August 15, 2010

Ariel Leve on the misery of sharing food.

Who invented the tasting menu? It's designed to make me anxious and hostile.

There's a new trend in the dining industry. Small plates. What used to be known as the side dish is now considered an entrée. Essentially, an entire menu of appetisers. Or, another way to put it: an assortment of overpriced snacks.

This disturbs me. To begin with, the small plates of food cost the same as the large ones. So unless that sea scallop is sprinkled with emeralds I can take home and bead into a necklace, you're getting less value for your money. In no other business would this be acceptable. Smaller house equals smaller price. Smaller seat equals less expensive ticket. Smaller shoe equals discounted shoe. Oh wait, never mind. That one was just wishful thinking.

I went out to dinner the other night to one of these restaurants with a friend. It wasn't a tapas place. It wasn't a bar. It was a restaurant with a fancy chef and a "tasting" menu. The idea of having a five or 10-course "tasting" does not appeal to me. Why? Because it requires sharing.

Sharing food is stressful. Before the food arrives there's an obligation to make a mutual decision on what to order. I like to avoid this and get my own thing. But with small plates, that's conspicuously anti-social. So I'm forced to engage in the "what do you want to share" conversation. Invariably, whenever this takes place, I find myself repeating: "I can't eat that."

Now we're faced with two choices. Order twice as many dishes and go into debt or choose the food I can eat which naturally tilts the order in my favour and establishes a hostile tone for the dinner. And how do you possibly know if you've "ordered enough". As soon as the waiter or waitress asks this I become anxious. What will be enough? And leaving the menu behind "just in case" doesn't help. By the time we know it's not enough, it's too late.

Once the anxiety and hostility sets in, the order arrives. I'm forced to eat at an accelerated pace just to get a bite in. Suddenly, what was once a leisurely meal turns into an aggressive eating competition. You have to race through your meal or you'll go home hungry.

There's no way to have a meaningful conversation either because if you're the one talking you lose out. Here's an excerpt from the dialogue between two people sharing small plates:

"That's your piece."

"No, you have it."

"No, you have it.

"No, you have it."

Then what happens is there's always one bite left on the plate because no one wants to be the pig who eats it. That's 20% of the bill right there.

In theory sharing is a good idea but it never works out. There's the subtle spoon-jousting over who gets the extra drizzle of sauce and latent aggression comes out over the single pea pod.

My friend Carrie is convinced they mess with you. "Have you ever noticed if there's four people, they will give you five pieces? And if there are three people, they will give you four? It's like Survivor: The Restaurant."

Especially when it comes to dessert. I always eat so much more than I want because I don't have the time to linger. You'd think I love the chance to eat less but I don't.

All of which leads to the most trenchant point. There's never enough food, the experience is taxing and costly and perhaps worst of all? It's over too quickly.