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Tasting Menus versus Traditionally Structured Meals


robert brown
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On menus dégustations, here's a passage from Pascal Remy's exposé of the Michelin Guide organisation, L’Inspecteur Se Met à Table:

« Les menus dégustations, même excellents, sont en général des pièges qui gomment les souvenirs. Sur le moment, on se régale, on est impressioné, c’est la fête! Mais huit jours plus tard on a tout oublié. Impossible de se rappeler ce que l’on à mangé. Or, à mon avis, un grand restaurant, c’est un endroit dont on garde le souvenir précis d’un plat. Méfiez-vous des cortèges spectaculaires! Ils brouillent la vue et ne permettent pas une bonne lisibilité d’un établissement. »

Tasting menus, good as they may be, usually turn out to be traps that interfere with your memory. At the time, it seems a feast, a celebration, you are overwhelmed. But eight days later, all is forgotten, and it's impossible to remember what you've eaten. A great restaurant, in my view, is a place where you will retain a precise memoryh of a single dish. Avoid spectacular productions! They fog your view and don't permit a good reading of a restaurant.

He goes on to describe how he remembers, after 15 years, a côte de veau from L’Ambroisie, a moelleux au chocolat from Michel Bras. And he ends:

« La morale de l’histoire est claire : la simplicité s’imprime dans la mémoire. Et devant un plat sophistiqué on est épaté sur le moment mais on finit par l’oublier. »

The moral of the story is clear: simplicity imprints itself in your memory. You may be impressed, in the moment, by a fancy dish, but you end up forgetting it.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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I don't necessarily agree with that point of view. I vividly remember the greatest dishes I've had, whether they've been part of a tasting menu or not. Perhaps having a tasting menu raises the bar of what you're able to remember, meaning that the dish has to create a deeper impression to find a place in your memory. But I don't see that as inherently wrong.

There's another drawback that's been mentioned here. The quantities. I guess my method is not very sophisticated, but it works. If you feel like having some more of a dish during a tasting menu, just ask for it. I've never been turned down for doing that in a restaurant. Plus, and perhaps equally important, the answer that you get from the waiters and maîtres along with the time it takes them to accommodate your request, tells you a lot from the restaurant.

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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:biggrin: A lot of intellectual bruhaha or, perhaps, simply differences in fundamental philosophy. I think of the often repeated story of a person who just completed eating what he described as, quite possibly, the worst meal of his life ending his commentary with the exclamation, "and the portions were so small!"

Its difficult to disagree with much of what's been said and, perhaps as has been suggested, an independent thread on tasting menus is called for, but I feel compelled to share some ramdom thoughts.

I, like many of you, have spent the better part of my now 60 years on this planet preoccupied with all things gustatory. I am on a never ending journey in search of perfection, whether in my own kitchen or those of others. My search has taken me to just about every continent where I've partaken from street stalls to the temples of gastronomy.

After all this time have I found, what is for me, perfection? Absolutely and often. Like umami its been there in many dishes I've eaten and why the thought of every new adventure is as exciting to me as the last. I've also had, what seems to me, more than my fair share of disappointments.

Every chef, great and not so great, serves up the occasional disappointment, the great ones, hopefully, far less frequently, especially with respect to our expectations.

I, more often than not, will order a tasting menu at notable restaurants which I am unable to frequent. My search is exponentially expanded by the number of dishes I'm able to taste and more importantly the expected "disappointments" are less consequential than if they had been the main event of an a la carte meal. By the way, as a chef, I learn from the mistakes of other as well as my own.

I admire the courage of a chef who is undaunted by the challenge of virtuousity even if missing the mark on occasion. I want those chefs to experiment on me. We're in it together. We're dance partners. The tasting menu is the best opportunity a chef has to demonstrate the depth and breath of his skill and knowledge and the versatility with which he can pull all that together and make it work. It also provides a great opportunity for innovation with minimal risk and almost instant feedback with the flexibility to change or modify quickly.

