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Tasting Menus, Small Plates, and Just How Fast Are YOUR Taste Buds?

I live in fear of a loved one inviting me to dinner at an upscale elite restaurant that specializes in "Tasting Menus." Oh, don't get me wrong. I do enjoy looking at the pictures. The small finely crafted less-than-one-good-mouthful cube of a medium rare prime steak artfully arranged on a HUGE plate along with a carefully spooned comma of jus or maybe a wide painted path of sauce adorning the plate with a single leaf of parsley, and maybe a cube of some sort of gel or veggie puree to artistically balance the cube of beef that the tasting menu erroneously describes as "Prime Rib au Jus." You get the idea, and if you haven't actually dined at such an establishment, I'm sure you must have seen the pictures. They seem to be omnipresent. But they DO raise serious questions for me!

Is there enough of any one thing on the plate for me to fully experience its flavors? The human tongue -- mine and yours -- has "regions" where specific tastes are sensed more acutely than others. There's a very interesting article on all of the physical factors that go into our experience of taste: http://www.livescience.com/17684-sixt... It bears heavily on what I'm talking about here.

As background to whether or not there's enough food on the plate in a really high end, fancy schmancy tasting menu presentation to REALLY taste it, I ask whether you've ever gotten involved in a serious wine tasting exercise, a la wine-tasting-spit-in-a-bucket-don't-swallow-the-wine kind of occasion? It's really quite an expansive flavor experiencing ritual that involves all of the senses that eating solid foods does, with the specific exception of chewing, which in the case of solid foods is critical to releasing flavor compounds of many foods as they are bruised to release things such as the flavor oils of fresh mint, and similar experiences.

In the wine tasting ritual, first the wine is examined against the light, often swirled in the glass to check whether the liquid "has legs." The richness of the color is a visual experience that stimulates the anticipation of wine in the mouth. Then the aroma is taken in. The "nose" of the wine is examined with our own nose. We sniff the wine and some "super experts" even suck in the aroma through their teeth to see how much of the "texture" of the wine is volatile. The wine may actually be swished around in the mouth like some sort of mouth wash, then air taken in through the teeth to further charge the flavor experience....

When we eat solid food, all of the taste receptors we use in wine tasting are used in eating: the first thing we experience as the food is set in front of us is the aroma, especially with hot food. As we bring a forkful to our mouth, unless we're holding our breath, the aroma experience is heightened by assaulting both taste and smell receptors. ANNNNNDDDD.... we can taste the food better with a sufficient amount to fill our oral cavity enough to allow the flavors to settle onto all of the flavor receptors in our mouths, and to enjoy the increased flavors and release of flavor compounds that come with mastication.

So my GREAT fear of tasting menus, such as the example I open with above, is whether enough of the food expounded in the menu is sufficient in actual presentation to fulfill the expected tasting experience? A critical part of any tasting experience is the sense of satiaty that may not necessarily require eating a large enough amount to feel "full," but the quality of satiaty that food flavor can bring to us based on satisfying experiences of the past, which more or less breaks down into "memory association." That's the sort of thing that happens when we taste a friends fresh baked peanut butter cookie and are flashed back to a happy childhood experience when Mom gave us one of hers fresh from the oven. Associations can be a delightful part of a taste experience WHEN we have enough of something to taste!

Sooooooo.... In view of all of these factors that go into my and your ability to taste and enjoy a dish, not the least of which is a large enough mouthful to experience the full flavor and mouth feel and texture of the food, I have serious fears of whether those micro-portions on macro-plates can cut it for me!

But I also understand the economics of such Tasting Menu establishments. They are seemingly ALWAYS in the highest possible rent districts. They are (almost) always decorated well and expensively, and in order to make ends meet, they must pack in as much seating as possible without requiring customers to sit on each other's laps, AND if you can use ONE rib eye steak to feed ten people instead of one person, hey, maybe you can stay open another week!

And so I have come to the conclusion that there is a very heavy "Emperor's New Clothes" and "Conspicuous Consumption" and "keeping up with the Joneses" factor at play here. Not that I don't enjoy many of the joys of molecular gastronomy. My Souse Vide water oven now holds a critical spot in my cooking techniques. I just prefer to do it at home where I can be sure there is sufficient quantity for my taste buds to get hold of the flavor and enjoy it instead of having to read the menu and think hard about what I'm supposed to be tasting.

Sometimes I have to wonder what would happen if these tasting menu gurus all fell down a rabbit hole and met up with Alice: Would they all fly away into nothingness if she pronounced them all "Just a deck of cards?"

