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Oct 9, 2012 07:59 PM

"Nibbled to Death": NY Times' Pete Wells skeptical about tasting menus

"Once in a while, I’ve had tasting menus so extraordinary that none of these things seemed to matter. But the format presents formidable hurdles for customers and restaurants, enough to cause us to stop and wonder how many more meals like this we need."

I think Joshua Skenes of Saison made much the same point more succinctly:

"I've gone out to many excellent places where you feel like shit after the meal. I don't want guests to feel that way."

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  1. I just saw that online article and came here to see if anyone had posted about it. I've never had such a meal, but the pictures of each little bite/dish are noteworthy! I clicked through all 28 of 'em.

    3 Replies
    1. re: blue room

      I've eaten my way through enough tasting menus to be fed up with the fad.

      Nevertheless, I really enjoyed a recent meal at Saison. The food was light, the total quantity was reasonable, and the atmosphere and service were fairly casual and informal compared with most Michelin two- and three-star places.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Hmm, in contrast Peter Wells wasn't completely thrilled with the meal he had at Saison...

        1. re: huiray

          Maybe I went on a better night, I didn't find the courses in my meal repetitive and nothing felt like padding. My only disappointments were that they didn't have scampi or aged birds that night.

    2. Pete Wells is a pretty conservative diner. He's not into small plates (La Vara review), innovation (Eleven Madison Park review), or even upscale non-western restaurants (Jung Sik review).

      I'm not surprised that he doesn't appreciate the concept of tasting menus.

      1 Reply
      1. re: fm1963

        I think Wells's views reflect a very progressive viewpoint.

        At the moment, I'm not sure there's anything more conservative than a two- or three-star Michelin restaurant with only tasting menus. It's been entrenched long enough to have spawned Le Fooding, which specifically attacks that kind of dining as reflecting a narrow, conservative concept of the pleasures of the table.

        His complaints about 11MP are about specific innovations he felt made the experience worse: "By summoning [sense memories] with words, the restaurant repeatedly forces a comparison that may not be flattering to what’s on the plate. ... I had the sense that I was eating two ... meals that had been welded together to make one supercolossal hybrid. It’s hard to think of any reason to do this, unless Mr. Humm and Mr. Guidara were simply looking for an experience gargantuan enough to justify the price. The result is a feeling of bloat, and not just figuratively."

        I don't think his reviews of La Vara or Jung Sik can reasonably be read as displaying a prejudice against small plates or upscale Korean food. He had food he loved and didn't care for at both and thought both were too expensive.

      2. The article makes reasonably well considered points about the strengths and weaknesses of the tasting menu format. Though only professional critics and a comparatively small group of foodies really try tasting menus often enough for some of those criticisms to be major concerns - for most people who eat at these restaurants, a large tasting menu is a rare indulgence, deliberately over the top.

        Man, the comments are scathing though. And they often miss the point, assuming that tasting menus are the regular dining habits of the rich, and only the rich - there are many references to the 1%. True, genuinely poor people don't do tasting menus, but I think a lot of the patrons of these kind of places are more like my brother - a young guy with no kids and few responsibilities who makes decent enough money that he has some to blow (but still well under six figures) and who views dining at touted places as a kind of adventure. While it's no surprise that this kind of thing isn't everyone's cup of tea, the comments that claim to see no appeal in tasting menus at all for anyone aside from rich people showing off their wealth strike me as kind of obtuse, maybe deliberately so.

        9 Replies
        1. re: cowboyardee

          While it's no surprise that this kind of thing isn't everyone's cup of tea, the comments that claim to see no appeal in tasting menus at all for anyone aside from rich people showing off their wealth strike me as kind of obtuse, maybe deliberately so.

          But even if that were true, how does that make tasting menus "bad" or "not good"?

          Ferraris are geared for the rich, that doesn't make them bad cars. In fact, just the opposite is true.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            Not sure I'm following you. If the only upside of tasting menus was their value as status symbols, that wouldn't speak especially well of em IMO. And that seemed to be the basic argument laid out in a lot of the comments.

            But I have two objections to that line of thought. For one, I don't think they are devoid of culinary value. Like the Ferrari, they offer more than just a high price tag and snob appeal. For another, I don't think associating tasting menus only with the super wealthy is accurate anyway. A day at Disney World costs much more than a day at the local park, but it doesn't follow that everyone at Disney World is a multimillionaire.

            1. re: cowboyardee

              That was my point.

              It can't be just about snob appeal, even if part of it *is*.

              1. re: cowboyardee

                I largely agree with your second paragraph. Certainly, I have enjoyed tasting menus here and there through the years myself, and I am certainly not part of that infamous 1%.

                Still, Wells has a point when he said, "...And the elite who now fill these dining rooms are a particular kind of diner, the big-game hunters out to bag as many trophy restaurants as they can." Maybe not every diner fits that description but there may be a drift in that direction. I dare say even CHers sometimes sound just a tad like those chaps, marking off starred restaurants and other such places that they dine at as places they have bagged.