One of the most memorable meals I've had was 12 years ago. It was in Kyoto and was the epitome of a tasting menu. It was a kaiseki dinner at Tawaraya and I remember every plate and every bite, some were ethereal and one or two, well, disappointing, but nonetheless, I couldn't imagine altering one aspect of that meal except, perhaps, the check.

Other more recent tasting menus I've had, all with their highs and lows, which have delighted my palate were at the Georges V in Paris, Kai in New York, Seeger's in Atlanta (more on that later) and, believe it or not, the French Laundry. Undaunted, I will be at Per Se next week.

Sorry to cut this short but its time to go to work. Off to the market in search of the right and perfect ingredients for my own tasting menu tonight. Got friends coming over and want them to enjoy as many taste sensations as I can coceive of. My goal is to have everybody lick every plate clean. (LOL). I'm thinking jellied calf's snout salad for starters. Let me know if you're coming. There will be some pretty great wines too. :biggrin:

Edited by jaypm51 (log)

Jay

You are what you eat.

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I'm thinking jellied calf's snout salad for starters. Let me know if you're coming. There will be some pretty great wines too. :biggrin:

. . . checking airline schedules. . .

You shouldn't eat grouse and woodcock, venison, a quail and dove pate, abalone and oysters, caviar, calf sweetbreads, kidneys, liver, and ducks all during the same week with several cases of wine. That's a health tip.

Jim Harrison from "Off to the Side"

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Can't wait to hear about jaypm51's dinner at Seeger's. I'm going to go ahead and guess the ending, though: great food, remarkably inept but also somehow arrogant service.

Can you pee in the ocean?

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Can't wait to hear about jaypm51's dinner at Seeger's. I'm going to go ahead and guess the ending, though: great food, remarkably inept but also somehow arrogant service.

Therese - I hate to disappoint almost as much as I hate being second guessed, but "remarkable" might just describe the whole experience with just a few minor exceptions. :sad:

Will post the details elswhere.

Edited by jaypm51 (log)

Jay

You are what you eat.

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I've nothing against tasting menus per se or even tasting menus at Per Se.

It's fine to have an option on many different courses -- although, as Robert and Steven note, some dishes simply don't take well to being served in tiny portions.

What I think a number of us on this thread are concerned about is the tendency to make these tasting menus the norm, the thing a chef should aspire to.

Tasting menus can also go spectacularly wrong. I remember a dinner at a place in Boston -- I believe it was called Clio. We ordered the chef's tasting menu, which I believe had 12 courses. The kitchen was in trouble that evening, and the wait between courses grew and grew, until the wait between the 7th and 8th courses had become 30 minutes, and we were feeling tired and uncomfortable. We asked that the menu be foreshortened and left early. Some of the dishes were tasty (though I must admit that I don't remember them well) but it was an unpleasant experience in all.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Well, neither did I want to make an apology of tasting menus. I just addressed a couple of issues that I don't believe are always true.

Elsewhere I've written that I'm against tasting menus being the only option available in a restaurant. And even more against tasting menus which include little or none of the dihes that are provided à la carte:

The whole concept of tasting menu and almost imposing it to the customers, as noticed to me by several chefs, makes the kitchen work more as a factory, with all the advantages in terms of consistency and optimizing the delivery of dishes, and all the disadvantages of losing the artisan touch, than as a workshop. And at least in Spain, I'd say Adria has been the champion of this dining experience, though back in 99 it was possible to order a la carte at El Bulli. Surely, given the amount of R&D he invests every year to create almost completely new menus, he's well justified to do so and I believe he overcomes the shortcomings around this way of dining.
In this site, a quality that seems to be highly appreciated in a restaurant is consitency, the ability to provide day in day out the same dining experience. For sure, having a tasting menu almost as the single choice, helps a lot to get that consistency. However, I'd prefer to some extent to have some ups and downs, and give room to some degree of experimentation and risk. It would increase the probabilities that if you only pay a visit to the restaurant in long periods of time, something could be not so good as you would expect. But when I think of the restaurants I go at least once a month, they share the pattern I've just described.

Sorry for quoting myself, but the former ideas were lost amidst one of El Bulli's crowded threads.

