Charles Lam’s Prix Fixe Dining Primer

By Charles Lam
Staff Writer

My date and I were seated, not facing each other, but side by side at a counter. In front of us was the open air kitchen during a full dinner service, its chefs running between stations, switching between food prep and live burners flawlessly without need for instruction. The chef in charge for the night, Sous Chef Francisco Origel, spent his time checking each plate as it exited his kitchen, calling for runners when need be.

When our waiter, affectionately named ‘Saucy,’ asked us what we wanted for dinner, we answered with confidence, “Chef’s Choice.”
Orange County Restaurant Week is this week and, while Napa Rose, the restaurant where I dined, will not be participating, you guys should go. Some of the best restaurants in Orange County have crafted interesting menus specifically just for this week. You’ll have to be comfortable with eating adventurously, however, because you’ll be dining prix fixe.

What does that mean, exactly? You don’t get to choose what you eat. The restaurant develops a multicourse menu that represents who they are and what they offer. The menu normally consists of two or three choices per plate, totaling from six to 12 different dishes. That’s all you have to choose from for a three or four-course meal. Picky eater? Tough luck, this week might not be for you.

Allowing a restaurant to confine their menu to a few key dishes accomplishes several purposes. First off, it allows chefs to showcase their creativity.

While their day-to-day menu might be defined by what the restaurant’s patrons enjoy and expect with only a slight twist from the chef, a prix fixe menu, especially one during restaurant week, is the equivalent to a graduate thesis. Given the ingredients available to them, the chefs plan a menu that highlights what might normally be lost on in what they normally serve: the freshness of seasonal ingredients and interesting flavor pairings that aren’t often showcased.

Secondly, the limited menu allows kitchens to prep more efficiently and cook faster. Though restaurant week restaurants will still be serving their normal menus in addition, the fewer amount of ingredients needed to prepare a dozen dishes compared to over 30 allows the restaurant to offer better quality servings and fresher food at a pace that puts most night outs to shame. Quality control is also much easier when you only have to worry about a handful of different presentations.

In addition, it gives a chance for a restaurant to present a complete dining experience. Do you think chefs enjoy it when you have a heavy, rich soup before a delicately prepared fish dish, paired with Diet Coke? No, they don’t. All you’re doing is ruining your own dinner and making their food seem worse.

By deciding what dishes to offer in what order and offering drink pairings, restaurants finally get a chance at creative control. Dinners can actually have themes and a logical progression. Meals won’t be accidentally ruined by a new diner who thinks that dark red wine pairs well with seafood.

And finally, prix fixe menus allow you to discover something new. They force you out of your favorite flavors. I know that there are things that always draw my attention like bougie mac and cheese or molten chocolate lava cake. To think how many interesting salads or innovative desserts I might’ve missed is heartbreaking.

The “Chef’s Choice” at Napa Rose ended up being one of the best dinners I’ve ever eaten, not only because of the food, which was wonderful, but also because how excited the staff was serving the dishes.

Chef Francisco, whose stern demeanor could strike fear into any line cook, melted each time he walked over to my alcove, his warm smile and passion for what we were eating immediately apparent. Saucy, whose nickname is well-deserved, regaled us with stories of the origin and pedigrees of our food.

Was it expensive? Yes. Worth it? Many more times yes.

Chefs, they know what they’re doing. They love what they’re doing. Trust them, go out this week, do a prix fixe.

It’ll be worth it.