Oh. And just for the record, I do NOT consider "omakase" at a sushi bar, whether high-end stupidly expensive "California style" with an abundance of Philadelphia Cream Cheese or an old fashioned traditional nigiri type "street food" sushi to fall into this category simply because you are always served traditional full sized "mouthful" pieces of sushi. And also, my definition of "omakase" requires that you know the sushi chef and he knows you, and that you sit at the sushi bar and he whips up nigiri sushi bite by bite just for you. An assortment of sushi presented on one plate is not "omakase." That is simply "take out" on a plate instead of in a bag! Alright, I'm a nit-picky old broad, even if I do say so myself. '-

)

Anyway, what do you think? Emperor's New Clothes, or good value for the money? Keeping up with the Joneses, or just good food? And how many of you can actually taste "fast enough" to get the full flavor experience from a paint-brush swipe of sauce across your plate?

Curious minds (especially this one) want to know! '-)

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  1. I've eaten at a LOT of restos that have 'tasting menus' and 'small plates' ~ as in so many, I've lost count. This list includes The French Laundry, probably the pinnacle (or at least once was, when Keller was still cooking) of degustation menus.

    I have NEVER gotten a plate that was 'less than one bite' ~ most are 3-4 bites. Now, if you get an "amuse bouche" that will typically be one bite. They come before the tasting menu starts.

    I have always gotten enough to truly taste the food. There might have been a dish or two where I wished there was more sauce, but that's a plating issue. If I wanted to get more of a specific ingredient, or wanted it to be a bigger part of the flavor profile, then that's the difference between what I think is balanced and what the chef thinks is balanced. Plus there is usually a pause between each course, so you have the time to let the flavors settle on your palate before you begin with the next dish.

    Every tasting menu I've done is somewhat of a marathon. You have to be prepared. Skipping lunch is highly advised. I have NEVER left hungry, in fact, I've usually left over full more often than not.

    So to me, there's no 'new emperor's clothes' or 'keeping up with the jones' here. There might be for some people. But I like to eat this way because I get to taste a large variety of dishes from the chef, rather than just 2 or 3 if the portions are huge. Variety is the spice of life, you know :->

    1. I'll try to be brief. I do find this subject fascinating.
      My own experience in several high-end restaurants which specialized in the "Tasting Menu" was.....unsatisfactory. Don't misunderstand. The quality of the products being served was unquestionable; the artistry and science admirable. The food tasted good, too. :)
      But:
      There is art fused with food and science, and then there is preciousness and gimmickry. (sp?) and it seems to me that in an effort to keep up with those Joneses, more and more of the latter are being employed.
      I do not consider a dish more "finished" or polished if, say, the dish is perfect, pencil-thin asparagus which needs only a simple sauce at very best - if one of the prep cooks has been set to the task of sharpening the ends of said asparagus. Yeah, I saw it because I was served it. It made me very curious and interested (WHY did that seem like a good thing to do? - leading to the next, and the next....WHY is it necessarily a stroke of genius to make beef/Guiness gel? Why is that not just plain....ok, weird?
      Just because something tastes good doesn't mean it should necessarily be that way. Of course, it also doesn't necessarily signify that it SHOULDN'T be that way, but IMO: why? Why? WHY BOTHER?
      I'm honestly not trying to take away from the brilliance of people who are able to visualize and conceptualize this sort of thing. My mind just doesn't work that way, nor appreciate it, or actually even find it particularly worthwhile.
      My vote? Just Good Food, please. And don't play with it too much.

      1. There's some serious overthinking going on here. First of all, food is chewed, we don't ingest a bite solely by swallowing. It has never once occurred to me in a meal of any kind that there's not enough food to taste. That's an odd hypothesis and one that doesn't stand up in practice.

        As for the "Emperor's Clothes" argument, that's been done to death on this subject. Nobody is expected to like everything and every option that's out there. I've never been to a churrascaria even though I'm a big fan of meat. The idea of an all-you-can-eat meat-intensive meal simply doesn't appeal to me. I don't go around trying to figure out why, it's enough that it just doesn't draw me in. My father could never handle finer French dining, it just seemed silly to him -- so what?

        I've been to a number of tasting-menu only places and have thoroughly enjoyed them for a number of reasons. First, the amount of effort required to prepare a lot of dishes - something that I'm never likely to do on my own. Then there's the opportunity to experience a skilled chef's unique vision - certainly something that can be done at a good hot dog joint, but it's a matter of the chef's skillset and ability to execute on the vision. Finally because it occasionally gives me a better understanding of how I think about ingredients and foods. Mary Roach's recent book "Gulp" focuses on the digestive system starting with sour senses of taste and smell (she presents some interesting insights through interviews with professional taste consultants). Those two are necessarily intertwined but so is sight and touch. There are visual and textural cues that we associate with our foods and when they're distorted it allows you to re-experience the flavors in new and interesting ways. None of those reasons may appeal to you and the overall idea clearly doesn't but that doesn't mean there's not a valid basis for it.