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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If a particular dish doesn't work well in a smaller portion size, then the chef shouldn't serve it as part of a tasting menu. I like tasting menus largely because I feel that I'm getting what the chef feels is most interesting from his repertoire. While it doesn't always work out that way, it usually does.

By the way, not all tasting menus consist of a multitude of small courses. At Blue Hill, I had The Chef's selection which consisted of about 5 essentially full courses. Once again, I received some dishes I might not have ordered, but I was not disappointed.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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It's just that some of those dishes will appeal to some diners - and other dishes will appeal to others.

Exactly. Who wants to be stuck with an entire entree that doesn't suit their taste?

You seem to negate your argument against tasting menus.

On an ALC menu you get to choose. Why would you choose something you don't think you'll like? And if the chef screws up the dish - well that's not a fault on the part of the diner - it's a fault on the part of the chef. I don't think it should be necessary to order 10-20 dishes (however small) at a fine restaurant just to maximize your chances of getting some good ones. All the dishes at a really fine restaurant should be good - with the only variable being the personal preferences of the diner.

Of course - this isn't the way things work these days. Used to be that a chef would work half a lifetime perfecting a half dozen dishes - and his restaurant then became a "destination" for those dishes. Today - not many people are happy with the half dozen perfect dishes. They always want something new - something different - something that hasn't been written up in a food magazine yet. So a lot of chefs crank out dozens of half-baked dishes (including the occasional winner) instead of a half dozen perfect ones.

I tend to think that this is an unfortunate trend. I don't want to spend $300 and have to eat like a pig (and eating 20 courses - no matter how small - is eating like a pig when you're a small woman) just to get a couple of really good dishes. When I dine at world class places - I want an elegant and delicious meal - start to finish. A meal where I am delighted - entranced and sated - not stuffed.

The only caveat I'd throw in here are some chefs are better and happier preparing certain things - and others are better and happier preparing other things. Therefore, I think one would be ill advised patronizing a restaurant where the chef works best with fish when one is in the mood to eat red meat. On the other hand - I am kind of old fashioned. I like the traditional classical French menu idea of a fish course followed by a meat course. And any chef worth his salt ought to be able to produce winners in both categories. Robyn

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The argument that Chapel's preferred style of dining offers something that cannot be had with tasting menus is absolutely true, as is the corollary that tasting menus offer something unique.

I don't doubt that Chapel said and believed that a tasting menu was composed of dishes in a capricious order. It nevertheless doesn't make it so, nor should we accept his implications that should it be done so, it's a bad thing. Capriciousness has it's place in the arts and crafts. One assumes Chapel would dismiss kaiseki cooking as well. It could be argued that Japanese cooking is not part of his background or expertise. If so, I'd make the same argument about tasting menus. I don't really want to argue with dead white men. Neither do I want them to dictate my tastes.

Chapel's way of dining is an exquisite one. To have experienced it may be enough to make one assume it is the best, or even the only way to eat, but it's not likely to be the only meal that's affected people this way. It's sad that opportunities to "have full-blown dishes from the hands of top chefs are steadily diminishing," but this is not an either/or situation. A proliferation of tasting menus does not preclude a proliferation of other types of restaurants.

While Robert says "that the chance of having a sensational meal from beginning to end is zero to none," [with a tasting menu format] I would reply that the total reward of such a meal is often greater than the sum of the parts and that with a bum dish, a tasting menu may still be a great experience.

This is not to say I necessarily have a preference for the tasting menu, although I find I have a preference for the food of chefs who enjoy making tasting menus. I'm with docsconz on the benefits of trying something I might not order as well as chance to learn more about the chef's style in a restaurant far from home. To answer the question Robyn asked, the greater the number of courses, the more apt I am to relegate one to a learning experience. I'm well past 40 and even 50, and I am still developing new tastes. I am learning to appreciate new things every year. The reward of a new taste is at least as great as that of having a dish I know I already love.

