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Are People Still Enamored by Tasting Menus?

This is shortened to facilitate discussion, but my full thoughts here: http://ramblingsandgamblings.blogspot...

I used to be a much bigger fan of tasting menus than I am now. In recent years, I've leaned toward ordering the prix fixe and a la carte instead at many top tier restaurants. When you save up for a splurge at a fine dining restaurant, it's natural to want to be able to get as much out of the experience as possible. But the truth is that many chefs don't design dishes to be part of a tasting menu, and many tasting menus are mere afterthoughts.

To me there are really 4 kinds of tasting menus.
1. The ones at tasting menu only restaurants. They do it right because that's the only thing they focus on. The menu is planned and well crafted.
2. Seasonal tasting menus featuring dishes that are not on the regular menu. They may not be the sole focus, but there's enough attention dedicated to them and it usually highlights additional ambition and care on the part of the chef.
3. A selection of signature dishes from over the course of the restaurant's lifetime. These will often come from successful, ambitious restaurants that are continuously innovating but have dishes that regulars just continue to ask for.
4. Tasting menus slapped together from items already on the menu. Usually used to appease people who can't decide or for people who may not be able to frequent the restaurant often and so want to "taste" as much as possible in one sitting.
5. There's also in fact a fifth kind, which is the fake tasting menu. Many restaurants take a 3 or 4 course prix fixe and call it a tasting menu to attract diners.

The 4th kind of tasting menu is the one that I see most often in restaurants nowadays, and is the one that I have the most problem with. Often, the restaurant will try to disguise these tasting menus as the 3rd kind of tasting menu, saying that these are the standout dishes on the menu. More often than not, the choices on those tasting menus are not in fact the best, but rather the safest to market to indecisive eaters and easiest to divide into smaller tasting menu sized portions.

I'm not against tasting menus. It's just that they're not all created equal. You can't just go into a restaurant, order the tasting menu, and assume that the chef has specially put together a menu of his best stuff. A lot of times, especially if the tasting menu is composed entirely of dishes from the regular menu, you're not getting the best, most exciting things that are coming out of the kitchen.

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  1. The common misconception is that the customer is getting the chef's best. We are now in the state that a chef is hardly considered serious without one, and that many foodies want to think they have a shot at eating 'one of the best meals of their lives' (in typical foodie hyperbole) and are willing to shell out for it.

    I mean, how can a two or three course meal impress anyone anymore when they can have a 16 course meal? God forbid suggest to anyone they order just one course, they'd think you were insane.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Steve

      Yes well America, and slowly now the rest of the world, is following in that "more is better" chant and just understanding less and less about quality.

      In the last decade, food media has significantly emphasized the media part over the food part. It's that common misconception you talk about that's so dangerous and leads to the 5th kind of tasting menu described above. An example of that is described here: http://thebaddeal.com/post/8472370704...

      1. At Charleston in Baltimore they do the best of both worlds. You get a menu of items, and you choose between three and six courses for a fixed price. The courses are "slightly larger than tapas" in the description of the wait staff. It's sort of a "do your own tasting menu."

        Of course, it's a fantastic restaurant, so whatever you choose will be the chef's best.

        1 Reply
        1. re: JonParker

          I am dying to go here. Just haven't made it yet. Problem is their being open when we want to go. Soon I hope.

        2. I just don't want to spend two-plus hours sitting at dinner any more.

          1 Reply
          1. re: rudysmom

            2 hours would be bums rush for a tasting menu!
            I'm with you. Too long.

          2. For me, it depends on how well they do tasting menus. Like any other somewhat-pricey purchase, I'm not going to order one without doing my research (depends on where I'm going, of course, but my minimum expectation for a tasting menu is going to be going to be $150, when tax/tips/at least a glass of wine is taken into account, and I think that's non-trivial). I'm happy to order it if it's well done, and if I'm in a mood for a tasting menu.

            4 Replies
            1. re: caseyjo

              Wait, your 'expectation' is based on price rather than quality? I've had a few tasting menus (and read about several more) that are of high quality for far less than $150 (unless that glass of wine is $50+!). Price and quality are not necessarily correlated, IME.

              And yeah, tasting menus are more fun with a small group of people, as an extended social eating experience. Nice for an occasional dining change of pace.

              1. re: drmoze

                Why wold you need a tasting menu with a group of people? A group can turn any menu into a tasting menu by ordering different items and sharing.

                Tasting menus are for one or two people who could not taste that many dishes by themselves. Once you are three people, ordering a la carte and sharing makes more sense.

                1. re: Steve

                  This is exactly why I'm kind of over tasting menus. Since they usually require the participation of the whole table, I end up getting to try far fewer dishes than I would if everyone orders two or three different courses and shares.

                  1. re: biondanonima

                    Most people I know do not share. Luckily I have trained my fiancé to let me taste.

            2. I really enjoy well-executed tasting menus expertly paired with small glasses of wine. To me, the first one or two bites of something are by far the most enjoyable, as after that my palate gets used to it and gets bored. Thus, a true tasting menu with numerous very small courses is my idea of a really fun restaurant experience.

              This is hard to find, though, as most places have fake tasting menus (number five on your list) or they offer a hodgepodge of courses with few standouts.

              But a good one can't be beat. My husband and I enjoy a long leisurely dinner trying all kinds of food and wine, and some of our favorite restaurant experiences have involved tasting menus.

              2 Replies
              1. re: bitchincook

                Thomas Keller said that small courses avoid 'mouth fatigue.'

