THE ART OF DINING ALONE

As a man who produces a YouTube channel (Huey’s Fabulous Fast Food For One or Two) dedicated to producing recipes for one, it’s obvious that I would be interested in the increasing popularity of dining alone.

Actually, I have always been a supporter of such a practice and, in fact, at my restaurant Fleurie – which only had 44 seats and was always booked a month in advance (I wouldn’t take bookings any further out) – I always kept one table up my sleeve obstentially for mates, regulars and the like – a table that I also happily let for solo diners whether they were mates or not. But, I do remember the other hot restaurant of the moment Petit Choux not being quite so generous and turning away my Sous Chef because he wanted a table for one. I rang the owner who said: “Of course he can have a table and I’ll sit with him, otherwise people may get the idea that we let tables go for singles.” Well, John actually didn’t want to dine with him – not just because he was a bore, but because he actually wanted to dine along, was quite happy doing so and didn’t expect any special treatment because of same.

I was reminded of this by a recent article in The Age that spoke of a restaurant which proudly told of putting a goldfish in a bowl (named Embla) on a lone diner’s table for company. For some reason, Sydney’s Firedoor was quite proud of this, supposedly, thoughtful effort. And, other restaurants, whilst not repeating the fish dining companion experience, spoke of involving the guest in everything from video games and WiFi to specially created menus to detailed descriptions of a dish’s component to, worst of all, tours of the kitchen.

In fairness, I am sure there is the odd customer who enjoys such efforts. But, as a person who has always enjoyed the peace and quiet of dining alone, one can only hope that most staff understand that many such clients just want to be left to their own devices. And one can only hope that all staff are instructed how to read the signs, because we have all experienced those well-intentional waitpersons whose involvement in your dining experience goes something along these lines: “Hi, I’m Bruce your waitperson for tonight and I’m going to enquire every time you take a bite whether you’re enjoying your meal, and the rest of the time I’m going to stand at the end of the table and bore the shit out of you.”

But, jokes aside, there are good things coming out of restaurants realising that there is a demand for sole dining and not just at that table stuck next to the kitchen or toilet door. (L’Archestrate in Paris where, at regular intervals, Chef Alain Senderins would burst out of the kitchen to glare at the staff – banging my table as he did so.) No, what I’m talking about is seating arranged around the kitchen bar or on a communal table, which is now common practice in restaurant design. As is the offer, in many of our leading restaurants of half serves where applicable and a good selection of quality wines by the glass – all of which certainly makes the solo dining experience more enjoyable.

And the number of persons dining along is definitely increasing. According to booking service Dimmi, solo reservations have risen by 27% in the past year and according to hospitality professionals “there is no longer a typical demographic for solo diners. They range from young cooks wanting to experience other establishments to travellers and business people to my dear mate Siggy, who has been a happy solo diner for the 30 years I have known him and does it because he not only enjoys food, but his own company as well.

As Lennox Hastie of Firedoor states: “It’s actually a huge compliment for me as a chef and restaurant owner when someone comes in and eats alone, because they are purposely coming to your venue for your food – not because friends have dragged them there.” Very similar to my feelings all those years ago at Fleurie and, although I do appreciate his sentiments, when I visit Firedoor (which is certainly on my list) if he plops a fish in a bowl on my table, I will not be responsible for my actions – SASHIMI ANYONE?

 

COQ AU VIN REVISITED   (for 1)

Put 1 chicken breast, skin on, in a bowl and pour over 1 cup decent red wine. Marinate in the fridge overnight, turning once or twice.

When ready, heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and seal the drained breast all over (retaining the liquid). Remove.

