How to order à la carte at Michelin 3-star restaurants?
Until now I have only ordered degustation menus, adding or exchanging dishes here and there.
It seems to be better to order set menus in some restaurants (L'Arnsbourg), while other chefs do not even offer degustation menus (L'Ambroisie).
How do I order à la carte?
What should I keep in mind?
Is it ok to make special requests for dishes on your first visit or should I wait until they know me as a guest?
Strangely many three stars have not had soups or consommés on their menus when I visited.
For me a meal isn't complete without a soup.
But I guess soups/consommés are one of those things that are hard to impovise, aren't they?
On the other hand I'm sure they always have a wonderful stock cooking in the kitchen.
This is turning into a monologue; what do you think?
I would definitely NOT ask for soup if there isn't one on the menu! I feel comfortable making simple special requests at most restaurants in the States, but I've never done it in Europe -- seems to me to be a very American custom, but I could be wrong.
I think soup is generally presented as a freebie in most restaurants. However bocuse is quite proud of his soups. As for modifying the menu it really depends how you want to modify things. My husband and I keep kosher but enjoy fine dining we email restaurants in advance with our limitations (which are significant) but then give them carte blanche to make what they want. However I wouldn't order a la carte and then modify what is surely a very thoughtfully conceived dish.
you have to remember that in a 3 Michelin star restaurant (at least in France), it is the chef who tells you what to eat, not you telling him what he should cook. Take a long look at the carte whilst enjoying you aperitif, and discuss your choices with the Maitre d'Hotel. You will be surprised what he will be able to organise. That's what holding 3 Michelin stars is all about.
I remember being at the "Moulin de Mougins" many years ago when it had 3 stars, and the young couple at the table next to us was obviously out of their financial depth. The Maitre d'Hotel advised them on ordering two soups, which they did, and they left happy and contented, honour satisfied on both sides!
Restaurants vary in their approach to special requests, even at the 3 star level. Ordering from a la carte choices can be supplemented with off-the-list requests at some places. Modifications for food allergies (or a warning not to try a certain dish) should always be accomodated, and most places will prepare a listed main ingredient more simply to suit a diner. After all, one outstanding characteristic of a 3-star is that you are paying dearly for supreme service.
My forays off the menu at three stars has been limited to desserts. In one, a sumptuous cart of desserts was wheeled in, and you could choose and combine as you wished. I asked for two items and then inquired about the availability of a more traditional French dessert item not on the cart (stuffed prunes), which were immediately presented from a hidden shelf low down on the cart. Apparently, I unknowingly broke the secret code, and was then able to get another "secret" dessert to complete my combination. In another, I innocently asked if a particular dessert I liked was available. It was brought out from the kitchen without hesitation.
I have not tried this with other courses in France, but I have found that asking for an unusual dish in upscale Chinese restaurants here in the US has gotten me either the request or a suggestion for something else equally enticing off the menu.
If you are timid, you could ask in advance how a particular restaurant would handle special requests.
Top restaurants are very different from one another, more so than in other categories of restaurants. Some places are very flexible (l'Arpège, le Cinq), some not at all (l'Ambroisie). As you noted some are better enjoyed through tasting menus, some ALC. That also depends on your taste... and budget.
In general, listen to the Maitre d' and express your tastes and envies. See it as a negotiation in which building a great meal is your common purpose.