Planning a menu is just as important---and as much fun---when you go out to eat as when you're the cook. That's why I love the act of ordering. If the restaurant has done their job well, the printed menu should be cohesive. It should make sense, follow a theme (tone, cuisine, season), and give the sense that the chef has whittled down all of his options into the very best dishes and here they are for you to try and you can't go wrong. When this is the case, ordering off the menu is much easier. One, because you don't have to create your own theme, and two, because you don't have to worry about making a bad choice. (Ever tried to order off one of those 18-page, full-color atrocities at IHOP or Chiles? It ain't pretty.) All that's left to do is decide what you're in the mood to eat, work in the preferences of all your dining companions, make a few concessions for the sake of dining tranquility, and enjoy.
I would just like to point out quickly that despite the inalienable right that is freedom of choice on the menu, I would appreciate if more restaurants let the chef decide what to serve. They're the experts, so I am willing to put my gastronomical fate in their hands. I think more prix fixe dining, with a different menu every day (a la Chez Panisse downstairs) would at once inspire more trust in the chef as an artist and help to build up the often non-existent relationship between eater and chef. So that's my request.
Anyway, these concessions for the sake of dining tranquility tend to piss me off because, as the menu whisperer that I strive to be, I get a very clear idea of what I would like to eat when I look at a menu and I have a knack for ordering well. I do not like to be swayed from the path! I also do not like to share my dishes. Everyone has this urge to taste what someone else has ordered, but what good can come of sampling? Either you feel let down that you've ordered the inferior entree or you feel badly that yours is way better than everyone else's. It's better not to know. And have you ever noticed that that sample bite is never actually a satisfying, focused bite of food? For me, it's usually an urgent sort of must-taste-everything-possible-to-store-in-my-collection-of-things-I've-tasted-memory-box thing, but then I'm not paying enough attention to actually remember it. So I don't like to share. Of course, once I'm finished, I'm happy to let my companions help me clean the plate. And one should always share one's French fries. This is a given.
Therefore, despite the fact that it can be less satisfying to order with all those opinions flying around, I think family-style meals are lovely because everyone shares everything. No need to give up a bit of your own personal meal. (With a set menu, everyone eats the same thing and you get your own plate. Perfection.) Plus, you're sharing not only the dining experience but the actual flavors of the meal with the entire table. It can also make for great discussion of cuisine.
Thereforemore, I was excited to return to A Cote in Rockridge for their Mediterranean small-plates, served family style. I've had nice meals there in the past, and I love their sexy little dining room. Menu for a party of three, in order of table service:
Squash Blossoms with Ricotta and Pesto
Baby Spinach Salad with Feta, Persian Cucumbers, Cherry Tomatoes and Olive Dressing
Grilled steak [with little potatoes and aioli]
Prosciutto & Nectarine Flatbread
Mussels with Pernod from the Wood Oven
To Drink: Delirium Tremens pale ale
The amount of food was perfect, even with one mussel eschewer. We also ordered a nice variety of foods, so the meal was well rounded. However, there was a definite lack of cohesion, and that's my problem with the A Cote menu at large, not just our little selection. The Mediterranean theme and the tapas sizes sort of tie it all together, but these five dishes could have been delivered to our table from three or four different restaurants and I wouldn't have been surprised. That leaves me with a feeling of confusion, so I exit the restaurant trying to remember what I've eaten instead of enjoying a nice serene satisfaction. Am I in France or Italy? Greece or California? What time of year is it again? Quality of the dishes was also wildly variable. Our best adjective for the squash blossoms was "fried." The salad was just a normal salad, not worth $10. The flatbread was a lovely idea and the steak well cooked, but neither was terribly memorable. The mussels, a regular on the A Cote menu, were too salty. Mine are better. The servers also gave us fresh plates far too often. Very thoughtful, but we're not that messy. Oh, and I didn't pick the right beer. It was raaaaathah fruity dahling.
Summary: A Cote needs to work on the togetherness of their menu. I recommend tying it together with more seasonality, a la the nectarine flatbread. Seasonal produce would also bring some freshness to their selection, which is very warm, hearty & cooked, even in late July. Brighter, please!