                In a way, I believe it also means the food doesn't have to be as good. It has to be initially showy if it's going to succeed. But some foods get better and better the more you eat. Creating a dish like that is a hard nut to crack.

                1. re: Steve

                  <But some foods get better and better the more you eat. >


                  Now, that is an excellent point

                  What makes a small dish good is not what makes a large dish good. To make a small dish good, it takes some powerful punches. A little more sugar, a little more salt...etc. However, to make a larger dish good, it takes some more balance and control. This is why some tasty small appetizers can become disgusting after turning into a full meal.

                  A classic and great example is the Pepsi challenge. This is a well documented global taste test. Pepsi tastes sweeter than Coca cola. This help Pepsi to win a lot of the taste challenge because a small sip of a sweeter drink has an advantage.

                  "Dollard says, for instance, that one of the biases in a sip test is toward sweetness: “If you only test in a sip test, consumers will like the sweeter product. But when they have to drink a whole bottle or can, that sweetness can get really overpowering or cloying.” Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, so right away it had a big advantage in a sip test. Pepsi is also characterized by a citrusy flavor burst, unlike the more raisiny-vanilla taste of Coke. But that burst tends to dissipate over the course of an entire can, and that is another reason Coke suffered by comparison. Pepsi, in short, is a drink built to shine in a sip test. Does this mean that the Pepsi Challenge was a fraud? Not at all. It just means that we have two different reactions to colas. We have one reaction after taking a sip, and we have another reaction after drinking a whole can. In order to make sense of people’s cola judgments, we need to first decide which of those two reactions most interests us."


              2. Late to the party. I have no problem of the tasting menu for reason 1-5. The restaurants can do whatever they like. Most of the tasting menu, like you said, is composed on existing dishes -- reason number 4.

                I also agree that a tasting menu itself does not represent the most exciting and best dishes from the restaurants. However, it is a very convenient way for people to try many things in one sitting. I am fine with that.

                My concern is not the tasting menu, but the customers who ordered the tasting menu. Do they really know what they are getting? Some do, and some don't. Worst, some understand and not understand at the same time. They understand that they have just ordered assorted of existing dishes in small quantity, yet they somehow that they are more knowledgeable that way. That is just odd.

                1. I gather after reading this thread that much of it addresses not tasting menus as generic concept, but as contemporary commercial trend in North America or elsewhere.

                  Have to confess I'm sometimes out of touch with restaurant trends, but I want to defend the underlying idea and place it in larger perspective.

                  If you've read Wechsberg's classic (still popular) collection of mid-century food-travel essays "Blue Trout and Black Truffles" you might recall how Fernand Point (possibly the most famous and influential 20th-cent. European chef), around 1950, spent time with the customers before "composing" a menu for them, like a piece of music, suited to their evident tastes.

                  The principle of tasting menus to sample a kitchen's style and favorite specialties long predates any recent-years restaurant-industry exploitation of it. It has generally been an option among restaurants and food enthusiasts in cities and countries I've visited, even decades ago. Whether explicitly offered or, often, not.

                  A request to "bring us a few dishes" has frequently kindled enthusiastic, cordial reception from a new and foreign kitchen, as though the craftspeople there delighted to see customers who actually appreciate their craft. Sometimes they respond "so you'd like a tasting menu [or dégustation, or Probieren, or whatever]?" -- and proceed to improvise one.

                  So I see, and use, "tasting menu" as among the food enthusiast's
                  valued tools. Regardless if the restaurant offers such a thing explicitly. And some very creative high-end places (not just Fernand Point) have done most meals that way, or at least it's how most people order -- since long before any recent US marketing angle.

                  1. I live in Michigan where tasting menus are non existent because people don't support them. The majority of people are so resistant to try new things. I've worked has a server for a long time and often have guests at really nice restaurants tell me to tell the chef how they want their food prepared. Recently I went to a restaurant in Ferndale Michigan called Torino that does tasting menu only. It's five courses of food that lived up to my expectations at the French Laundry in Napa. However they only charge $53.00 for the menu which changes once a week. A lot of people pay that much for a steak in a steakhouse. I would much rather dine where the chef puts his creativity into the food. If i want a steak I can cook it at home. I think its fun to enjoy course after course and enjoy the pairings and that be the subject of conversation. I don't understand what the big hurry is and people think sitting down for two to three hours for dinner is a waste of time. When the average person spends that much time on their smartphone on face book a day. I agree smaller tastings of the menu items is stupid. However I really do enjoy going out and getting to try different dishes. I find food interesting and entertaining. Its an art form which isn't always appreciated. Its entertaining to me when I'm waiting on an adult and they say they won't try something they have never had. I've had ingredients I ate that I hated then prepared by a great Chef turned to gold. I wish more people enjoyed restaurants like these in Michigan so I don't have to travel every time I want a great dining experience. It's funny the area I live in is very affluent but the people seem to have little taste when it comes to food. They don't know how to dine out like people from California and New York. I think its great to have a Chef prepare a meal for you of his choice. Thats what they love to do and why they became a chef in the first place.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: eklels

                      Sounds like central PA. I'm with you on this though.

                      1. re: eklels

                        An eloquent posting, eklels. Sorry to hear about so many unadventurous diners -- though some of those can be found anywhere.

                        I have also found local communities that support interesting, creative restaurants scattered very far and wide around the US (from the Carolinas to Oregon to Minnesota to upstate NY to inland Texas and Arizona) -- not limited at all to big cities or coastal areas.

                      2. Tasting menus are alive and well in the DC area.
                        I'm generally not as adventurous as the tasting offerings, so I'd rather craft my meal myself.