Add 4-6 whole small button mushrooms to the pan with 4-6 peeled baby onions and 1 sliced small bacon rasher. Cook until coloured. Then add 1 heaped tbsp plain flour, mix very well and cook for 1-2 mins, before adding 1 cup beef stock, the marinating wine, 1 crushed plump garlic clove, 1 bay leaf, 1/3rd can diced tomatoes, seasonings and 2 thyme sprigs. Cook gently and, when starting to thicken, return the chicken and add a good slurp of fresh wine. When the chicken is ready, remove and if necessary cook down the sauce until thick and fragrant.

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER?

I read an article in the paper just the other day concerning the manners associated with hosting a lunch or dinner party at home. I was interested – not because I host many, if any parties at home, except for Xmas lunch, which is always a big affair and I even actually cook – but that’s another story!

No, the reason I was interested was because I was brought up in an era when good manners were the norm and there were unwritten hard and fast rules concerning everything from a thank you or condolence letter to the etiquette of a dinner invite.

But, back to the article entitled ‘How to be a good dinner guest’, the first point which I thought was pretty obvious – the need to arrive. Pretty obvious, but Mr Good Manners (me) was amazed to discover that people actually accept your invite and then just bloody don’t turn up! (Maybe take a leaf out of posh restaurant playbooks and start taking credit card details? Now, there’s a thought!)

Next – 15 minutes late is fashionably late and is acceptable, but no more (or less – I had a friend who was always at least an hour early, which throws things right out, as you tend to feel you have to look after them – serve them drinks, tidbits, etc., etc.)

Bring something – always! But, put a little thought into it. A small bunch of flowers is always good, but not a big arrangement that has the host scrabbling to find a vase/bucket big enough to hold them. Wine is fine, as long as the host is not a wine buff with an extensive cellar, who has already planned out the drinks for the night. I once took a bottle of not too shabby champagne to a leading restaurateur’s house. He didn’t know what to do, as the Dom Perignon was already open. Fortunately, we both saw the humour in it and just drank it later. Nice chocolates are good too, but not too many and not just a block of Dairy Milk from the local Woolies. And, something homemade is also always good.

Offer to help clean the table, etc., but don’t be too insistent or bossy about it and don’t ever bloody offer to clean up at the end of the night. Either drink along with the host or buggar off, as the case may be. And, if you are helping to clear, don’t then stand in the kitchen in everyone’s way discussing Johnny’s latest success at school or your thoughts on the current Prime Minister’s efforts.

And, to finish off, a few absolute set in concrete rules:

  1. Turn your blasted phone off.
  2. Don’t you dare ever ever take photos of the food.
  3. An old rule – don’t talk about politics, religion or even footy.
  4. Always complement your host on the food – whether it’s delicious or not:
    “I didn’t complain about the steak. I just asked what happened to the horse that used to be tethered out the front.”
  5. I’ve never had a problem with this as a host. I just tell people to p… off. But, if the host is not quite as forthright as me, read the signs – the look at their partner, the yawns, the “don’t you have to be up early”, etc., etc.
  6. And, last but not least, next day either a note, phone call or email thanking them for the day/night.

Follow these rules and you may even be invited again – or not, if you went on about that blasted footy team.

 

CHICKEN, BACON & MUSHROOM POT PIE

Preheat oven to 180°C

Cube 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 2 cm cubes).

Heat a little vegie oil in a heavy-bottomed large pot and sauté ½ large chopped onion with 8 sliced button mushrooms and 3 sliced bacon rashers over a low heat until tender. Add a good dollop of butter and, when melted, add 3 tbsp plain flour and mix in well. Cook, stirring for a few minutes, and then add 2 cups chicken stock (packet is fine) and a good slurp of cream. Cook until thick, check seasoning and add the chicken. Cook for 5 mins and then transfer to a large pie dish (or individual ones – china not metal.)

Cut bought puff pastry sheets into shapes a little large than the bowl. Beat 1 egg with ¼ cup milk and paint around outside the top of the dish. Place the pastry on top, pressing firmly around the outside of the dish. Then paint all over with the egg wash and bake until risen and golden brown.

Serve with cooked buttered cabbage.