Tasting menus and other no-choice restaurants: why the praise?
It's a subject that's been bothering me for some time, and recent developments spur me to solicit opinion. Amongst food critics particularly, but to a certain extent amongst the general public, it would seem that recently there's a trend to consider places whose format is a no-choice menu such as a tasting menu as in some way automatically better than restaurants in a more traditional idiom (a la carte/prix-fixe). Not just better, MUCH better. Such that the list of "great" restaurants is almost starting to be monopolised by such establishments, while restaurants staying with the traditional format are being downrated. Can anybody explain why?
From the point of view of the restaurant, I can see why it's an easy choice: if you deliver one set menu every night, this simplifies the entire process of preparation as well as cook training, such that the operation can be MUCH cheaper and probably much more easily be conducted at highly reproducible levels. It's not as much of a challenge for the chef, of course, because now they don't have to be masters of changing from one thing to the other over the course of an evening, and from the point of view of the waitstaff it *really* diminishes the challenge - no more worries about incorrect orders, where to place dishes, etc. etc. etc. So it's not a surprise that a lot of elite restaurants are opting for the "easy way out".
But from the point of view of the consumer or the critic, I don't see why such a move should automatically (indeed even at all) put them in a higher or more exalted category. Can anyone explain the thinking behind this?
In general terms, that has been my experience too - it is "in addition to," rather than "in lieu of."
One fairly common restaurant for us, Farallon in San Francisco, has tasting menus, and the chef does one, with no bi-valves for my wife. However, we probably do a la carte about 25% of the time, as that suits us, that night.
Most restaurants I've been to that offer tasting menus also have à la carte options.
I'm not sure I understand your point?
Food critics are ridiculous. That's the explanation.
Longer answer: People are using going out to eat as their theatre. It has become not only the dinner, but the entertainment and culture for the evening. A mulit-course meal provides that, and then you don't really have to think about much else, do you? You don't even really have to initiate conversation with the person sitting across the table with you because you can always talk about the food and the presentation right in front of you.
It's dinner-theatre, with better food.
To the extent that it's a shared experience, I'd agree, but with the right execution it can be an exceptional and memorable one. It's not meant for everyday dining, but what's wrong with that? You let the chef shine and try to impress you. No question that there's an element of theater but again, what's wrong with that. It's not like this is becoming the standard format for restaurants, it's by far still the exception and nowhere near the rule.
The OP was making the distinction between a regular high-end restaurant which sometimes offers a la carte, set menus (3 courses) and tasting menus (many courses) vs restaurants which only offer a tasting menu.
At the first kind of restaurant you can have any experience you want, at the latter everyone in the restaurant is locked into the same choice. I don't see the advantage to the customer if you are eating the exact same meal as the person on the other side of the room.
"You let the chef shine and try to impress you." That happens at restaurants that offer other options as well.
"what's wrong with that." In order to enjoy that chef's talents, you are locked into an even more expensive, time-consuming meal usually preventing you from actually going to the theatre, for example.
I have had a favorite chef go from cooking in a regular restaurant to an exclusive tasting menu. In general, I don't really want to commit the money and time to that, so that locks me out. When my wife and I go out, we go to the theatre, and get something to eat before or after. We are not looking for the dinner to be our culture and/or entertainment. I think it's shallow, and I would like the choice of eating a meal that was not such a huge commitment.
You're "locked in" to nothing. These menus are not foisted on you as a surprise, you generally need to reserve well in advance. You know what you're getting into. As far as price, it's either worth it to you or it's not, again, there's no element of surprise.
As for "advantage to the customer" at the upper end it's access to the skill and execution of a chef and his team. It may make not a whit of difference to you, but that's why it's only a small percentage of restaurants offering this option - to a small percentage of diners.
Oh good god, really? Somehow I doubt that tasting menus will reach the point of hitting every neighborhood joint. You make it sound like it's a creeping virus. I certainly doubt that it would take over regularly-visited neighborhood spots, so your oyster stew would be free from tyranny.
Have you actually been to a tasting-menu-only restaurant? You seem to have a distorted view of how things work.