        6 Replies
        1. re: ferret

          From ferret: "There's some serious overthinking going on here. ... ... ..."
          ...............................

          LOL! Serious "overthinking"? Okay. I'll admit it goes with the side of The Bell Curve I live on. I (half kidding, half not) call my 150+ IQ my “birth defect.” But there really are many science based studies of taste and smell that support my questions and speculative conclusions. So, if you are still a serious “Doubting Thomas,” please explain to me the phenomenon, often discussed on these boards, of the home cooks of Thanksgiving dinner suffering from "olfactory fatigue syndrome" by the time they sit down to the meal, and who look forward to their midnight raid on the refrigerator after enough time has passed for their senses of taste and smell to be restored?

          In the world of great perfumes, experts have for at least a century or two, recommended that when one is shopping for a new personal fragrance, you not smell anything at the perfume counter, but choose three that (for whatever reason) you think may suit you, then put no more than one dab of each individual scent on three widely separated pulse points on your body -- usually the inside of each wrist and the inside of the crook of one elbow -- and then go window shop or whatever for at least a half hour while the perfume blooms and mixes with your personal body chemistry, THEN smell the pulse points and make a choice, OR come back tomorrow and try three more because after three scents are smelled your olfactory senses will be seriously dulled. This is fact, and was the standard preached by the great couturier perfume houses of yore.

          It makes good common sense to me that after about the third or fourth "amuse bouche" sized portion in the course of a dozen or more tastings, the diner will also suffer “olfactory fatigue syndrome.” FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES, below I include an illustration of the type of plating I'm talking about from the tasting menu of WD-50, NYC, as an example. A full set of photos of the menu may be viewed on the blog from whence it was borrowed by going here: http://sharedappetite.com/tasting-men...

          If I read the menu correctly at WD-50 (ten points up from a can of WD 40!) there are 13 extremely complex meal samples, each accompanied with at least a “swish” of each wine pairing to be ingested in the course of one evening? ALL of this at a toll of two hundred and fifty bucks a pop per person! And unless I'm super human in the taste bud department, a condition which every Thanksgiving meal I've ever cooked has proven I am not, then WHY is ANYONE paying this kind of money for a meal of such diversity when they will lose the ability to savor it well less than half way through the 19 course? As I said, I suffer that kind of “tastebud anesthesia”every Thanksgiving, and while that meal is not quite “free,” it certainly doesn't tip my checkbook at $250 bucks a head!

          But I'll also be the first to admit I would most likely thoroughly enjoying going to the bar at WD-50, and ordering two or maybe even three of the platings at $15.00 a pop. I suspect my taste buds could keep up with that! '-)

           
          1. re: Caroline1

            A) where did you come up with a price of $250/person fr the WD-50 tasting menu? Per the link that you posted, the menu shown was $155/person, with a smaller menu available for $90.

            B) olfactory fatigue occurs when one is unable to distinguish scents after extended exposure. For example, smelling wine after wine or perfume after perfume. If you were tasting scallop after scallop after scallop, you may suffer olfactory fatigue, but tasting different dishes with different components and flavor profiles won't cause it because you are stimulating different taste buds. There's a reason tasting menu dishes are brought out in a particular order.

            It sounds like you are criticizing something you haven't actually tried. I strongly recommend you actually try a tasting menu and see how the process works before deciding its not possible to do it correctly.

            1. re: boogiebaby

              Response to your questions:

              A) Right here: http://wd-50.com/menus/ Upper left corner where it shows
              "TASTING MENU 155
              wine pairing 95"
              In the restaurant world of this level, is considered crass to show a dollar sign, but be that as it may, $155.00 for the food plus $95.00 for the wine *IS* $250.00 where I come from. If that's not the case where you live, let me know where that is and I may consider moving there! Are the winters harsh?

              B. You're not fully understanding the concept, but that's okay. I don't mind.

              1. re: Caroline1

                A) I used the blog link you posted. You did not post a link to the actual WD-50 website which showed the wine pairing price. And you spoke of tasting menu pricing, not tasting menu with wine pairing pricing. Many people do tasting menus without the wine. Saying the WD-50 tasting menu is $250 is misleading, especially when that included optional wine, and is just one of their menus. They do offer cheaper options. You could do a tasting there for $90. That's a big difference from the $250 you claimed.

                B) You aren't understanding olfactory fatigue. You don't get olfactory fatigue from eating different foods.

                Again, I suggest you actually try a tasting menu before condemning it.

            2. re: Caroline1

              You know that you're not asked to cook the meal at one of these restaurants? That's where the olfactory fatigue that you mention home cooks experiencing comes from - they're immersed in the smells of cooking the meal so long that when they finally serve it, they can no longer appreciate the tastes.

              You sound like you've worked yourself up into disliking something that you have never tried. Why not try it? I know from experience that I generally don't like Indian food, but that's based on trying more than once.