                There was a similar point made in an article faulting the Michelin Star system: where the author of that article said, "The Michelin guide also created a new type of customer, the foodie trainspotter, people who aren’t out for a good meal with friends but want to tick a cultural box and have bragging rights on some rare effete spirit."

                1. re: huiray

                  I regularly see posts on the San Francisco board from people planning trips of three or five nights who are asking for advice on which three or five of the Michelin two- and three-star restaurants to visit. To me that shows almost as little passion for food as eating every meal at McDonald's.

                  1. re: huiray

                    Re the VANITY FAIR article
                    Something I read recently took a similar vein.With a conclusion that part of the experience is set aside for something akin to trophy collecting.Rather like the old,rare ,trophy bottle of wine.

                    1. re: lcool

                      Well, I suppose everyone has to have a "hobby" collecting something, then bragging about it. Ha!

                      I would hope most people that truly enjoy great food -and sharing great food with another- don't get this (very personal) concept permanently joined with having an "expensive, pretentious, restaurant experience hobby". Sometimes they can be the same, but much more often they are two completely different things.

                    2. re: huiray

                      Fair enough.

                      In some ways, fine dining is a lot like anything else that can be used as a status symbol. Some people buy a sports car because that's showy the thing to do; others just really like cars; and others still have a mix of the above motivations. Anything that serves as a status symbol will inevitably attract some people who aren't much interested in the finer points of distinction that good or service offers.

                      Is there a trend toward a greater number of trainspotting restaurant-goers? I don't honestly know for certain. I'm inclined to agree that there is, just from casual observation. My point above (which you seem to understand) was only that there are still many fine dining enthusiasts who don't fall into the trainspotting category.

                      More directly on-topic: is the profusion of tasting menu-only restaurants enabling or encouraging this phenomenon? This I'm not so sure about. It's a growing trend in fine dining, just as the restaurant trainspotter may be a growing trend in fine dining, but that doesn't mean they are related. I suspect that the internet and social media are much bigger factors in the boom of restaurant trainspotters - in the old days, you had to bore your friends/family/coworkers/poor-schmucks-who-ride-the-subway-with-you with tales of eating at the finest restaurants to show how worldly you are. Now you can just post about it on your blog, or link some snapshots of dinner on facebook, or... write it up on chowhound.

                      1. re: cowboyardee

                        " or... write it up on chowhound."
                        Heh. HEH.

              2. Wells mentioned one of the points that has me very non-enthused with tasting menus. The fact that with a bite or two the food is rarely hot, if need be. This is huge for me. And while sometimes l am pleasantly surprised with something new l would have not ordered, l view it as almost pretty filler.
                l was recently at a Michelin *** in San Sebastian and their tasting menus and serving was somewhat different and worked far better for me. They had two tasting menus thus my partner and l ordered one of them each. However, l was able to trade out dessert which l almost never eat for different proteins and for something that l was most interested in they allowed me to have an a la carte portion in place of a few courses.
                Thus they were guaranteed their minimum charge and l got menu choices l was very happy with.
                l still remember meals that were a tasting menu but l felt l endured most courses and never would have ordered and certainly wasn't happy they were served.

                1. I think that one of the things that make me sad about tasting menu only places is that because of my allergies, I pretty much have to write them off. My husband and I are not wealthy, but do like to splurge once in a while. As long as I can order a la carte, there are few restaurants that cannot accommodate me. But being that I am allergic to over 20 foods (the 'death/epi-pen' type of allergy, not the crazy person type), I would feel guilty asking any restaurant, regardless of price point, to try to make a tasting menu with a large number of courses work for me.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: jw615

                    Your point is well taken. l took a pair of friends to an excellent restaurant in Paris that only has one 6 course tasting menu per evening. after looking at the menu he realized there were three things he would not eat, thus we had to leave.
                    Many years ago it happened to me at Chez Panisse and thus had to eat upstairs at the cafe.

                    1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                      I have had the misfortune to having been taken to eat Tasting Menu dinners at a number of 'fine upscale' restaurants. I find that i would not eat at least 60% of the dishes offered. While pretty to look at, I leave both Hungry and bloated from the wines.

                      That said, I feel the only time a tasting menu makes sense is when interviewing a caterer/establishment for a major event such as a wedding. That 50-100K dinner to be held requires a tasting menu before signing the contract (unless one has prior expewrience with the chef/caterer/establishment).

                    2. re: jw615

                      Agree jw. I am allergic to seafood and yes I know I can say that and most places will be oh so nice about it, but being picky kind of kills the experience and I don't think you get the joint's A game. I am tantalized by the photos I have seen on CH of Eleven Madison Park's delicious looking duck. But I want to order it with a starch and a protein and not spend $300 for that privilege. I've written off fine dining for now. If the Tasting Menu fad goes away perhaps I will navigate those waters.