The idea is not to lump a restaurant's existing dishes into a forced "event." There's usually a theme at work and it's a chance for a chef to take some risks* with the understanding that you enjoy a succession of dishes that work with each other in some way.
*The very idea of featuring only a tasting menu is a huge risk on the restaurant's part and if it's simply a stunt rather than a focused plan then customers will vote with their feet and wallets. In the era of Yelp, there are few secrets in the food world.
Yes, I have been to them. And I have been to restaurants that give you a choice. I prefer a choice. You seem to be unfamiliar with restaurants that do both very well.
I didn't say they've reached every neighborhood joint. And I don't mind if they do as long as they keep other options as well.
What is the advantage to the customer of a restaurant discarding the rest of the menu?
Again, you make it seem like this is a trend that's happening willy-nilly. In all my decades of dining in Chicago - one of the great food cities anywhere - I've only seen one spot go from a la carte dining to tastings only. My wife and I eat out in finer-dining establishments at least twice a month and have done so for easily more than a decade. We've hit about 6 tasting-menu restaurants in all that time. It just isn't that pervasive and the ratio of non-tasting to tasting at the $50-$100/meal price point is probably greater than 100:1. It's just not going to trickle down.
It's simply a different type of restaurant. It's like going to a Brazilian steakhouse and lamenting the absence of good fish options. You aren't obligated to go there, it's not precluding the choice of going to any number of other spots.
Lots of interesting opinions all 'round. I'll try to make one global response; it might not cover every issue but there's certainly no shortage of ideas!
Steve, your (longer) explanation is one of the most plausible and coherent I've seen. Certainly it hadn't occurred to me that the element of theatre would attract people in quite that way. But when you think about it, it makes sense: the people who are likely to patronise the very finest establishments, are going to be, on the whole, people for whom food is the central aspect of their life, and for whom, in some sense, a restaurant meal is one of their major forms of "entertainment". This line of reasoning would hold doubly true for restaurant critics, who, one might naturally expect, would be the very most obsessed of all over food.
In that sense, the praise from the public would arise from people who are seeking an Experience, more perhaps even than the best food per se. With respect to the general public, there's nothing wrong with that and it merely reflects one set of priorities. However with respect to the critics, although I don't think they're "ridiculous", I do think this risks conflating entertainment value with quality of the food as such. It seems to me that staging, presentation, menu format etc. more properly belong in the category of "atmosphere" - insofar as they don't directly bear on the food itself but may add to a sense of experience. While critics are, after all, humans and susceptible to the same influences that alter people's perception of the quality of food, based on their overall experience while dining, I do think critics have an added responsiblity to make a clear separation of concerns, because they're speaking to a general audience. I also think ordinary members of the public should be clear about what they're going to a restaurant for - if it's something with strong theatrical value or if it's the quality of the food irrespective of the overall environment in which it's presented. This would be particularly true if asked to provide recommendations to others.
Personally, I do criticise the aesthetic in this sense. If, ultimately, the core value of food is in the eating, it seems to me that the taste should prevail above other considerations - and that allowing a sense of showmanship or presentation or theatricality to be a strong factor in your appreciation of a restaurant in that one sense sort of diminishes the value of the food itself. It's as if to say that your appreciation of a painting is affected by its positioning in the gallery.
But this is all conjecture on people's motivations.
On to other posters.
ferret, don't me mistaken, I think there's very definitely an honourable place for the tasting menu. It's a fine thing to place alongside an a la carte or traditional prix-fixe selection. In addition to being a different way to experience eating, it's a great thing if you arrive bewildered for choice amongst an array of options all of which look great. I also agree with you that considerations like time or price or "inconvenience" aren't relevant as long as you know in advance what you're signing onto.