              Most restaurants with tasting menus do allow your to make up a "mini menu" with fewer dishes. Maybe that would be a good place to start.

              And sushi in California does not include cream cheese. We don't eat crab rangoon either.

              1. re: 512window

                Then you live in California, do eat in sushi bars, but ONLY eat nigiri sushi, right? EVERY "Philadelphia roll" I've ever seen or heard of has Philadelphia Cream cheese in it. That is why it is called a "Philidelphia roll!"

          2. Wow. All those words to say you don't understand tasting menus?

            A tasting menu is normally comprised of several smaller-than-average dishes. They are not one bite items, but more like 4-5 bites. They are smaller portions so you eat more items.

            I'm not sure where you got the idea that a tasting menu would have just one bite unless you watched the now-defunct show "The Taste" where they had to make a bite bite dish. And living in SoCal, I assure you that our "high-end stupidly expensive California style sushi" definitely has no cream cheese anywhere near it. I don't think I've ever seen cream cheese in sushi before!

            1. I really like tasting menus and often choose them when I eat in Vegas. I have never had a tasting or small plate be just one bite....that is called an amuse bouche. You get very full on a tasting menu/small plates and it takes much longer to complete the meal with plenty of each dish (at one time) to taste and savor. You just wouldn't make an entire meal with only one of the small plates.

              Often my spouse and I order a different selection of the tasting menus so we can share bites with each other and taste even more dishes. Not having enough has never been a problem!

              It really gives you a total feel for the restaurant, the style, the philosophy, skill level, creativity. I have experienced some amazing items on a tasting menu that would not work off a regular menu. Some items are just too rich to have in a larger quantity, but I still want to taste them.

              1. It isn't clear to me but have you ever had a tasting menu at one of these places you describe? It doesn't seem like. There has been an explosion of tasting menus. In many places, it seems like it's just parts of the regular menu assembled in some order with some add ins. That's not what I think of when I want a tasting menu. I've had many tasting menu dishes at many places. When it's done well, like malarkey says, it's never about a single bite of anything.

                Sure you have all the amuses that precede the meal that are a single bite, but those aren't part of the menu. At some places, I've had 6-8 amuses before the meal starts. I think the giant plate with one piece in the center is a parody or something set up for a photo op. I've never had an actual dish presented like that.

                You have to be prepared to commit 3-4 hours to a meal. By the end of these, I am so stuffed that I can hardly move. The popular image of someone going to get a pizza after one of these dinners? I have no idea how you could actually do that. Not saying it doesn't happen, but the places I have been have never left me feeling like I needed more and I am not a light eater.

                However, I do tasting menus far less frequently these days as I'm just not prepared to tie up that much time for a meal. I know that this is entertainment for the evening, but I have other things to do, places to be. Yes it's only a meal, but it can be a really nice meal.

                One point I would like to make. I think often there are people who can be let down by such a meal. They do it for a special occasion and there is much that is being counted on for the dinner. If it isn't the best experience they have ever had, they are extremely disappointed. It may be good, great even, but if it's not the best thing ever, we'll it just wasn't worth it. It's impossible to meet the expectations. I've done them enough to know that it's just dinner. A very nice dinner, but it won't change my life.

                5 Replies
                1. re: Bkeats

                  Hi, Bkeats, and thank you for asking. Yes, I have had tasting menus, but not, for example, at Wylie Defresne's WD-50. But the concept of tasting menus is not new. In fact, they rise from a very long tradition in many cultures, and have simply been adapted to fit high end (often haute) cuisine. Traditional Chinese "dim sum" is really just a tasting menu. So are Greek/Turkish mezes, which have been around for millennia. And don't overlook Spanish tapas. So the term "Tasting Menu" may be relatively new, but the concept is damned near as old as time.

                  The first "tasting menu" I can recall having in the United States was not called a tasting menu at that time, but that is certainly what it was. When Caesar's Palace opened in Las Vegas in the mid 1960s (when I lived there), it had a nearly all night tasting menu that had only one seating per evening, and EVERYONE had to have what we would now call the tasting menu. It was served in the original Bacchanal Room, which has since been renovated and changed through multiple gutting and renovations that have been done in the passing years. Somewhere among my souvenirs I think I still have a BIG fancy copy of the menu signed by the Executive Chef and the Maître d'. I hope it's not lost. Anyway, I now have to rely on memory, but I believe it was something like ten or more courses, The wait staff (primarily female, but not exclusively) were all costumed as Roman slaves in diaphanous robes who served wine from clay amphora, and the price fixe also included (for the men only back in the days of rampant chauvinism!) back massages by more diaphanously clad female "slaves" during the meal. The interior was decked out to simulate a Roman villa, with a lake through the center that had a swan shaped small barge from which a harpist played music all during the meal. I've had that tasting menu more than a few times! The primary difference compared to tasting menus of today was that it was a study in gluttony and the experience of a of bacchanal, so the portions were pretty close to full size. A torturous experience, but when friends come to town and insist on increasing their entertainment budget by staying with you, hey, youve gotta do what you gotta do! I've had other tasting menus on this and other continents, but hey, do you REALLY want to hear 80 years of memories? '-)

