Decisions, decisions. Life is teeming with them. If it's not where to live, what to wear, or what to buy Mom for her birthday, it's paper or plastic, pilates or spinning, tartar control or whitener. Mealtimes are no different. Once you've finally determined where to dine, you're again called to flex your decision-making muscles: Shaken or stirred? Soup or salad? Rare or medium-rare? Creme brulee or cobbler?
Fortunately for us decision-challenged types, there are chefs out there willing to make it easy on us. A growing number of restaurants around Boston offer menu selections that feature a single food prepared in a variety of styles or flavors - think of them as the food equivalent of small-tasting ''flights'' of wine. Food flights not only save you time and mental energy, but they also allow you a glimpse of a chef's true artistry -- how many variations on a theme can he or she come up with? We can value a flight plate the same way we appreciate, say, Andy Warhol's serial paintings of Marilyn Monroe or John Coltrane's diverse recordings of ''A Love Supreme.''
''The fun is to see the contrast'' between variations, says Clark Frasier, a chef-owner of Arrows Restaurant in Ogunquit, Maine, which scored a spot on Gourmet Magazine's list of the top 50 restaurants in America. His menu features a selection of flights for each course every season. ''As a chef, it's fun to interweave different ideas throughout a dish, to juxtapose and make them complementary,'' he says. ''It's like taking rhythm and music and adding different layers to them. I think what's intriguing to chefs is to elevate that by bringing in different harmonies.''
To wit, a few of our favorite food themes, and their harmonic variations, being served around town.
PASTA TASTING Sage, 69 Prince St., Boston. 617-248-8814.
''Life is a combination of magic and pasta,'' said the legendary film director Federico Fellini. But spaghetti wisdom comes in many varieties, as does the pasta at Sage, all of which is hand rolled, hung, and cut. What chef Anthony Susi demonstrates is that, in life, magic can be a combination of pasta dishes.
''A lot of the pasta experience has to do with the texture of the pasta,'' says Susi, who serves a plated threesome of mini portions ($12) of each of his three entree pasta selections. The linear arrangement is like the ''Star Wars'' trilogy of Italian dining: As you move from left to right, the consistencies and flavors thicken just as the plot of any good adventure should.
This spring, you get to start off with a hearty potato gnocchi and tender pulled rabbit soused in a sage-seasoned brown butter and dappled with edamame beans, a garden bite that amplifies the recipe's farm freshness. Then, the linguini-like whole wheat tagliatelle, an earthy, chewy pasta, is served with a meaty blond veal Bolognese. Susi likes his pasta finales grand, and for his showcase pasta he includes agnolotti filled with creamy spinach. Since there's already so much going on in each individual agnolotti pocket, he tops them off with a butter sauce spiked with truffle peelings so as to not overshadow the leading role of the spinach. The three portions together amount to less than the serving in a dinner entree, so there's room to sample further from the menu.
FLIGHT OF SOUPS Restaurant L, 234 Berkeley St., Boston. 617-266-4680.
Southeast Asian food is what matters to Pino Maffeo, executive chef at Restaurant L. The cuisine is funky by nature, and though Maffeo tones down the funk to make some of his dishes more approachable, he brings in the funk and a dose of whimsy in his presentation of Liquid Flights ($12), three flavorful fluids served in test tubes that are lodged upright in a bed of uncooked rice.
The tubes are arranged in order of increasing viscosity, from a thin broth to a substantial soup. You start off with a BLT cocktail, which has a surprisingly dense flavor despite the clear tomato broth. Then you move to the Vietnamese Pho broth, which includes Thai basil and a fine sliver of rare beef, and finish off with a shot of coconut curry broth spiked with lemongrass, garnished with a piece of wok-seared lobster.
Maffeo says his interest is in ''creating one-bite wonders'' - carefully composed, elegantly designed plates where each fundamental building block is given equal attention, whether it's the feature protein or a radish garnish. The liquid flights present shot-sized liquid tastes of three of Maffeo's entrees, and a willingness to sip from the test tubes may mean that you'll want to investigate the taste in an entree. And isn't discovery what science is all about?
THREE LITTLE GRILLED CHEESES Bambara, 25 Edwin H. Land Blvd., Cambridge. 617-868-4444.
When it comes to comfort foods, grilled cheese ranks right up there. One bite can stir up memories of rainy days in your living room with warm chocolate milk and bad television, or rainy twilights at roadside diners with cold coffee and good company.
In honor of cozy simplicity, Three Little Grilled Cheeses ($9), an item on Bambara's lunch menu, consists of a trio of half sandwiches on white bread that glistens with a grilled, buttery sheen. Cheese and bread - pretty basic, right? Not when you melt a different gourmet cheese in each portion. Chef Michael Haimowitz previously cooked at Morrell's in New York, where his kitchen was perpetually stocked with at least 20 toothsome cheeses. One of his grilled cheeses is made with a Vermont cheddar, and Haimowitz offsets the sharpness of the cheddar with another sandwich filled with the creamy richness of brie. The third sandwich uses a pungent-smelling tallegio, but it's milder tasting than its smell indicates. This meaty Italian cheese has a washed rind, which promotes ripening from the outside and the growth of a particularly epicurean strain of bacteria that lends the slab its beefy texture and strong barnyard aroma. Creature comforts, indeed. To clinch the nostalgia factor, the sandwiches are served with a thick tomato soup.
LAMB FOUR WAYS L'Espalier, 30 Gloucester St., Boston. 617-262-3023.
Most of us claim to have ordered lamb at a restaurant, but there's far more to lamb than the tenderloin, which is what we're served most frequently. L'Espalier's sous chef, James Hackney, explains that he developed Lamb Four Ways ($35) to allow diners a chance to try different cuts of lamb meat, prepared with a method that best suits the cut.