BUT, I do think that the trend towards tasting-menu-ONLY at the very top establishments has the effect of limiting the very best food to a group of people with one particular set of dining priorities, and to some extent a common ideology. It requires that, as the diner, you're essentially indifferent to what's on the plate, in the sense of the type of food on offer or the ingredients used. It's a model that starts to look more like a private club - and if that's what top chefs actually want to do, perhaps they should change from a public restaurant to a private club. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem, if there were plenty of alternatives *at the same level of ambition, technical execution, and ingredient quality*, in a given city, but in some cases that's not happening. I discovered this on a recent trip to New York - you can look up the conversation on the Manhattan board, where I was advised that essentially ALL the very best restaurants had gone tasting-menu-only. For a city the size of New York, that seems absurd and one-sided, and a diminishment of the dining scene.
(Which, interestingly, is a good example for ipsedixit's benefit, although personally I do think citing examples for what is a broad *pattern* rather than an absolute *rule* isn't a particularly convincing argument.)
LeoLioness, I don't debate the technical "degree of difficulty" involved in a typical tasting menu in an *absolute* sense, but in a *relative* sense it does make things easier for a restaurant because there are far fewer variables to coordinate, and those that exist can be carefully structured. Notwithstanding, however, I also think that evaluating food based on degree of difficulty is rather beside the point. It's not, in my view about how technically hard a given dish is, but whether it tastes great. A great steak, or a great crème brulée, for example, are almost trivial in the execution but when done really well can be unimaginably sublime. It seems to me that you go to a restaurant to eat, not to experience the technical prowess of the chef (as such).
John Francis - I would disagree that the tasting menu is the most daring thing a restaurant can do - as pointed out because it's so structured, in many ways it's a risk-minimisation exercise. But in any case neither fixed nor variable format should have any particular necessary impact on what the kitchen can produce in terms of quality. It's merely a matter of assigning specialisations. In a high-end restaurant, with teams of cooks, you give each person, ideally two: a "master" and an "understudy", a small range of dishes to focus on and make their "own". They become the consummate experts in that, and so the question of "a few dishes they do best" becomes a non-issue.
I also think the idea of being "as if you're a guest in someone's home" is losing the sense of what a restaurant is. You're NOT a guest in someone's home, and for that matter, if that's the experience you want, why not simply visit good friends often? Of course it may be unlikely that your friends have chef-level cooking skills, and even if they did, "inviting yourself" around too often isn't very social, but then that's what restaurants *are* for - if the priority is to be the food, then a top restaurant is a great choice. If the priority is a social evening, then going to friends is better. If, however, you want to have a social evening but with great food as well, you're not being clear about your priorities. At best such an outcome will be a matter of luck.
I've been blunt and to no small extent provocative here - but don't interpret what I'm saying as summary condemnation of anyone or their views, or for that matter, even mild disrespect. I just want to make sure the issues are aired without dancing around anything.
"While critics are, after all, humans"
Oh yeah? Have you ever eaten with one? ;-)
Thanks for your support and well said.
I have enjoyed tasting menus, and I would rather have one great $$$$ tasting menu than two $$ ordinary or mediocre meals. But I can also find four $ places that blow me away far more than the $$$$ tasting menu. What really frustrates me is when a great chef has no options so that I can no longer partake of his creations unless I go for that $$$$ meal.
I am rarely in the market for that kind of experience.
It is happening with some frequency where I am from, but apparently this is not the norm in all major cities according to some folks here.
"I discovered this on a recent trip to New York - you can look up the conversation on the Manhattan board, where I was advised that essentially ALL the very best restaurants had gone tasting-menu-only."
How did you come to this conclusion? Its absolutely not true. All the top end restaurants have tasting menus. Only a handful have only a tasting menu. I think you way overstate the trend.
I can think of five or so places that have a tasting menu only format. I can think of many many more that have a la cart and tasting menus. If you were reading the manhattan board, it may seem that that everyone is telling you to go to Per Se (interesting how you used that phrase in your post - Freudian or pun?), Ko or Bklyn Fare but there are many more choices. EMP may seem like its a tasting menu but the grid format gives you choices among the courses.
ETA: I did a quick check on the NYT. They have five restaurants with 4 stars: Del Posto, EMP, JG, LeB and Per Se. Off these five, only one, Per Se, has only tasting menus. I've already noted that EMP isn't the same as you make choices in their tasting menu. At the other 3 feel free to chose any and all things from their menus.
