Want to add value to your dining experience? Then include a few shared dishes on your menu, says Fiona Sims. They add drama, save on service and cater for bigger numbers without compromising quality.
Brian Baker often carves for his guests. The chef-owner of pub-with-rooms the Marquess of Exeter, in Lyddington, Rutland, has been offering a couple of dishes to share on his menu since he opened a year ago. "For many, this is a fairly new restaurant experience, but the results speak for themselves. They have remained some of our most popular dishes," he grins.
Sharing dishes have soared in popularity in recent years. We're not talking pizza, or country house hotel-style châteaubriand, nor the proliferation of small-portioned grazing menus that have hit the capital and beyond. We're talking whole chickens, brought to the table in handsome copper pans, roasted sucking pig on a carving try with all the trimmings, and even authentic cassoulet, presented with ceremony and lingered over by diners who enjoy the added drama and extra flavour that these dishes can bring: single dishes for two or more - particularly more.
Why so popular now? Well, there's the all-important comfort factor, and that need for a bit of theatre, and the perceived added value of the dish - all important during a recession; and there's the fact that we're too busy to cook at home, yet still craving that shared dining experience; and, of course, the simple fact that some dishes just taste better when they are cooked for more.
The dishes at the Marquess of Exeter are more sensitively priced. The slow-roast shoulder of lamb served with Hispi cabbage, boulangère potatoes and mint sauce is £25.50 for two and is often taken by the whole table - it's particularly popular with families on Sundays.
A bit of banter
And they love a bit of banter with the chef, claims Baker, who used to work as Elton John's private chef and was the youngest-ever chef to receive a Michelin star, when he worked at nearby Hambleton Hall.
"The presentation and appeal of sharing dishes when served is always impressive - customers realise that they are getting value for money and have the enhanced experience of carving and sharing the dish together. It creates a bit of theatre without having to pay actors!" he says.
It might not make much of a difference to his gross profit, but it helps when the kitchen is busy. "We make a minimal amount of saving on the portion size, but it is more efficient in terms of preparation and service time - and they have become something of a signature," he explains, adding that he serves about 35 sharing dishes a week.
The secret of successful sharing dishes, says Baker, is to keep produce fresh and seasonal - he plunders his dad's allotment regularly. "This is particularly important, as two people sharing a dish might have different expectations."
But how many to offer? Since trialling them first on his à la carte menu, they have now become a daily staple at the Marquess of Exeter. "Usually, two shared dishes offered per sitting has proved sufficient, dependent on the produce available," he suggests.
And what to offer? Among the shared dishes that have garnered the greatest praise is oven-baked smoked Camembert, roasted garlic and grill bread, at £12.50 for two as a starter sharing dish, and grilled rib of Derbyshire beef, béarnaise sauce and pommes frites, at £33 for two.
In the summer months Baker offers whole fish, such as grilled local Eye Brook trout, new potatoes, green salad, caper, gherkin and garlic dressing (£22.50 for two), and whole grilled red snapper, with a roasted garlic and tomato dressing, green salad and sautéd potatoes, at £30.50 for two. "Yes, they sometimes make a hash of serving it up themselves, and they even playfully argue over who is going to do it, but I'll show them how if they want me to, and this all adds to the theatre of the meal," says Baker.
The Anchor & Hope in London has offered sharing dishes longer than most - ever since it opened seven years ago. Its head chef, Jonathon Jones, is a big fan. "Our reasons for doing it are twofold: we thought it was lovely for people to have a shared dining experience - the kind of food people used to cook at home and don't have time for any more; plus, we have a tiny kitchen here at the Anchor, and we get very busy, so this helps us enormously," he confesses.
Makes people talk
Every day this week he has slow-cooked five shoulders of lamb, which he puts on the menu for five or six to share, at £65, including gratin dauphinoise. "It's great watching people tuck in - it makes people talk about food," says Jones.
"Though, to be honest, it's not any cheaper than if we sold that dish as an individual portion," he admits. He manages to keep his costs down by doing the butchery himself, buying whole lambs and half a cow - he'll offer a whole beef shin for 10 people. "That way we save a lot of money and we can buy the quality of meat we want, and utilise every part of it. They might be less-glam cuts, but they are the tastiest and present more of a challenge for the kitchen," says Jones, who regularly offers Lancashire hotpot for four, a whole lasagne for three, and pot au feu.
"Sometimes things just taste better roasted whole - like saddle of hare or lamb rack. Basically, we offer shared things whenever it's advantageous to the dish," he says. Right now, for example, he's got roasted suckling pig on, served with braised fennel with mint, and chips.
But it wasn't always so easy to sell these dishes. "We always hoped people would embrace this eventually - which they have, but in the early days we had to really push them," he says. Today he is offering at least two shared dishes for both lunch and dinner - his menus change twice a day - but sometimes he offers up to five sharing dishes on one menu.