When a lamb arrives whole in the L'Espalier kitchen, fresh from Lydia Radcliffe's Lovejoy Farms in Vermont, nothing goes to waste - much to the delight of diners in pursuit of a whole-food experience. So when eaten along with the liver, which is so rich that vinegar is added to cut the fat, you may be surprised at just how delicate the lean loin tastes. The loin and other prime cuts, like the rack or tenderloin, are often roasted with a jus, which is lighter than the marinade used with the front quarter. That front meat is tougher, so it requires a slower cooking process, like braising, to bring out its flavors. The overall emphasis with the lamb variations is on local ingredients prepared with a global influence and on tradition presented with a contemporary edge.
Since lamb has historically been popular in Morocco and India, saffron and curry are often found in L'Espalier's preparations. ''We look back in history at the ingredients used in different preparations, and we use those to push ourselves forward in terms of trends and presentation in our modern cuisine,'' says Hackney.
LUCKY 7 SAUCES Betty's Wok & Noodle Diner, 250 Huntington Ave., Boston. 617-424-1950.
There are seven days of the week, seven deadly sins, and seven dwarfs. Keeping each of those septets in order is easy compared to explaining the seven sauces at Betty's, where ordering a meal can be an exercise in strategic planning. Chef/manager Junior Porter knows that guests like to be involved in their dining-out experience, so although the menu contains several pre-designed combos, he encourages mixing and matching your own blend of starch, protein, and sauce. It seems pretty basic in theory, but Betty's fusion of Asian and Latino cooking opens the door for hemisphere-hopping possibilities that can send your mind (not to mention your tastebuds) into overdrive. With sauce options like Cuban chipotle-citrus and Thai-tiki, how do we know which choice is the one for us?
Fear not -- every diner gets to sample the tastes from a small platter of the seven sauces and wonton chips. Some sauces have recognizable names but might not conform to expectations, since they're all made in house. Asian pesto, for instance, involves mint and no pine nuts. Curry isn't stock curry powder but a peanut-based blend of spices. And who's to say whether Fiery Kung Pao is actually spicy? Taste them all and let your tastebuds decide how you want to order. ''The only way to feel comfortable with what you're ordering is to do a tasting,'' declares Porter, recognizing that the D.I.Y aspect of the menu can be as intimidating as any globetrotting adventure. Best of all, the sauce tasting is free.
FRENCH FRY TRIO The Bristol, 200 Boylston St., in the Four Seasons Hotel, Boston. 617-338-4400.
There are certain foodstuffs we'd never expect to find on the menu of a classy power-lunch eatery, let alone three varieties of it. But nestled amid the shrimp cocktail and charcuterie on the Bristol's light-fare menu are three types of French fries ($13). The trinity includes classic slivers dressed up in truffle oil and asiago and accompanied by lemon aioli; a helping outfitted in bold barbecue spices and designed for dunking in ranch dressing; and a final selection that's actually less spudly, but a tad more wild - Portobello mushroom slices breaded, fried, and primed for dipping in ketchup. Something about the Bristol's sophisticated décor and elegant live piano certainly beats the fluorescent lighting and soda machine whir that may have accompanied your last French fry experience. Plus, if your business deal falls through, at least you won't be stuck with a plate of (and bill for) caviar and lobster.
ARBOR CHARCUTERIE Arbor, 711 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain. 617-522-1221
Douglas Organ cures his own duck breast and makes his own prosciutto. Such hearty cuisine was not quite his stock in trade while operating bistros in Northern California, which he did until he arrived in Boston two years ago and opened Arbor. He's since made his cozy Mediterranean-style meet-and-eat site into something of a meat spot.
With the Arbor Charcuterie ($12), Organ brandishes his resourcefulness with all things livestock and makes sure nothing goes to waste in his kitchen, which has historically been the purpose of pates. So the liver from a whole roasted duck becomes mousse, and scraps trimmed from a venison entree go into a terrine. It's perfectly logical, then, that the charcuterie medley changes regularly. Organ is always careful, however, to make sure the assortment spans a breadth of texture and presentation. So whereas duck liver mousse is creamy, smooth, and spreadable, duck breast pate is chewier. The pork-based country pate and venison terrine have coarser consistencies but are still smooth on the palate. As we move deeper into spring and summer, Organ plans to use lighter meats like rabbit for the terrines. Regardless of the combo, it proves once again that liver is far more versatile than chopped gray matter intended for Ritz crackers. As an added plus, Organ pickles his own kumquats, grapes, onions, and radishes and uses them as garnishes.
FOUR INDIVIDUAL CREME BRULEES Azure, 61 Exeter St., in the Lenox Hotel, Boston. 617-933-4800.
Heavy cream soaks up flavors like a photographic memory absorbs images. Creme brulee is made primarily from heavy cream that's been infused with a particular flavor. And when it comes to flavorings, the possibilities are endless. To hear Azure's pastry chef, Alice Feldman, tell it, creating harmonizing tastes among the four little creme brulees ($8) is as much fun for her as it is for diners to savor. Arrangements on any given night fall under one of two general categories. One is a thematic idea, like tropical essences: ginger, lemongrass, coconut, and vanilla bean. The other category is ''deconstructed desserts.'' In the mood for a springtime confection like coconut key lime pie, for example? Feldman breaks out its essences in creme brulee form, including individual tastes of cinnamon, coconut, key lime, and vanilla. Make a night of it and pair each flavor with a different spirit: cinnamon with whiskey, coconut with rum, vanilla with Amaretto, and key lime with tequila.