Sunday, September 28, 2003

Maisonette joins move toward fixed-price menu

Dining trends

Polly Campbell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Last week, Maisonette, downtown, began handing diners a new kind of menu. Instead of a separate price for every item, diners select from a prix-fixe (fixed price) menu in which there is one price for three courses, with choices available within each course.

It's a format that has become familiar to Greater Cincinnati fine-diners since Jean-Robert at Pigall's opened with a prix-fixe menu last year. Since then, several other restaurants have opened with or gone to a prix-fixe-only format.

It's the favorite way to order for some diners, including Enquirer Dining Panel member Pama Mitchell of Clifton, who says she always gets "the menu" when in France.

"It's just the best possible deal compared to ordering a la carte," she says.

Panel member Mike Davis of Covington also likes prix-fixe menus.

"They tend to offer a better value and a combination of courses which the chef has chosen to go together," he says.

At Maisonette, diners have a choice of a $60 three-course menu or $75 four-course. (There is a supplementary charge for some items, including Maisonette classics Dover sole meuniere, Chateaubriand and crepes Suzette, and Mitchell's crab salad.)

When customers responded well to a more limited $50 menu about a year ago, "we decided to extend it to the whole menu," says managing owner Nat Comisar.

For Comisar, it's a question of making his classic, formal restaurant more accessible.

"People who haven't eaten at this kind of restaurant before think, 'Oh, I don't know, it's probably going to be too expensive. I won't know what to do.' Now they can say, 'Oh, $60, I understand that.'"

Maisonette chef Bertrand Bouquin is happy with the change.

"This is natural to me, it's how we did it at Daniel in New York , it's how it's done in Europe. And the customers have a deal."

Another alternative: a seven-course menu d'inspiration which is created by the chef for $110, or $160 with selected wine.

At Jean-Robert at Pigall's, also downtown, the now-$75 menu price includes tip and valet parking.

Comisar does not plan to include a tip in the Maisonette price. "I feel that's your decision to make, not mine," he says.

For some smaller restaurants that have gone to a prix-fixe menu, it's a way to simplify kitchen management.

Kristy Schalck, chef/owner of Tousey House in Burlington, "agonized" about going to a prix-fixe menu. But with only a couple of people working in the kitchen, it can be hard to keep the work flow smooth if a table doesn't order a first course, so she went to a three-course, $48 menu this summer.

She has lost reservations when the change was explained on the phone, but many of her customers drive specifically to Burlington for her creative, seasonal food, and are happy to have three courses and make a night of it, Schalck says.

George Bernas, chef-owner of the Brandywine Inn in Monroe, wishes more people liked to make a night of dinner in a restaurant.

"When I ate in France, people would sit back, have conversations, the food would come and go, they didn't care much about the time or how long it took."

He encouraged that in his French restaurant by exclusively offering a prix-fixe menu with few choices for about 20 years. About two years ago he began experimenting with an a la carte menu in response to customers who didn't share his vision of dining. But he's considering returning to his original approach.

"It's what I do best," he says.

His menu for October and November is a bargain: six courses for $24.95.

Patrick McCafferty, the owner of Slims in Northside, offers another excellent bargain: a three-course menu for $20, or $22.50 on Friday and Saturday.

He is a minimalist, running his restaurant almost by himself, so he offers just a few choices for each course.

"We can be flexible, though, because we're small," he says.

Mostly he chose this format because "it's just more civilized. We've had people sitting here for three hours, and we've also had them in and out in 45 minutes."


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