We Are Not Amused

Is anyone else a little puzzled about that little oddity that often appears at the beginning of your dining experience? I’m taking about the Amuse Bouche, the little bites that chefs send out to you before the dishes you ordered are ready.

This rather oddly named introductory morsel actually translates in French as “mouth amuser”. Now, that’s odd. I can think of many other things that may “amuse” my mouth, and some of those may well be more delectable.

You’ve probably never bothered to analyse it (and why I am, I’m not sure, but I’m doing it anyway) Due to my endless curiosity, I felt it important that I gain an understanding of how and why these exist.

The amuse bouche became commonplace in fine dining establishments when French chefs developed ‘nouvelle cuisine’, a lighter style of cuisine when smaller dishes with supposed more intense flavour became the norm, a pre-cursor to today’s degustation meals (but far less generous)

The idea was all about experimentation and there was a certain competitiveness amongst chefs.

The Amuse Bouche was common until the late 1980’s when they disappeared along with nouvelle cuisine. A good thing, as finally diners didn’t have to leave a restaurant still hungry! 

Well, the Amuse Bouche is back with a vengeance, and it’s everywhere now, even at mid-range restaurants. Perhaps the sign of a creative chef, also as a little thank you for coming along to dine. No complaints there. But, like anything that becomes popular in many places, quality varies wildly. If done properly, the Amuse Bouche should represent the chef’s vision - showcasing various techniques in just a single, tiny serving.

The Michelin Guide calls it a science and puts it this way: “While chefs use it as an opportunity to showcase their culinary finesse, serving up such bold flavours early into the meal has its merits: it can increase the appetite while promoting feelings of satiety–especially if the chef whips up nuggets packed with umami goodness. One study done by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that it induced the production of saliva—perfect for what’s soon to follow” 

Acclaimed New York City chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten explains: “The amuse-bouche is the best way for a great chef to express his or her big ideas in small bites”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for a nice “complimentary” addition to the meal you’ve ordered. My thing is that I have mostly been underwhelmed by these morsels, and to me they can be ill-thought out, not reflecting the aesthetic of the chef in many instances.

The ones that really work for me are the those that balance true technique with a burst of flavour. The more umami, the better. Broths, looking fairly simple but packing a whopping punch of flavour are excellent examples. When they are bland, you do worry about your meal to come. The ill-thought out Amuse Bouche lacking flavour or style does more damage than good.

Some that I’ve had are so simple they lacked almost any flavour. Or were casually thrown together. Some leftover veges perhaps, topping a little potato puree. Yawn. Or something topped up with the ubiquitous “foam” or “air”, essentially amounting to nothing, coming from all but the very best chefs.

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The presentation is also interesting. You can eat them in several ways, depending what they are served in. You can dig out the food with a teensy-weensy spoon, which makes you look like a bit of a guts as you try and scrape every last speck from the tiny cup it’s served in. Or there’s the old shot-glass trick, where you lift and devour the entire morsel in one go. My experience with this is that it can be messy, depending on the contents, which are often thick and gooey. So you hold that tiny glass to your mouth with your head tilted back for up to a minute while the slow draining contents make their way into your mouth. Your fellow diners have a full view inside your nostrils. Attractive.

Then there’s the third method of delivery, and the one I dislike the most. Those twisty spoons that contain the piled up little morsel. Down the hatch they are supposed to go in one foul swoop. Rarely do you feel so visible in a restaurant as when you attempt this strategic manoeuvre. For some strange reason, when they are presented on those spoons, there’s usually too much food to fit in the average persons mouth. Or the spoon is too wide. There’s nothing uglier than half the food left masticated or bitten through left on that spoon. Or even worse, you spill some down on your placemat, or on yourself. Take a look around the restaurant when this happens to you. I guarantee most people are staring. For reasons such as this I’ve always thought it best not to wear a crisp white shirt to dinner. 

Then, there is the pronunciation. Have a little listen the next time your server brings you this delightful surprise. Perhaps get him to repeat it, asking “I’m sorry, what did you call this?”. If you’re lucky he will say what so many have said to me: “It’s chefs ‘Moosh Boosh’.

You may as well have some fun with it, even if your mouth doesn’t.

Personally, I really could do without the Amuse Bouche. Only on rare occasions have they impressed me. I consider them more as a novelty than a real reflection of the style of the chef or the restaurant. I prefer to leave the amusement of my mouth to other such pleasures.