                  The many ways the variations on the theme of "tasting menu" are still with us is an interesting one to explore. I don't really know if there are still many Chinese American restaurants around that offer "family meals" with "one from column A and two from column B" types of menus. Those too are a variation on a theme that was originally intended to offer a bit of a Chinese banquet flavor variety to the meal.

                  The modern "haute" (and too often not so hot) cuisine tasting menus do concern me for the reasons I covered in my original post. To me, going to a place like Wylie Defresne's WD-50, and having the $250 food and wine tasting menu strikes me as the Cliff Notes of the food world today. Just because you've read the Cliff Notes version of Dostoevsky's "War And Peace" does not mean you've savored the whole novel. And so it is with tasting one or two bites of something as opposed to having it as the opulent meal as it was originally devised as.

                  Again, thanks for asking! '-)

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    Didn't Tolstoy write War and Peace? Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment.

                    Sadly this thread is turning into both. Let's stop the bickering and get back to the food.

                    Is it only tasting menus that make you feel this way but the other formats you mentioned as well? As you say they have been around a long time. Perhaps this is more personal in nature.

                    1. re: melpy

                      You're right! On two counts! And as an aside on long form (verrry long form!) fiction, it seems it is making a come back. According to the New York Times, a young writer (early 30s?) just sold his 800 page first novel to a publisher and promptly received a $2,000,000.00 advance! Maybe American publishing is coming out of the ravages of paperless books and poor to no international copyright protection. That would be good!

                      Anyway, in answer to your question about whether it is only tasting menus I don't like, it isn't so much that I don't like them and it is I see a lot of "jumping through hoops" for an experience that I don't find holds the hope of what I most enjoy in a dining experience. My observation of tasting menus, most specifically the kind that focus on "micro-portions" of haute cuisine with a special focus on molleculer gastronomy, is that these courses are very special foods that have been optimized, intensified, manipulated, and redesigned into extremely unique tasting experiences. How many of those in a row can any one individual appreciate? Have you ever gone into a specialty chocolate house where they make very upscale chocolates with unique flavors such as chocolate with chile, chocolate with sea salt and caramel, chocolate with violets, chocolate with green tea, chocolate with sansho/Sechuan pepper? Taste more than three of those and you quickly begin to overpass satiety and your taste buds wilt into fatigue mode. And it's no different with small portion super dishes of molecular gastronomy.

                      For me, I DO love to entertain, though that exercise seems to be an activity that doesn't carry well into old age. '-) However, I'm of the type who would much rather be in the kitchen with other creative and curious cooks inventing the dishes than out in the restaurant being beaten down with an onslaught of dishes that soon take on all of the flavor excitement of string of dishes of glue.

                      I do understand the "food as drama" concept and fully understand that "we eat with our eyes first." That's a given. And I do understand the prestige factor of being able to get reservations in such establishments, as well as the "I've made it" factor of being able to afford such meals sans a liberal corporate expense account. But a liberal corporate expense account is also a prestige item after all, right?

                      Anyway, the thing I do not understand about mandated tasting menus that are ten or more courses long and require everyone at the table to have the same regimented meal is why people are so willing to subject themselves to the tyranny????? At THOSE prices! And knowing (we do all know this, don't we?) that their ability to experience the full flavor nuances of each successive dish will begin to seriously flag around the fourth or fifth course?

                      To borrow a phrase from Yul Brynner in The King And I, "It is a puzzlement!"

                      Some one should write a book, "The Food Rituals of Man Through The Ages." It has potential as a best seller!

                      1. re: Caroline1

                        "Taste more than three of those and you quickly begin to overpass satiety and your taste buds wilt into fatigue mode. And it's no different with small portion super dishes of molecular gastronomy."

                        Not to pile on here, but this applies *to you* personally.

                        I had the wd-50 tasting menu several years ago, which I think was comprised of a total of 9 or 12 courses. We experienced no "fatigue" mode, as the courses were quite different from each other in texture and flavor (and more than one single bite, btw).

                        Some were hits -- and when they were, oh boy.... WOW! the star of the night was probably the foie gras with papaya sauce and chinese celery financier --, some were misses, and in the beginning, we were actually worried we'd be going home hungry.

                        Well, that feeling pretty much disappeared when we were done. It was a great way to experience this type of cuisine by giving you a very large selection of dishes to try, as opposed to ordering à la carte.

