Spoilt for choice

Food - Bee Wilson on the pros and cons of a restricted menu

Once upon a time, the luxury of dining out was rooted in choice. In post-revolutionary France, when grand restaurants mushroomed like a field of ceps, the former chefs of aristocrats learnt to tailor their art to the purses and whims of businessmen, parvenus, soldiers, journalists and politicians. The modern restaurant evolved from such whims. At these sociable Third Places between a mistress's chaise longue and the benches of the National Assembly, the spoilt customer chose when, where, how, with whom and on what he would dine. If you could only afford to eat table d'hote at a cheap inn, you were stuck with whatever week-old potage your host chose to slop into your bowl. But at one of the great new restaurants, you could gorge yourself from a menu of langoustines and snails while your shellfish-hating companion happily eschewed them in favour of partridge and beef. Napoleonic restaurants liberated their clientele from the equality vaunted by the Jacobins. All men were not born equal, nor need they eat the same. The fraternity of dining out was cemented by the liberty of choice.

Now the opposite seems to be true. In an age saturated with mindless choice, the ultimate luxury is to have choices made for us. As I write (fashion being what it is, this may have changed by next week), the most fashionable dinner to be had in London is the £47-a-head set menu at the posh Thai restaurant Nahm (SW1). Restaurants of the Gordon Ramsay calibre, similarly, do most of their trade on £50 or £60 gourmet dinners with limited choice. Choice is limited still further by the rule that if one person at the table chooses the set dinner, everyone has to. Clarke's in Kensington famously offers no a la carte option at all, and is all the more popular for this inflexibility.

There are many benefits, both to consumer and chef, in offering no choice, as I was reflecting while staying for a night at the excellent Morston Hall in Norfolk. Here, the set dinner costs £36 per person for four courses (as well as amuse-gueule and coffee and chocolates) if you are not a guest, which is very good value. One of the advantages for the chef, Galton Blackiston (recipient of one Michelin star), is that, each day, he can wait to see what the best locally caught fish is before constructing his menu. Dinner is a single sitting of 7.30pm for 8pm, but we didn't see our menu until about 7.20pm. There must also be far less waste than in normal kitchens, which have to second-guess people's desires. The whole kitchen can work together as it progresses through that evening's menu, instead of frantically working on a jumble of different dishes for different sittings.

For the diners, there is a calming sense that, although strangers, everyone in the room is united in a single experience. It is soothing, too, to be denied the option paralysis of a menu, the awful feeling that whatever you order will be disappointing. I once saw a man on Oprah whose problem was that whenever he chose what he perceived as the wrong entree in a restaurant, he spent the rest of that day in a state of black despair. He was diagnosed as having severe "controlling issues". I flatter myself that I'm not quite that bad, but still found dining at Morston Hall a welcome liberation from regret. Instead of seeing waiters going to other tables with tantalising dishes it is too late to order, you get appetising glimpses of the very food you are about to eat. And how delicious it all was. There was a melting piece of fillet of beef, whose jus, perfumed with basil, tasted rich and ethereal at the same time; sublime bread flavoured with olives and a very little rosemary; and a brilliantly selected cheeseboard, which included a subtle Tornegus, an invention of the late James Aldridge, whom I have written about here before. Perhaps the best dish was one of smoked eel, from the local Cley smokehouse. This succulent eel was fried in pieces and served on top of wonderful potato pancakes, with local samphire and a pale, fresh tomato sauce.

But if it was the best dish, it was also the one that exposed the limitations of no-choice dining. The delectable sauce, so light and inoffensive, none the less induced panic in an allergy-sufferer at a nearby table. "Has this got butter in it?" she trembled. When the proprietress confirmed that, unfortunately, it had, the whole room became subdued as the poor lady exclaimed: "I'm going to have to take an enormous quantity of steroids now." The moment passed and, for the rest of the meal, she was supplied with carefully prepared substitutes: mashed potatoes with no butter, sorbet instead of cream. But the feeling that we were all united in a single self-indulgent enterprise had passed. It was clear again, as it always was at school dinners, that human beings will never be equal enough for eating the same food at once to be an entirely harmonious thing.

Morston Hall, Morston, Holt, Norfolk NR25 7AA (01263 741041)

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot