Restaurants that are nailing set menus
The Australian dining public can be split down the middle: those who like options and others who prefer to leave it to the professionals. As a result, there are two menu formats that cater to said diners, à la carte and set. But some restaurants are forgoing à la carte and curating the dining experience from start to finish, offering diners the option of a set menu, and a set menu only.
Amaru in Melbourne and Fico in Hobart are championing set menus, with chefs Clinton McIver and Oskar Rossi heralding the benefits as far-reaching. From minimising food waste to streamlining prep and boosting productivity, set menus could very well be the way forward in an industry dominated by create-your-own poké bowls, burritos, burgers, salads … you get the point.
Hobart is renowned for its produce, and provenance is a golden ticket for diners. Oskar Rossi and his partner Federica Andrisani opened Fico in 2016 with the goal of creating a dining experience that constantly evolved. Fico offers a fixed menu and à la carte on request, but Rossi says the split is around 70/30 in favour of the set menu. “People don’t know what they will eat when they come here,” says the chef. “Being in Hobart, we use backyard growers and local game. You can’t get huge quantities of things, so the tasting menu allows us more control.”
Offering a set menu was always on the cards for Amaru. Chef and owner Clinton McIver cut his teeth at fine diner Vue de monde before running a degustation pop-up at the Clayton Bowls Club. In 2016, McIver launched the tiny but mighty Amaru in Armadale. With just 34 seats — which can extend to a maximum of 38, given table configurations — a set menu was on the cards from the get-go. “It’s the business model we always wanted to have,” says McIver. “The set menu allows us to articulate the food we want to do and the experience we want the guest to have. It gives us greater control of our kitchen and preparation and we can represent ourselves accurately.”
The dining sector has been flooded by restaurants offering endless choices, and the joy of sitting down at a restaurant and leaving it to the chef is not as commonplace as it once was. Of course, looking after customers is the definition of hospitality, but customers have become akin to altering dishes and requesting more this and less that.
Set menus allow chefs to cook what they want, when they want, ultimately streamlining the dining experience. “Set menus change the mentality of people when they walk in because they’re coming in for an experience,” says Rossi. “It can be more refined and flow when you tailor their meal. If we had a choice, I’d do tasting only for that reason.”
Some diners have a tendency to over or under order, but a set menu provides a range of courses of varying sizes, which offers diners a taste of everything. Rossi’s ultimate goal is to eliminate menus all together and cook to each customer’s preferences. “One step further is getting rid of menus and just going off how hungry the customer is and how many dishes they want,” he says. “From a creative point of view, it’s a lot more fun to cook like that.”
McIver agrees, and says curating the dining experience is part of the allure of going out to eat. “You have greater control of the experience the guest has from the timing to articulating the style of the cuisine,” he says. “When all the pieces of the puzzle come together, the experience is much more than just going out and eating several dishes.”
Set menus lend themselves to a range of efficiencies, from minimising food waste to upping productivity in the kitchen and contributing to the bottom line. Reducing food waste is front of mind for most chefs, and a set menu allows chefs to order ingredients they will use instead of might use. “We can order to the T and it gives us leverage on our food costs, stock control and the quality control of the ingredients,” says McIver. “A tasting menugives you more control — we can hone in on costs and productivity.”
Rossi estimates he can operate the kitchen with one less staff member when the venue serves a set menu. The venue hosts long lunches every Sunday without the option of à la carte. “When it’s 50/50 [set menu and à la carte] it’s a hectic service,” he says. “If I had a smaller restaurant, we’d have a tasting menu only.”
Productivity is another core benefit linked to set menus. Chefs are aware of the number of dishes they need to serve, which reduces the amount of prep required. In many restaurants, time spent prepping ingredients is often wasted if the dish isn’t ordered or repurposed.
Rossi describes Fico as ‘fun dining’ whereas Amaru offers a fine dining experience. While the style of each restaurant differs, they share a common problem — diner expectations. Rossi says Fico emulates restaurants in Europe, where the focus is on produce and technique, but some customers assume a set menu necessitates a certain level of service. “Sometimes you have people come in [who say] ‘Why do we have to pour our own wine? We’re here for the degustation’,” says Rossi. “It’s not what we do.”
For Amaru, time and money are the main pressure points of their offering. “Not everyone wants to go out for three hours and spend $200-plus on food,” says McIver. “We appeal to a certain market and we have a definitive clientele who always give us custom. It is a little more restrictive at this end of dining, but it’s what we want to do.”
The restaurant has two menu options — Insight and Sensory — of which Insight is smaller in size. The Insight menu ($135 for 11 options) offers diners a gateway to the full Amaru experience and is available from Tuesday to Thursday. “It’s governed off the idea that some people might struggle with too much food or time to invest on a weekday evening,” says McIver.
The Sensory experience is $195 for 15 dishes, which progress from snacks to larger courses. “We price our menu at a point where it still represents good value to the guest but also allows us to pay our staff, keep the doors open and pay costs,” says McIver. “The variables of running a restaurant are quite high and unpredictable.”
There’s no denying set menus have their place. Chefs and diners are recognising the benefits of doing what they do best — cooking and eating — which is what the dining experience is all about.