                    2. re: Caroline1

                      So since you have had tasting menus but don't care for them, there's nothing to live in fear of. If a loved one asks you to such a dinner, accept and enjoy their company. Its only a dinner and we've all had to eat things we didn't care for to be with friends and family.

                  2. Not so long ago I posted a related question - on the subject specifically of a possible bias towards tasting-menu-only restaurants simply because of format. It certainly provided plenty of room for conjecture.

                    There *is* a size below which, with any given food, you're not going to get the full flavour - or rather to be exact your impression of the flavour is going to be different as a result of particular components coming to the fore or not. I do chocolate tasting regularly. If I'm doing a formal review, I always sample at least 50g at a time, because my experience is that below that, there is the potential to miss a few aspects.

                    I've also been to several tasting-menu restaurants. Portion size may be small but usually not absurdly so - although I've encountered exceptions. However, as a personal preference, I'd rather have one thing done exceptionally well, in enough quantity to satisfy by itself, than 5 things done exceptionally well, with only enough to know what it tastes like. The second approach always seems strangely abstract and disconnected - a bit like a holiday where you visit London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Madrid for 1 day each, rather than spending 5 days in any one of the above.

                    My stronger objection to tasting-menu-only restaurants is that it essentially requires of the diner that they be more or less indifferent to what's put before them on the plate - you don't have any choice, so you have to take what's given. That leaves little scope for personal enjoyment - it becomes an exercise in appreciating someone else's vision. Which may be a very gracious thing to do but doesn't relate except indirectly to the human experience of eating. That's generally how I feel leaving a tasting-menu restaurant; that I've not actually eaten a meal but rather participated in a conceptual experience.

                    However, there are other people for whom the whole joy of eating - indeed its very purpose - is to try as many things as possible, to experience the possibilities of flavour, texture, appearance, everything potentially related to food, and for such people not only do tasting menus make sense, I get the impression being forced to make hard choices between equally attractive options on a menu would be torture. Indeed, sometimes an ordinary menu may be bewildering in its choice, and in that situation the tasting menu makes perfect sense in terms of offering a soft option that minimises the risk of disappointment or envy.

                    There is also a quite honourable reason to divide things into small portions. Ultimate quality is rare - supplies are very limited, and for things where the supply is truly minute, it's better and more fair to give the maximum number of people the opportunity to try something than to concentrate the experience in the hands of a few lucky diners who manage to arrive at the right moment, before the item in question is sold out.

                    It seems to me that a restaurant that offers a tasting menu alongside a normal a la carte menu is an admirable solution; it fits both types of diners and also perhaps gives the chef scope to be more experimental with the tasting menu side while preserving iconic or well-beloved dishes as menu fixtures. In a larger sense, I also think fine restaurants might think about offering various sizes of the same dish; this may sound like heresy to some - "small", "medium" and "large" sizes, as it were - but different people have both different appetites and different expectations of what sort of sizes are reasonable, and I think it shows sophistication to accommodate this variety. If the "fast-foodish" terms above sound crude, something like "half-portion" and "to share" along with the "regular" size could be elegantly inserted into a menu without particular difficulty.

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: AlexRast

                      Alex, I really like your portion size option on a menu. Now, can we actually get any restaurant to do that?

                      For most of my adult life, my home cooking has been firmly anchored in the traditions of haute cuisine, a la Careme and Escoffier, and I rue the day Michel Guerard came up with his "Cuisine Minceur" approach, which I believe to be the hatching nest of today's "Nouvelle Cuisine," which I see as the probable impetus for many of the tasting menus of today. Two of the classic beef dishes I love are Tournedos Rossini, and my own beef Wellington adaptation, that includes a prosciutto lining to keep the puff pastry dry and un-soggy which is then lined with rows of sliced Perigord truffles, a rich thick suitably dry layer of duxelle with an added layer of pate foie gras surrounding the tenderloin. Not cheap in any time frame, but ridiculously expensive today, especially when you opt for prime grade dry aged grass fed beef, which was the only option when these dishes were first created. So I can see where a restaurant with a high overhead that would like to offer either of those dishes on their menu (among many other possibilities), but in today's world, tasting menu portions may be a viable way... IF the tasting menu portions are large enough to taste! '-)

                      Occasionally I also enjoy playing the molecular gastronomy game at home and doing silly things like using spherification to make a blackberry coulis LOOK like black caviar and serve it on a "blini" made of cake batter with whipped cream filling in as sour cream, and presented looking exactly like a first course canapé of beluga caviar, except it tastes like dessert. But I damn sure do not want to pay the going rate for it in Tasting Menu restaurants that feature the trick ponies of molecular gastronomy! Why pay a chef for doing the fun part?

