The first time I ever experienced a prix fixe menu was in Paris. Interestingly, it wasn’t at a fancy restaurant at all, but a decidedly casual cafe near a museum. Ordering a single item didn’t seem to be permitted; I was handed a menu and told to choose one each from a small list of appetizers, entrees, and desserts.
From there, my work was done and all that was left to do was sit back and enjoy. I was delivered an appetizer, an entree with bread, then a strong, tiny coffee and dessert, and all for a mere few Euros. Each portion was manageable, not immense; put together, they made for a memorable meal. I became an instant devotee of the prix fixe menu and the wonderful eating experience it can provide. Let’s get to know the prix fixe menu better, including learning what it is exactly, and the art of putting one together.
What is a prix fixe menu? Usually, if you come across the term “prix fixe” in the United States, more often than not it translates to “expensive restaurant”. However, this is not and should not be the point of a prix fixe menu.
Simply put, prix fixe (pronounced “pree feeks”) means “fixed price”. The most common setup with a prix fixe menu is with a multi-course meal, which comes with a set price. The menu may include as few as two or as many as ten or more courses. Sometimes, a prix fixe menu is just as set as the price–that is to say, you’re told what the courses will be and that’s that. Other times, however, there will be choices within each category–for instance, you’ll choose from a small list of salad options, appetizer options, and entree options to build your meal.
In the United States, prix fixe menus are often associated with holiday menus at restaurants. Valentine’s day is a good example, where a restaurant might offer a prix fixe menu including romantic and luxuriant delicacies such as oysters, lobster or steak for dinner, and special chocolate desserts.
Why have a prix fixe menu? While prix fixe menus are not hugely common in the United States, they are common fare in European restaurants. So what exactly is the advantage of a prix fixe menu?
For the chef, the prix fixe menu offers a chance to design a meal the way that he or she thinks it should flow together, to create a statement with their food. It offers a chance to showcase their creativity and the opportunity to feed their customers in the way they would like.
In terms of service, the prix fixe also allows the meal to be timed perfectly, so that every person at the same table is delivered each course at the same time, since there are no off the cuff orders. The table can also be set in advance for certain foods to be served. Even with choices, if the menu includes a soup, then salad, then entree, certain utensils can be laid out in advance. This lends a distinct sophisticated edge to a fine dining experience.
How can you design a prix fixe menu? Designing a prix fixe menu is a creative and joyful puzzle. What flavors, textures, do you want to showcase? What type of dining experience do you want to design?
For many, a general theme is helpful. Say, for instance, the theme was “Summer in Maine”. The menu might include a salad with wild blueberries, lobster rolls, and a fancied-up version of whoopie pies. The theme can be seasonal, geographical, or really anything you’d like. The idea is to set some boundaries so that the menu can be cohesive, creative, and showcase flavors that taste great together.
Once you’ve settled on a theme, decide how many courses you’d like to have. A manageable amount might be four: salad, appetizer, main course, and dessert. From there, decide what you’d like your dishes to be. This is the fun part! Let your mind go wild.
Dos and dont’s. Here are some helpful bits of advice when creating a prix fixe menu.
Do keep things simple. When designing a menu with multiple dishes, don’t make every single one a complicated dish. You’ll just make your life complicated! Create a mix of complex and simple dishes so that you’ll never be overwhelmed in the kitchen.
Do be prepared. Mise en place is of vital importance with a prix fixe menu. It’s important that dishes are delivered in a timely manner, and at the same time for a large table of diners. Prepare what you can in advance, and be sure to have everything else prepped and ready to go so that the cooking can go as smoothly as possible.
Don’t serve clashing dishes. If you serve something assertively flavored, like a ceviche, then follow it with a subtle sweet potato soup, the more subtle flavor will get lost. Don’t serve dishes that will clash or compete with each other.
Do embrace contrast. Clashing is bad; contrast, on the other hand, can be good. For instance, serving a rich appetizer followed by a tart, slightly astringent salad can be a great palate cleanser and pleasing contrast.
Do consider the serving dishes. Consider the actual vessels in which you will serve your food. Be sure that you won’t create an overflow with washing dishes, or that you don’t run out of silverware!
Do allow for dietary requests. There are certain requests that are common these days, such as a gluten-free, vegan, or nut-free option. When possible, be prepared with an alternative that will satisfy these dietary concerns.
Do allow for pairings. Make a wine or beer pairing to go along with your menu. Not only is it fun, but it further augments the cuisine and overall experience.
Don’t have too many choices. IF you are offering choices with your prix fixe menu, keep them limited. About three options per course is a good amount that offers variety and a “build your own” sort of method but without being too overwhelming on the kitchen.
How to present a prix fixe menu. If you want to create a prix fixe menu, how do you present it? Here are some of the most common ways.
- Printed menu: if you are only offering a fixed price menu, print out menus from which to order. They may or may not include the option to choose.
- Insert in a menu: If your regular menu will remain available but there is an option to buy the prix fixe menu, include an insert in the menu. However, it is wise to require that all parties at the table order the prix fixe menu to keep things streamlined and simple.
- Board: An alternative to printed menus is to have the menu available on a board, such as a chalk board. However, this is not the best choice for a large restaurant where the board is not easily visible from every seat. If the restaurant is large, there should be multiple boards.
- Verbal menu: While it’s impressive to have a verbal menu, it can be confusing for customers who want to review the ingredients list or simply can’t remember what the server said about the appetizer choices after they’ve gotten to talking about the desserts. A verbal menu can work for a more intimate setting, but consider that servers may have to repeat themselves many times over.
Conclusion: The prix fixe menu is an art as well as a science. For chefs, it is a clever and creative way to showcase flavors and provide not only great food but an eating experience. It’s what transforms well prepared food into a truly memorable meal experience.
Do you enjoy prix fixe menus?