Jonathan Day's point about dishes "where there is no possible "full" version of a particular dish," returns to my reference to kaiseki. The long tasting menu doesn't preclude the existence of traditional service, it brings something new to the table and should be relished for the chance to delight the diner in a different way. I believe it's more than a trick.

It's easier to remember something you've done over and over, than something you've done once. That would argue that you should have large course with many bites if the memory of the taste is the most important aspect of a meal.

Some great dishes are not suitable to small portions and some small bites, as exquisite as they might be, are not suited to traditional main course size dishes. I see both of these as arguments for the need for both styles of meal. The Japanese seem to appreciate the ability to eat in different ways, kaiseki seems to be the one that gets great respect, though it's never meant to be physically satisfying in the way that a steak might satisfy.

I see no reason either than one restaurant might choose to serve nothing but a many coursed tasting menu while another offers only an a la carte menu. Others should be free to offer choices. It's only important for the diner to chose the restaurant that suits his needs.

If we are assuming one style of dining, tasting menu or a la carte, to be the definitively better one, can we also assume that the cuisine of one country is better than that of another? If we diss the tasting menu in favor of the larger portioned a la carte menu, can we diss the haute cuisine menu in favor of barbecue? If the goal is to have "a whole or entire principal product such as a chicken, rabbit, duck, lobster or fish," the cuisine of Spain is to be much preferred to that of France as the former traditionally slaughters lambs at the age where on may eat one whole. How large an animal must one be able to be served? Would one accept a whole anchovy. These rules are silly. They may have guided Chapel wonderfully, but it's up to every great chef to set his own rules.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I've only eaten a kaiseki meal once in my life. I certainly am not an expert. I thought the one I had was exquisite. But when my husband and I were finished - he was ready to eat dinner!

To me - I guess a lot of the issues/problems revolve around the quantities of food being served. In most US restaurants with tasting menus - you're talking about having to consume enormous quantities of food to go from start to finish. And I just never have the slightest idea how to pace myself. So I usually run out of steam completely about half way through (the last tasing menu I had - I ran out of steam before the meat and dessert courses).

With a menu that has fewer courses - I can eyeball the general size of the courses - and eat 2/3 or 1/2 of each course if necessary to "save room for dessert" (I'm a big dessert fan). But it's hard to eat half of small courses - or to know how to pace yourself when you're talking about 15 courses as opposed to 5.

Note that with the kaiseki meal I ate - you were talking about really teeny tiny courses - no more than a small bite or two in each. One spent more time admiring the composition of the dish than consuming it. I ate the meal in a hotel in Hawaii that catered mostly to Japanese tourists - and - judging from the lack of girth in those patrons - they were used to eating relatively small quantities of food. In more "western" restaurants - I've found that the tasting menu is frequently an exercise in "Supersizing" - albeit over a very large number of smaller dishes. Perhaps if I were a 200 pound guy - I'd find the genre more appealing. Robyn

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To answer the question Robyn asked, the greater the number of courses, the more apt I am to relegate one to a learning experience. I'm well past 40 and even 50, and I am still developing new tastes. I am learning to appreciate new things every year. The reward of a new taste is at least as great as that of having a dish I know I already love...

I am well past 50 too - and apart from the occasional foray into a new country or a new ethnic cuisine or a trip to a place I don't go to very often - like Europe - where for example - I can't remember what this fish tastes like - or what that fish tastes like - what do you find that's new? The only "new new" thing I had on this most recent trip to London was a spotted dick - a traditional English dessert that I had avoided on previous trips. I wish I had avoided it on this trip :wink: .

I'm not talking about a specific preparation - just a basic ingredient - or type of ingredient - or a manner of preparation that is so unusual that it doesn't bear any relation to anything you've ever had before (e.g., ceviche would be a new type of preparation for someone who's never had fish prepared that way before).

Perhaps I have spent too much of my life eating :smile: - but there really isn't much that I encounter on US menus that is totally unfamiliar.

And - FWIW - when I do encounter one of those European fish I can't exactly remember - but when I do remember a little - I seem to recall that I liked it - I don't think it would make a dent in my food memory banks if all I had of it was a teeny tiny piece on a tasting menu. Robyn

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