By the way, I've gotten over the tasting menu format. Used to do it a lot, but now I don't have that kind of time for a meal.
It wasn't a conclusion I came to. Again, as I noted, it was how I was advised by people on the Manhattan board. In turn, this was in part due to my own reaction of being happy but not blown away by some supposed top places in New York (e.g Gotham Bar and Grill, Roberto). Following their advice, I decided to try EMP. For the record, they have also gone with a tasting menu format - no choice. See my comments for the complete story on my experience; but the bottom line was - technically excellent but not deliciously sublime. I also went to Annisa on the same visit, a restaurant aiming for the high end following a more traditional pattern. It must be said that the quality was better than EMP, but still felt fell short of what I'd consider a world-class contender.
According to the people on the Manhattan board, Le Bernardin and EMP are definitely tasting menu only - for at least one of these I can confirm this is true. BTW, no intended reference to Per Se the restaurant in my previous post - it's a turn of phrase I use quite a bit in many contexts.
Again I want to emphasise though that while NY is leaning this way it's not because of the New York scene in particular that I've been asking about this. Other cities are going in similar directions.
I do find it strange that one of the primary objections to the tasting menu format is the time involved. As I mentioned, as far as I'm concerned, that's a non-issue: if you're making the booking, you know what you're in for.
LeB is prix fixe and has a tasting menu option but it is not tasting menu only. Please see the menu
LeB is around the corner from my office and I've been many times for lunch/dinner. If someone told you that LeB is tasting only, they've never been or didn't pay attention to the menu.
I like Gotham a lot but I would not rank it among the top places in NYC. Its just a place for a nice dinner or lunch. Pleasant for sure, but among the top? Not in my view. Don't know Roberto so I can't speak to the place.
As to time, if I have a prix fixe dinner of three courses, I can have dinner and be out in about 1 1/2 hours. Some of the 7-12 course tasting menus can take all evening. Its can be a commitment for the whole night. I've had these dinners take upwards of 4 hours. That's why I usually don't order the tasting menu even in non-tasting menu only places.
Such that the list of "great" restaurants is almost starting to be monopolised by such establishments, while restaurants staying with the traditional format are being downrated. Can anybody explain why?
Give an example, please.
Otherwise, it just sounds like whining on your part.
Like I already said, it is not a criticism of the food. Worth it or not, the idea is that a restaurant can shoot to the very top by only coming up with about three great dishes served in small portions, for which you have no choice. The other courses may not even be exemplary, merely good considering the portion size.
Of course, no chef will start up an exclusive tasting menu format if they have no acclaim to begin with, that would be silly.
Take the case of Little Serow vs Bangkok Golden. A $45 tasting menu no-selection restaurant with designer cocktails vs a typical suburban Asian outpost. One gets restaurant-of-the-year nominations, while the other rests in relative obscurity.
I thought the idea was to specialize and perfect their own dish and give you a taste of exactly what the chef believes is a beautiful dish....? No? Give up control...be entertained and surprised. Fun.
There are many restaurants you can go to that accept substitutions, allow you to order whatever you want as you want, etc. in fact....most restaurants are like that. The restaurants you are speaking of, deliver a different experience, not one for everyday. It is supposed to be fun, not an annoyance.
I can assure you that for the higher-end establishments, going to the tasting format is not done to make it cheaper (although it does control costs - but only to make what would otherwise be an even more expensive meal somewhat less expensive). These are not simple meals to assemble, and the expectations of customers are heightened as well.
Not to your question, but on hearing a restaurant has become chef's choice only, l elect not to go.
Years ago I went to such a restaurant in New Orleans, knowing what to expect. It was one of the best meals of my life. There's something to be said for a chef and his kitchen giving their whole attention to a few dishes they do best, as when you're a guest in someone's home, instead of spreading themselves thin preparing a dozen dishes simultaneously with different requirements being prepared at the same time.
It's not for every night, and as others have said, if you don't want to be limited to a fixed menu, don't go there.