                      On the other hand, having once been given a KILO of Black Sea Beluga Caviar as a birthday present a half century ago, I can promise you that blackberry spherical mock caviar is probably the top grade of beluga available in most of the world today! And that is a pity.

                      Anyway, I *DO* like your idea of the “steps” of portions. I also like Wylie Dufresne's concept of offering options on taster plates at the bar for $15.00 a pop. That gives diners the option of not “gourmandising” their taste buds in the gluttonous sense.

                      Hey, There may be hope for the future!

                      1. re: Caroline1

                        Many Chinese restaurants offer two sizes of dishes. I am able to order half orders of pasta courses at restaurants as well.

                        1. re: melpy

                          Yes, and thank god for doggy bags! And boxes. When I was young and for more concerned with what other people think (age is wonderful for dissolving that false worry!) I could not bear to be seen carrying food out of a restaurant. Somewhere around age 40 or 50, I thought WHOAAAA! That is good food that will be dumped in the garbage bin. If it was food that "had my teeth marks on it," I would take it home to eat later. If it was food that was safe for others to eat, a really fun thing to do was to offer it to someone along the way. Sometimes it was received with great joy. Sometimes it was rejected with disdain. Sometimes the recipient was a very grateful stray dog, in which case the biggest problem was me making a clean getaway without it following me home! And sometimes it was simply lunch the next day. But it was no longer wasted.

                          On the other hand..... When I was a kid during WWII, if I didn't clean my plate, my mother would nag me about cousins in war torn Britain who had no food! I would eat. I would get chubby. It took me a few years to realize that ME eating that unhealthy amount of food did NOTHING to help ANY hungry family members far across the sea!

                          We humans are a curious lot! '-)

                      2. re: AlexRast

                        As someone who doesn't want to miss out on something, I will say in general having to decide between two wonderful sounding dishes is agony. Although I haven't done many, the tasting menu typically will giver the best and everything I want to try. In general, small plates, tapas and mezze are some of my favorite ways to eat.

                        1. re: melpy

                          Aha! Bingo!~ You've hit upon another fascinating difference between regimented tasting menus and tapas/mezes/dim sum. With the latter, everyone is free to have what they like, share what they like, and walk away when they like. With regimented tasting menus it is an endurance battle. Call me the wicked witch of the west, but I want my caviar when I want it, and if I don't want soup, I don't want soup. Not my style. '-)

                          1. re: Caroline1

                            I would say then that I some what agree. My husband is fairly picky and although we did the table 21 tasting at Volt and he enjoyed it, there were many things he would not have ordered himself. That said, it opens him up to trying things that he wouldn't order. I do prefer getting to pick and choose. Variety is the spice of life and I do understand fatigue of the palette. For me it is more often with a large portion rather than a small one. For instance for lunch I had butternut squash soup. I was sick of it by the end.

                            If I am ordering small plates, I want enough for each person to try. Splitting a bite into smaller pieces still is counter productive to tasting.

                            1. re: melpy

                              I think you make such a good point. I can stand a whole "entree." I've OD'ed on it before I'm halfway through it.

                              1. re: c oliver

                                Oops. I CAN'T stand.

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  If this is talking about US experience - which I'm guessing it does - my experience is that the fundamental problem is that a typical American main course is unrealistically oversized for the appetites of most people. The American way is certainly generosity, and that's nice in itself but too much of a good thing is simply...too much.

                                  More restaurants, I think, could do with adjusting their portion size to levels consistent with typical appetites - this goes back to the graded portion size idea - and not always serve huge amounts.

                        2. I have eaten at several of the top tier restaurants in nyc, including WD-50.

                          My point of view is that this genre of concept and artistry is an art form. And similar to modern art some people will not "get it", or enjoy it. That's fine.
                          Passing judgement and declaring the entire segment of fine dining that is pushing boundaries, breaking rules and creating conversation is not productive or helpful.

                          1. Generally speaking, I've lost interest in tasting menus.

                            I mean the "old style" tasting menu of very small portions of the main menu items. Give me the proper size please.

                            Then there are the other places, that only offer a multi-course experience of a series of tasting menu sized dishes. Some can be decent enough. A few can be exciting and interesting. I know of three places in my region that offer the latter - two hold Michelin stars. I'm happy to eat there, but only maybe once a year.

                            Returning to the OP - nope, a paint brush swipe across the plate, or the solitary blob, never does it for me. I can never really work out what I'm eating.

                            18 Replies
                            1. re: Harters

                              Sounds perfectly sane and non-judgemental to me, even with my under-cultivated boorish hoggy nature. :)
                              Seriously: all I've seen is an expression of opinions re: one person's preferences. Lotta ire being expressed here, and what appears to be a devolution into very tangential areas. It's an easy enough question to answer: "tasting menus: love 'em or hate 'em, and why?"
                              It just bothers me to see someone getting attacked for having an opinion that, for whatever reason, differs from the mainstream - if indeed, fans of molecular gastronomy can be considered mainstream? I dunno. What I do know is, that for myself, I can go from satiated to totally overwhelmed in just about no time flat, which is why tasting menus don't work for me. And that was the crux of the question, as I understood it. Maybe it's my lack of understanding, but I usually grasp pretty well.

