Prix Fixe Supersized11/21/2012
“Table d’hôte” menus began in 17th century inns. One could rent a room with or without a set meal that was shared by other guests. After modern restaurants developed (as a consequence of the French Revolution leaving so many cooks unemployed), the term was applied to multi-course dinners with limited choices at fixed prices, or “prix fixe.” Since then these have been common in European restaurants at all price levels but not so much in the U.S., where “à la carte” ordering has ruled. In Des Moines, fixed price dinners were pretty much restricted to Thanksgiving, Easter and Valentine’s Day through the 20th century.
That’s been changing in the new millennium, though. Steve Logsdon pioneered prix fixe dinners on Friday nights at Basil Prosperi. They became so popular that by the time he opened Lucca they were featured daily. Enosh Kelley began offering a three-course, “early bird” prix fixe at Bistro Montage, and that evolved into a four-course, prix fixe at all hours. Restaurant Week encouraged several restaurants to try the concept out for 10 days in August, and a couple extended the practice year round. Alba now offers a five-course “chef’s tasting menu” Tuesdays through Thursdays. Sam and Gabe’s four-course, fixed price dinner is available on the same nights. 801 Steak and Chop House has a Sunday-only, three-course prix fixe.
In the last decade, underground and “pop-up” restaurants super-sized the prix fixe. Hal Jasa offered as many as 30 courses in one of his. When Baru66 opened in 2010, David Baruthio offered three daily prix fixe offerings including a six-course degustation that cost just $66. That was the extent of fixed price indulgence until Jasa teamed with new Proof owners Sean Wilson and David Mannheimer. This fall they instigated a new level of decadence. Along with three- and five-course menus offered daily, they began a “submission menu” that continues bringing new courses until a diner asks them to stop. Proof also serves a second Saturday, 10-course dinner that harkens the early definitions of “table d’hote” — all courses are served on single plates shared by two guests for $80 a couple.
This month that dinner began with a salad of three roasted heirloom beets, a fabulous beet mousse, clover leaf micro greens, harissa oil and goat cheese, all served on a bed of mortared pistachios and topped with a fresh nasturtium. The second course delivered a deeply flavored, chilled tomato soup with an almond mousse and crisply fried parsnip chips. A shrimp course swam in a turmeric broth with leek oil and matchstick potatoes. Then a “za’tar” delivered a stack of roasted, skin-on eggplant slices bathing in buttermilk yogurt accentuated with pomegranate berries that burst in the mouth.
After an intermezzo of remarkable rosemary sorbet, with orange zest, the main courses began with a rustic pork ragu served in a skillet on a cutting board swathed in goat cheese with buttered toast. A porchetta of pork belly, topped by a butter-fried egg, was plated on an Italian sausage bread pudding with polenta. Next a petite tenderloin of beef was served rare and encrusted with coffee and coriander on top of pureed butternut squash with licorice paint and leeks.
A cheese course brought a smoky, goat cheese from Boonville, Calif., with homemade sweet vermouth in a tequila shot glass. Dinner was completed with two cardamom brownies and a marvelously textured chocolate semifreddo with crème Anglais. I might have submitted earlier had anyone asked. Fortunately they didn’t.
Both wine boxes (Volere) and beer six packs (Chick Beer) now come in purse form… Splash’s final Wine Education event of the year will feature syrah and shiraz, Nov. 27, $35 includes appetizers, 244-5686. CV.