As for reviews, if the restaurant is devoting itself entirely to what it does best, it had better deserve good reviews or nobody would go there. To say that this is not a challenge but the easy way out is wrong. It's probably the most daring thing a restaurant can do, as there's no place to hide any weaknesses.
re: John Francis
Interesting that you mention New Orleans. That is a great "food city," that has resisted the "Chef's Tasting" concept over the years.
Yes, Chef John Besh has been offering one (or two, depending on the night), since pre-K, but in general, the upper-end NOLA restaurants are mostly a la carte. That does seem to be changing, with Stella! doing the same, and a few others, but it is still more a la carte, with no Chef's Tasting options available.
We have done Chef Besh's Tasting Menu, along with the one from Stella! Both were great, and great fun too. Still, we see many requests for Tasting Menus on the NOLA Board, and do not have all that many options to suggest.
Tasting menu restaurants aren't automatically better. Usually they are because the chef that dare attempt this format has already established his credentials. I can think of one restaurant (Suna) that was started in DC with a relatively unknown chef (Spero) offering only a tasting menu. The restaurant didn't get good reviews and closed shortly after it opened.
There's another variant of this which ends up being a good deal for all, the "chef's tasting" menu which pops up here and there. It's a prix fixe menu at the chef's discretion which ends up being a sampler of items that ends up costing less than the items ordered alone. For example, at Mercat a la Planxa, a tapas spot in Chicago, you get more than your fill of standard items and specials with the caveat that it's selected for you. So if you don't mind giving up some control you end up with a great value.
It may be the reverse issue - that a tasting menu is something that only a top end restaurant can do well enough to have people seek it out and enjoy it.
Many places that are tasting menu only deliver more than one menu with no overlap, often times there are two levels of TM and one vegetarian one. I don't see how this is any less challenging, or an easy way out.
While we DO seek out, and enjoy many restaurants with "tasting menus," we do not feel that those are superior, and often will go a la carte. Much depends on how we are feeling on a specific night, and then, on the restaurant/chef.
We enjoy them, and often go that route. When dining in Sydney and then Waikiki, HI, we did many - most very good to excellent. However, probably the best, overall meal, was at a restaurant, that did not offer a tasting menu - all a la carte, and no Sommelier's Pairings (which we also most often go with). "Stuff" happens.
One of the things, that I love about a Chef's Tasting, is that one often gets dishes, that are a bit on the "experimental" side. Next, I find that the portions are often better suited, and not overly large. Often more dishes, but the total quantity is about the same - more tastes, same amount and for about the same price (or even less, in some instances).
Better? Not always, but sometimes yes.
As a public service, I am reprinting here a typical menu from the *top two restaurants* in the Washington, DC area (according to Washingtonian Magazine). This is not meant to be a criticism of either restaurant, nor are the experiences comparable in ambience or price. The only thing both restaurants have in common is that they are at the critical 'top of the heap.'
