Service à la Russe

So what exactly is a Service à la Russe?

This type of table service is the grandfather of the multi-course tasting menus one finds today at fine dining restaurants like The French Laundry, The Fat Duck or The Inn at Little Washington.

Before Service à la Russe, dinner was served in courses, with each course having a variety of meat and side dishes. These multi-dish courses would be served all at once on the table and it was the guest's job to carve or serve the dish in front of them as the plates went around the table. Afterward all the dishes would be removed and the table would be laid again with a new course with another variety of meat and side dishes. This was the standard dinner service, with slight variations, from the medieval period up into the Victorian period.

By the 1880s however the Service à la Russe (service in the Russian Style) was the standard for fashionable hostesses and the newly popular and rapidly growing restaurant industry. For an at home Service à la Russe, dishes would be plated on platters (large tureens for soup) which would be carved/plated in view of the table at the side-board or passed around the table by servants for guests to serve themselves from. Etiquette dictated that a guest was to serve themselves, let they offend their hostess by not eating everything on their plate.

Elaborate Edwardian Service à la Russe dinners could have over 20 courses but 12-15 seems to be more of the standard. The layout of the menu was to build the palette up to the crescendo of the "roast" course (relevé) before easing it back down to a finishing cheese course (cheese was thought to aid in digestion). The idea was also to intersperse light courses between heavier courses, hence the idea of removes and refreshers. It's actually a very sound structure for a menu, from both a diner and kitchen perspective. It was also a good way so show off one's wealth or status with expensive ingredients, elaborate dishes and the necessity of several servants.

I've looked at many period Service à la Russe menus from various sources over the past few months (including those from the Titanic)and it’s amazing how consistent and yet different they are. Escoffier has been so helpful not only for his list of menus but in helping to decipher them and figure out the courses proper names. I was also lucky enough to find a collection of period menus at the NYPL from an American collector (so nice to not have to translate everything!).

I could go on and on about how & why we chose each course and put it where we did and what the variations are but I'll spare you. Our menu is a nice representation of an Edwardian Service à la Russe dinner if I do say so myself. We will be having 13 courses:

hors d'oeurve
clear soup
relevé (roast)
cold savory

Umm... it looks so simple and uncomplicated when written out like that! Hahaha!

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