Tonight he's also offering a whole roasted sea bass for three, served with a cauliflower and anchovy dressing and buttered almonds. "I bought some glorious big bass this morning. What it also does is encourage other people to order these dishes - when they see that beautiful big fish coming out on a plate they want it too," says Jones. And price isn't an issue - Jones has even offered turbot and lobster. "Anything between £15 and £45 a head for a dish," he reckons.
The Sunday lunches at the Anchor & Hope are hugely popular. In fact, it's one big sharing fest: a four-course set menu for £30, with one serving, at 2pm, everything shared. "Everybody helps themselves - we are full every week," boasts Jones. This Sunday, he's offering raw vegetables with an anchovy dip, followed by roast Middle White pork with an artichoke and potato gratin, then cheese and pud (an almond pithivier).
The whole chicken with 40 garlic cloves has become a destination dish for the award-winning London wine bar and restaurant, Terroirs, and diners often phone ahead to secure their portion. Though the menu says it serves two, it happily serves three - even four, especially if you start with the appealing array of small plates, also designed to share.
Priced at £30 and served in a handsome copper pan, with a side order of armour-plated roast potatoes served in a dinky cast-iron pot, the orders fly - about 40 a week - for chef Ed Wilson's take on the French classic.
Benefit to the kitchen
"Dishes to share are a great benefit to the kitchen because we can serve a table more effectively and efficiently. We are only a small brigade, with two to three chefs on a service. This allows us to do bigger numbers without compromising on quality," says Wilson.
Other restaurants are now making a special feature of shared dishes for larger bookings. St John's preordered Feasting Menus are hugely popular, starting at £30 a head including side orders, ranging from pigeon and trotter pie to pot-roast smoked Gloucestershire Old Spot.
Mark Hix offers feast menus, too, at his Soho restaurant, Hix, available for 10 or more with advance booking. The suckling pig feast, for example, costs £42.50 per person and includes starters and puds. But he also offers an array of shared dishes on his main restaurant menu.
"Eating out is changing, and on our menus I try and offer at least a couple of dishes that can be shared by two or more people," says Hix. "I suppose some of the influence derived from one of my favourite restaurants in Paris, L'Amis Louis. We serve a 1kg porterhouse for two to share and a fantastic Woolley Park Farm chicken, which is naturally slow-reared and tastes just like a guinea fowl and can feed up to four.
"I've even had special dishes made for the chicken so they sit on a spike through the cavity and can be easily carved by the guests. You can guarantee the minute one is walked through the room a few more get ordered."
Matt Burns agrees. The executive chef of the Hilton Liverpool hotel has offered sharing dishes since he took on his first head chef role six years ago at its Exchange restaurant. "There is definitely a knock-on effect. About 10 minutes after the first one goes out on a Friday night, more orders come in," confirms Burns, who likes to serve Lancashire Ridings Reserve lamb hotpot and whole roasted Fleetwood turbot, both for two or more. "I like shared dishes because they offer a sense of intimacy and theatre for the diners - and customers like the waiters serving them at the table."
Meanwhile Henry Harris, at his Knightsbridge restaurant, Racine, can't wait to get stuck in to a cassoulet - albeit with a week's notice. Eaten in his 14-seat private room, the cassoulet is one of the great sharing dishes, he declares. "Once it's loaded up with meat and beans you don't want to disturb it. I think sharing dishes are just so generous: I love putting one big plate of food on the table. But it's about doing it generously, serving those ingredients at their best. It's always better to cook, too. For example, we sell five côte de boeuf for two every day. It's actually better to cook a thicker piece of meat, you get a good char on the outside and it's more delicious.
"It's also about the ceremony of presenting a shared dish - it somehow makes things taste better. Plus, you can pick at it, take time over it - and customers drink more. They quite often invest in a better bottle, too," reveals Harris, who also offers a couple of sharing dishes every day on the à la carte menu.
As well as the beef dish currently on the menu, there is also spring shoulder of Pyrenean lamb with Tarbais beans for three. Harris argues that you better understand a dish cooking it this way. "Take pot au feu. So many people get it wrong. They think it's just a casserole, but to make a classic pot au feu you need to make a fantastic stock, and nothing should take on colour."
Harris believes the ultimate sharing dish is poularde de Bresse en vessie. Originally created by top French chef Fernand Point at La Pyramide in Vienne, it is a chicken in a pig's bladder with truffles under the skin with port, Madeira, Armagnac and truffle juice. The bladder poached in water insulates its contents but stretches and swells up like a balloon so that it's taken to the customer's table looking like a football, where it's punctured and the chicken carved. Now that's what I call drama - and big flavour.
Reasons to share
â- It injects a comfort factor
â- Some dishes just taste better in larger servings
â- It suggests value for money
â- It's more efficient in terms of preparation and service time
â- It creates a signature
â- It makes the best use of seasonal produce
â- It offers a shared dining experience
â- It gives a home-cooked feeling for people that don't have the time
â- It can do bigger numbers without compromising on quality
â- The visual impact encourages more orders
â- Customers linger and drink more - even spend more on wine
â- It helps chefs to understand certain dishes better