Quality vs. quantity: Are pint-sized meals worth the price?

It’s hard to pass up a steak at the Riverview Hotel in Sydney’s Balmain. The menu changes daily but I don’t remember an occasion when a steak has not been chalked on the board. They get it spot on just about every time: adequate char, a slightly caramelised crust, and that tantalising medium-rare interior.

And it’s never just your bog-standard steak and chips. The latest rendition we had was a scotch fillet, with hand-cut chips, roasted tomatoes and peppercorn jus. The chips were rustic and thick and softly browned like a mid-summer sun-baker. Twice cooked they were crunch-wrapped cushions of potato – a win-win for the diner.

But here’s the rub: there were only 7 or 8 – albeit fat – chips. At $28 the scotch fillet appeared on the pokey side, too. In short, the meal was pretty much flawless, but small. Ditto the battered fish with tartare, smashed peas and chips. The batter was airily crisp – perhaps the lightest i’ve had slathered on fish. But there were just three small pieces, not 2-3 long strips of fillet that one would expect to grace the plate.

So if the meals were of such high standard, why did i feel ripped off?

It comes down to expectations. We’ve unconsciously come to expect large platefuls of food and feel robbed if a restaurant serves up anything less.

We’ve been spoon-fed gradually expanding portions over the past decades. The humble burger became a double burger, then a triple burger – a gargantuan mega-meal. Toasted focaccias the size of a dinner plate and muffins that bulge over their paper cases like a pair of steroid-boosted pecs are all par for the course.

As restaurants and cafes compete for custom they’ve fed our expectations of getting more food for money. Super-sized meals have become standard by stealth. But there’s something wrong when you have to dismantle a burger and consume it with cutlery because you would dislocate your jaw if you took the traditional route.

It seems to me no coincidence that the latest research published in The Lancet this month shows that Australia registered one of the largest increases in obesity in the developed world since 1980, behind the US, and the UK and New Zealand.

Research consistently shows our tendency to eat more if we are given a larger portion. We may plan to leave something on the plate but in the end we’re likely to polish it off. At the end of the day, pysiological satiety prompts are quashed by food cues, such as large portions and the sensory attractiveness of food. In a nutshell, our eyes are too big for our bellies.

But are we really getting a good deal? Does quantity necessarily equate to quality?

I pondered those very questions as i hoed into my pub meal. I actually found that i ate more slowly, savoured the exquisite chips, appreciated the hand-made tartare, and contemplated how to replicate a batter of that calibre.

As i chewed it over – both dinner and my dilemma – it made me appreciate the talents of the kitchen, rather than taking them for granted.

By the end of the meal I felt satiated, not overly stuffed. I even bestowed upon my dining companion a fat chip of two. (His appetite wasn’t as satisfied as mine!)

So should we settle for less (size-wise), if the quality is exceptionally high?

I’ll let you be your own judge. But for the record, I am a repeat customer at the Riverview. In reality, there is nothing small about those pub meals – they’re big in personality and balanced in flavour. It all comes down to perception and, of course, expectation.

Our super-sized expectations make a well-proportioned meal seem small. But i’m of the perception that what appears to be less, really is more.

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