Critic's Notebook

The Most Annoying Dining Trend of 2013

And why I am professionally ambivalent about it. A restaurant critic’s dilemma.

By Kathryn Robinson January 7, 2013

That's serial dining, not...oh, nevermind.

After studying the a la carte menu of the impressive new Joule in the Fremont Collective, I at last made my decision: the beef royale, or pot roast, along with a side of spicy rice cake. 

The former is a hunk of unctuous meat breathing a fine chile braise and topped with a pickled pearl onion; a dish expressive of the Korean fusion that restaurateurs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi (who also own Revel and its bar, Quoin) are forefronting at their newly relocated Joule. The latter, nickles of sliced and sautéed Korean mochi, edged with salt from pickled greens and fire from fierce housemade chorizo, represents just the kind of global intrigue Yang and Chirchi hold the franchise for in this town.  I couldn’t wait to enjoy them together.

And enjoy them I did. But not together.

Of all the prevailing winds currently shaping Northwest fine dining—no reservations, shared tables, shared spaces—this movement toward serving dishes when they’re ready rather than when they’d create a coherent meal is the one that exacts the greatest toll on a diner’s gastronomic enjoyment. Make that: my gastronomic enjoyment. Because, I don’t know…maybe lots of people like to eat this way.

Tell me: Do people like to eat this way?

I’m genuinely curious. Because I know why restaurateurs do it: It’s much easier on their kitchens not to have to synchronize orders. At Golden Beetle, where I first noticed this last year, and The Whale Wins, the latest from Renee Erickson (of Boat Street Café and Walrus and the Carpenter), wood ovens make timing orders tougher. “So dishes will come out when they come out, alright?” declared our server during a recent dinner at Whale. (It wasn’t a question.) And that they did, and fine they were. Only I didn’t want to eat my roasted carrots and fennel before my chicken—I wanted to eat them with my chicken.

Maybe I’m just a good Scandinavian, with the juices of a thousand smorgasbords coursing through my veins. But to my palate, complementary dishes eaten together enhances a diner’s enjoyment of all of them. Bite after unrelieved bite of beef grows tedious, no matter how terrific the meat.

At bottom, it’s food for food geeks: Food for people who want to laser-focus on their beef, wallow in its nuances, hold it against their palate with a wine-taster’s obsession for savor and finish. This is not a bad way to eat, by any means; it can be very rewarding.  I eat this way for a living. I just suspect it’s not the way most civilians prefer to do it. Eating like that is an academic exercise. Eating a fully composed meal is, well…enjoying dinner.

Please weigh in with your opinion: Should this kind of serial dining setup be counted as a strike against a restaurant, or merely an alternate way of doing things? I really want to know what you think.

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