The first is the Inn at Little Washington which offers several different options:
First Course Selections
Carpaccio of Herb-Crusted Baby Lamb Loin with Caesar Salad Ice Cream
A Tin of Sin: American Osetra Caviar with Peekytoe Crab and Cucumber Rillette
Beet Trinity: Three Versions of Our Garden’s Beets with Montchèvre, Beet Sorbet and Orange Essence
Spicy, Sesame-Crusted Ahi Tuna Tartare with Cucumber Sorbet
Hearts of Palm Salad with Virginia Lump Crab, Our Garden Fennel and Coriander-Lime Vinaigrette
Second Course Selections
Cashew-Crusted Soft Shell Crab Tempura with Coconut-Green Curry and a Medley of Summer Vegetables
Aged Gouda Macaroni and Cheese with Virginia Country Ham
Grilled Breast of Young Pigeon Marinated in Blueberry Vinegar on a Sweet Corn Johnny Cake
A Marriage of Hot and Cold Foie Gras with Sauternes Gelée and Pickled Cherries
Seared New England Day Boat Scallop with a Mélange of Summer Vegetables and Creamy Garlic Grits
Main Course Selections
Pan-Roasted Duck Breast with Foie Gras, Date Purée, Glazed Garden Turnips and Morello Cherries
Seared, Blackened Loin of Beef with Bone Marrow Custard, Chanterelle Mushrooms and Our Garden’s Filet Green Beans
Curry-Dusted Veal Sweetbreads with Roasted Local Plums, Virginia Country Ham and Pappardelle Pasta
Miniature Filets of Antarctic Sea Bass Sauté with Lemon Vodka Sauce and Lilliputian Pork Dumplings
Shiitake Mushroom Agnolotti with Sugar Snap Peas and Minted Pea Purée
Pan-Roasted Maine Lobster “Minestrone” with a Raviolo of Summer Vegetables with Our Garden Garlic Aioli
A Chop of Organic Milk-Fed Pork with Grilled Peaches, Bourbon Jus and Potato Purée
Pepper-Crusted Medallions of Tuna with Seared Foie Gras, Sweet Onion Purée and Morello Cherries
The “Gastronaut’s” Menu
Truffle Dusted Popcorn
A Shot of Cucumber Vichyssoise
A Tin of Sin: American Osetra Caviar with Peekytoe Crab and Cucumber Rillette
Chilled Maine Lobster with Tomato Water Gazpacho Geleé
Seared New England Day Boat Scallop with a Mélange of Summer Vegetables and Creamy Garlic Grit
Seared Antarctic Sea Bass in an Asian Inspired Broth Perfumed with Ginger
Breast of Pheasant with Sweet Corn Pudding, Succotash and Chanterelle Mushrooms
Barbequed Jamison Farms Lamb with Our Garden’s Grilled Vegetables and Harissa Hollandaise
Pineapple Lemongrass Sorbet with Pink Peppercorn Granita
Bitter Chocolate Marquise “Taillevent” with Pistachio Ice Cream
Today’s Vegetarian Odyssey
Bloody Mary Pâte de Fruit
A Shot of Cucumber Vichyssoise
Salt-Roasted Shishito Peppers in a Miniature Skillet with Harissa
Hearts of Palm Salad with Avocado, Our Garden Fennel and Coriander-Lime Vinaigrette
Beet Trinity: Three Versions of Our Garden’s Beets with Montchèvre, Beet Sorbet and Orange Essence
Shitake Mushroom Agnolotti with Sugar Snap Peas and Minted Pea Purée Marie Bernard, En Virondots, Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru, Burgundy, France (2008)
Sweet Corn Pudding with Garden Succotash and Sautéed Chanterelle Mushrooms
Japanese Eggplant Moussaka with Basil Tempura
Pineapple-Lemongrass Sorbet with Pink Peppercorn Granita
Our Cheeky Milk Chocolate “Flower” Pot de Crème with Strawberry-Basil Sorbet
A Painter’s Palette of Sorbets
A Trio of Summer Delights: A Miniature Blueberry Cobbler, Limoncello Pudding Cake, and Summer Berry Frozen Yogurt
Warm Local Peach Tart Perfumed with Lemon Thyme
Miniature All American Cheesecake with Summer Berries and Yogurt-Raspberry Swirl Sorbet
Local Plum Tart With Sweet Corn Ice Cream
Seven Deadly Sins: A Sampling of Seven of Our Most Decadent Desserts
Our Southern Butter Pecan Ice Cream Sandwich with Bittersweet Chocolate and Hot Caramel Sauce
Our Fromager’s Cheese Selections (Just Ask for Faira the Cow or Cameron—“Resident Cheese Whiz”) Or *An After Dinner Drink
Now here is the menu for Komi, which offers only one set tasting-menu exclusively:
Selection Of Mezzethakia
with catalina sea urchin
with tarama and favas
Buffalo Ricotta Tsandes
with guanciale and peas
Egg Yolk Raviolo
with crab and chiles
Roasted Katsitki For Two
Roasted Suckling Pig For Two
Lavraki Me Auti For Two
This thread lost me somewhere. It started as an inquiry about why a tasting menu format was considered superior from a critic's (or diner's) perspective and has now turned into a "they're denying us choice" argument.
