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May 30, 2013 11:46 AM

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:

      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.