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How to order à la carte at Michelin 3-star restaurants?

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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?

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  1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. Mango26,
        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!

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

            1. I always order from the menu's presented to me. I am paying a lot of money for a professional to design dishes and menu's that represent the persons talents and utilise the best ingredients. To me it seems odd to go to a top restaurant and try to create your own menu, why not just go to a restaurant that cooks the food you want in the first place?

              Three star restaurants will always handle food allergies, by omitting an ingredient (with me it is walnuts) or advising to avoid a dish, and often they will ask you when you book. Although food phobias are a different matter (i.e. where people have a lengthy list of can't eats) and the food phobic are probably wasting money going to these types of restaurants.

              I don't think soup is an easy an option as you say not simple to improvise. OK it is quite easy to knock up a quick soup with a bit of stock and left over veggies, but is that what you are really paying for in restaurants of this level? Surely you want carefully considered dishes using the best ingredients? If you want soup find a restaurant with soup on the menu. Coincidentally I enjoyed great soups at two meals this weekend: asparagus, with wild mushroom and poached egg at one; and watercress with lemon oil at the other. Both were really good with the fresh flavours of spring vegetables in the peak of their condition.

              1 Reply
              1. re: PhilD

                Actually, those days, there are rather too many soups in restaurants than not enough. Every other dish ends up being a soup one way or the other.

                But if you're going to a nice place and want your soup, why not warn them in advance. They will make one for you in the unlikely case that there is not already one on the menu.