The Dollar-Wise Gourmet: Something for Nothing

Frankly, I didn’t know what my editor was talking about when she suggested a story on the amuse-bouche trend.
I could only deduce that it was something French, meaning it was something I couldn’t pronounce, and probably something I couldn’t afford, either.
A quick search of the Merriam-Webster online dictionary revealed that amuse-bouche is actually easy to pronounce: ah-mooze-boosh. But the second half of my assumption turned out to be true: It’s not meant for people of more modest means, like me.
It does, however, offer a cost savings for those with a few more bucks to burn—and that’s why it belongs in this column. As my editor pointed out, even the well-heeled like to save a buck.
So here’s the deal: An amuse-bouche is, literally, an amusement for the mouth. It’s a small, complimentary appetizer, generally served in finer restaurants, typically at the dinner hour and typically after guests have been seated and have placed their order.
It also is a small but slowly growing trend in the Sacramento region. If you’ve been to Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, Mason’s, Maritime Seafood & Grill, Hawks or the like lately, you may already have had the pleasure.
Although amuse-bouche have started to pop up at more area restaurants, they’re still being served at only at a handful of places, which may explain why some locals haven’t seen them before and don’t know quite what to make of them.
 “Some people have commented, ‘I’m not going to get charged for this, am I?’” reports Mason’s sous chef, Robert Lind. Servers do explain to guests that it’s complimentary, Lind says. But apparently, it’s hard for some folks to believe they’re really getting something for nothing.
 Furthermore, it’s not just “something.” You won’t see any deviled eggs or peanut-buttered Ritz being passed off as amuse-bouche. Rather, these are lovely little culinary creations providing a tantalizing treat for the taste buds—something simple yet savory.
“It’s meant to get your mouth kind of dancing,” says Chris Jackson, executive chef of La Perla Bistro in Carmichael, who routinely treats his guests to an amuse-bouche, though not on a nightly basis. “It depends on having the time to devote to it, and also having some ingredients on hand that will work,” he explains. A typical treat from Jackson’s kitchen might be a shot of rich crab bisque in a demitasse, or a tiny tart with triple crème and persimmon preserves.
Jackson sees the amuse-bouche as not only a gracious way to welcome guests but an opportunity to stretch his own creativity—a view shared by Molly Hawks, chef/owner of Hawks Restaurant in Granite Bay.
“I think it adds value to the dining experience, and it’s also a really nice way to welcome guests and give them a hint of what’s to come,” says Hawks. She likes to use the amuse-bouche as an opportunity to stray outside the restaurant’s classic American/French/Mediterranean palette into other, more exotic culinary worlds, such as Asian. An edamame and radish salad dressed in citrus vinaigrette and a touch of soy sauce was a recent amuse creation. “Branching out into other flavors is fun for the cooks, because they all get to participate,” Hawks explains.
Needless to say, it’s also fun for the guests—especially the unsuspecting ones who never expected such a treat. And though you might argue that anyone who can afford to eat at an upscale restaurant also can afford to pay for an appetizer, there’s not one among us who doesn’t like a little something for free.

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