JASON STRATTON really did not want to prescribe meals for diners at his Piedmontese masterpiece, Spinasse; for him, choosing one’s own dinner is half the fun of dining out. It’s just that they kept asking.
So last March, Stratton established weekend-evening, 10-course chef’s choice feasts, where diners could pay $100 apiece for a perch at the butcher-block counter facing his farmhouse kitchen, and be served—by the narrating chef himself—whatever he cared to cook.
“It’s been great,” Stratton enthuses. It allows him more playfulness, experimentation, and interaction with guests. “If they really like something, it might even wind up on the regular menu,” he says.
Chef’s choice dining is far from new. The Japanese have been doing omakase (multicourse chef’s choice feasts) in sushi restaurants for years, as former Chiso chef Taichi Kitamura does in his elegant new Sushi Kappo Tamura on Eastlake. Elemental, Art of the Table, and the vegetarian Sutra —all in Wallingford—are dedicated almost solely to the whim of the chef, without a whiff of choice (beyond dietary restrictions) to plague the diner.
Conventional restaurants have begun to adopt this line of dining, too. At Mistral Kitchen, along with the regular order-off-the-menu setup, chef William Belickis serves four courses for $60 or eight courses for $90—wine extra—in his sleek gunmetal and oyster restaurant-within-a-restaurant, the Jewel Box. (Chef’s Table—his restaurant-within-a-restaurant-within-a-restaurant, allows a private party to sit alongside his display kitchen and get the full treatment, fully narrated, for $250 apiece including matched wines.)
Across town in Ballard, Ethan Stowell offers a family-style multicourse option in his bedimmed and brick-lined Staple and Fancy, for just $45 per diner—and a whopping 80 percent of his patrons choose it. Of course, the menu is hardly neutral on the matter. “We would like to inform you that you really should do this,” it declares about the feast—which, for a table of four, might add up to six or seven appetizers, two different pastas, two different entrees, and two different desserts. Waiters “read” the table, check for likes and dislikes, then select choices for the diners off the list of what Stowell is cooking that night.
The result is culinary exuberance to equal the rolling boil of the busy room. This food has energy, from the big flavors of the charred guindilla peppers over aioli with air-dried tuna shavings to the sexy textures of gnocchi with braised chicken and lush egg yolk. Out it comes, course after course, revealing Stowell the restaurant magnate (he owns four) in his original guise: Stowell the artisan chef.
“I can use whatever I want! If I’m tired of roasting artichokes, I can start in with English peas!” Stowell burbles. “Chefs cook better when they’re having fun.” In truth, no one benefits from this style more than diners, who get a straight shot of the chef’s passion and a reprieve from the relentless decision making required in that other, even bigger, obsession: small-plate dining.
NEXT: THE SMALL PLATERIE