I heard Grant Achatz speak last year (and he sort of comes off as a pompous ass) about how fine dining should be included in what we consider as art. So that's what a tasting menu is from some chefs' perspective, a chance to demonstrate your skills, vision and craft in a comprehensive package. Sure, it's ego-fed, but it's an expression of the creator's vision. It's been diluted by the appearance of a "packaged meal" at lesser restaurants, but it is what it is, take it or leave it.
These 2 menus are interesting. It's notable that the one with more choice is more verbose in its descriptions...which may say something about the profile of the diners? A menu which is dense with wording can be either informative or bewildering depending upon your personality. Likewise the second one, which is obviously extremely terse, can be straightforward or cryptic, depending upon your personality. I've not eaten at either place, but I'll predict that the Inn at Little Washington caters to an older, more conservative clientele, whereas Komi is aiming for a younger, edgier crowd. (I could be completely wrong in this conjecture). but I think the contrast in menus does point up how personality differences, that generate different market segments, can in turn spawn restaurants aim at them. Tasting-menu-only restaurants are no doubt in this class. A lot of the discussion here, though has changed subtly from my original question - people are debating the relative merits of eating at a tasting restaurant or not, in the implicit assumption that such a choice exists amongst equally well-regarded establishments at the very top of the restaurant hierarchy in a given city. My question relates more to a trend I'm seeing, for people to enthuse over such places more than they would over a more conventional format. The result is that the tasting-menu-only format is starting to dominate in some cities, the high-end dining scene. I'd like to understand the personality dynamics at play, that generate such a trend.
A bit of a digression here, but even if we consider fine dining as art, that doesn't give a tasting menu a stronger case to be considered "art". The idea of art in general as an "expression of the creator's vision" has been somewhat overworked and ignores the historical relationship between artist and patron, which always permitted the patron considerable latitude in directing how and what the artist conveyed, as a vision of any sort.
With respect to food, there's an additional factor: a dish can only be eaten by one person. This is unlike a painting or a piece of music, which can be appreciated by many people. So if art, in order to be considered successful, must engage the appreciator, in the case of food, that can only consist of the specific person before whom the plate is set - and the task is to please each individual diner on their own merits - which would be difficult if not impossible to do with one common menu for all people.
Be that as it may, though, the food-as-art consideration hasn't come up much in this discussion, which makes me think we can probably dismiss it as an irrelevancy.
We have one restaurant here that only offers chefs tasting menu. You get what you are given, with only dietary and some taste aversion requirements allowed.
Their marketing spin is that chef doesn't even know what he's going to serve tonight until he arrives at the restaurant and his creative juices begin the flow! (Highly unlikely, IMHO. Kitchens don't stock themselves)
You can't get any information beforehand about the food he is going to present. You will receive a printed menu as you leave, to remember the event.
Yes, it's "experience" dining, but quite popular, with some caveat.
Chef has opened himself up to some criticism for his approach, and quite rightly. Some diners have reported being slightly suspicious that certain creations are merely chef moving old stock out of his kitchen. Whilst this may be debatable, it's hard to discredit the diners for this feeling.
Others report that upon return visits, numerous dishes seem to reappear quite consistently, putting the "whatever his creative juices demand" spin to bed.
And others too have rightly questioned the sommeliers choice matching wine flight. How could any sommelier match wines when they are unaware of the food they will be matching to, and even if they have some knowledge before the restaurant opens, how could they possibly stock very high quality matching wines at such short notice?
It's not a format that works for me, but it has it's place in modern cuisine, I believe.
With many chefs, it comes down to what was fresh and great that day. While the chef might be directly involved in the selections from the producers, the fish mongers, etc., it might be a trusted staff member, who makes those selections, based on several criteria.
I would not be surprised in a chef not knowing what was going to be on the menu/tasting menu, until later in the day. Not sure that it would not come to him/her, until they hit the duck-boards, but they might not know, until shortly before opening.
I am sure that there ARE exceptions, and am only basing my comments on the chefs, who I know personally, or have observed closely.