter a restaurant and are presented with a menu of hundreds of items? You know the sort of place: the menu is lacquered, brutally unchanging and offering so much choice that you just can’t choose.
So news this week that a number of our top chefs are starting to jettison the à la carte menu is a breath of fresh, spring-like air.
There’s Stephane Borie, for example. He’s a Frenchman who plies his Michelin-starry trade at The Checkers, a few steps from the ruins of Montgomery castle in Wales. “We’re hoping to halve our food waste,” he says. “With à la carte, we never wanted to run out of anything, so we’d cook a little bit of everything. This way, we’re choosing for people what they’re going to have, so we control the waste.”
And there are others. From last week, Claude Bosi of Hibiscus in London’s Mayfair offers his two tasting menus (£85) to customers in the evenings only, as “it means I can choose a £3,000-a-kilo truffle, for example, or the best langoustine, because I am sure I will use them”. Mikael Jonsson of Hedone in Chiswick now has no menu at all. You just tell him how much money you want to spend (£85 or £125), and whether you have any intolerances (aside from expensive no-menu restaurants), and he does the rest. Instead of à la carte, that’s carte blanche.
This no- or reduced-menu idea is music to the ears of Sally Clarke. The renowned chef whose Notting Hill restaurant is still going strong 31 years after she began it without a menu. It was an idea she had happily pinched from her mentor Alice Waters, of the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California.
“It’s flattering that, at long last, people are finally getting the point,” she says, having long argued in favour of the joy of short and simple offerings: “I’ve no appetite at all for large menus.” Yet Clarke felt she had to offer her customers a wider choice, and expanded her own menu eight years ago, albeit through gritted teeth. “I do have pangs,” she says of those no-menu days. “In fact, I miss it almost every day.”
Still, Clarke insists she has no wastage and her menu offers what she says is “a cherry picking of the stars of the day’s market”.
But how does this play out with my fellow restaurant critics? I once dined with the gastro-philanthropist Charles Campion. It was the fifth birthday of Club Gascon, the French restaurant in Smithfield. He was offered the modest-looking menu and replied that, yes please, he would eat have it – all of it.
Restaurants such as The Wolseley [in Piccadilly] like to offer you 150 things to choose from, with the idea being that “if we put everything on the menu, you might like some of it”. But the flip side of this – the dreading tasting menu, can also cause pain. Too often, such 12-course extravaganzas just leave you feeling sick with no memory of what you ate. “The problem is,” Campion explains, “most of the dishes are quite small, so you get to course three and you really like it, so when course four comes all you really want is more of three."
As for Wolfe, well, I’ll be enduring his low-level of choice tonight. “You can have fish bisque, lamb and goat’s curd or rarebit fondue to start, or a veg broth, fillet of venison or monkish stew. For puddings, it’s apples or mousse.”
“This kind of menu gives me less pressure and makes it easier for the customers,” he says. “Who wants the pain of having to choose from 100 things on an Italian menu?”
Who indeed? I’ll have the bisque, venison and the mousse, by the way. And choosing that was quite stressful enough.
• William Sitwell is editor of Waitrose Kitchen and is the host of Biting Talk on Soho Radio