                              1. re: mamachef

                                Nobody's suggesting that everyone has to like everything, that seems to be clear from the other posts. But stating that you need "large mouthfuls" of food to fully taste something and a tasting portion is inherently incapable of supplying a "large mouthful" isn't really an opinion about likes and dislikes.

                                1. re: ferret

                                  You're putting words in my mouth or at the least, misconstruing what I intended. I intentionally went into the details of wine tasting, and how it uses the full scope of our abilities to taste and evaluate foods and drinks by stimulating our anticipation through sight, stimulating our sense of smell, which is a serious precursor to mouth flavor and feel, how wine is swished around in the mouth to expose all taste receptors to it, and how air is passed across the wine in our mouths to fully explore the full nuances of flavor.

                                  And then I included a link to a paper on the physiology of taste and smell.

                                  And despite all of that, there are those of you who insist I said "large mouthfuls" are required to taste food. Quantity *IS* a factor, but NOT such quantities that there is no room for your taste buds to react!

                                  There are times, especially when cooking or trying new flavors, when SUBSEQUENT tastings are required to evaluate that new flavor fully. There is nuance in flavor. When salt is added to a dish is a critical factor in many compound flavor profiles. And unless you're having a dish of plain boiled potatoes, most dishes from a good cook's kitchen have nuanced flavors!

                                  I hope this clears up what I intended. And I seriously have to ask myself if this kind of heavy misunderstanding that I have found to be very painful from my point of view, would happen *IF* vocal inflection were possible in the written word???????

                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                    But your premise is that chefs somehow disregard the enjoyment factor in presenting meals in this way. That's really not the case. It's clear that from a subjective perspective tasting menus are not your thing. However, they haven't just dropped onto the food scene; exercised competently they are very enjoyable; and they neither overwhelm the senses nor do they not offer enough food to convey the full range of tastes.

                                    Who hasn't been to a cocktail party or reception where there are a dozen different passed appetizers? Or enjoyed family style dining at a Chinese restaurant? People encounter such situations more often than they realize.

                                    So where's the harm in enjoying a well-conceived meal from a person who has the skills to execute it well?

                                    On my most recent visit to Alinea we probably had about 20 courses, several of which were desserts. Were all the courses home runs? Absolutely not. 2 or 3 were outright misses and many were amazing.

                                    One of the dessert courses was a winter scene with some evergreen sprigs, small rocks covered in edible peppermint snow, a demitasse filled with a clear distilled hot chocolate and some other familiar/unfamiliar sweets.

                                    That dish worked on more levels than I can describe, which is the whole point of the creative arts. It was immediately reminiscent of childhood winters, forced me to really "taste" what was presented and left me satisfied and smiling.

                                    I referenced Mary Roach's book "Gulp" earlier and she describes an experiment conducted with wine students where they were given a white wine and a red wine (which was the same wine with an added colorant) and asked to describe each. Although identical, each had different reference points based on the traditional flavors of their respective classes.

                                    A good example of how throwing off the context of a food can mess with your head. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

                                2. re: mamachef

                                  <It just bothers me to see someone getting attacked for having an opinion that, for whatever reason, differs from the mainstream...>

                                  I don't think that straying from the mainstream is what's prompting the attacks. I think they stem, at least partly, from this sentence in the OP:

                                  <And so I have come to the conclusion that there is a very heavy "Emperor's New Clothes" and "Conspicuous Consumption" and "keeping up with the Joneses" factor at play here.>

                                  That's not about tasting menus. It's about people who enjoy tasting menus. If I were one of those people, I'd feel insulted, and perhaps inspired to write something insulting in return.

                                  1. re: small h

                                    It's really easy for people to read a personal attack when none is intended, but we really hope everyone can give fellow posters the benefit of the doubt when coming across a generalization that feels too personal.

                                    We've had to remove some posts from this discussion, and are hoping to avoid having to lock it, so we're hoping everyone can move away from focusing on how other posters are posting, and get back to sharing their personal feelings about tasting menus. Thanks!

                                    1. re: small h

                                      small h, it did occur to me that that was the point people were reacting to so strongly. It's interesting, because my impression was that the reference to The Emperor's Clothes, et. al, was directed to the persons creating the food; not the people consuming it. Granted that it's a two-way street: for one to function, the other must consume, but I think that the supply was created before the demand ever happened.
                                      But, I can't agree that there's any room for personal attack or insults being levied here. At the end of the day, it's an opinion, and it's about food, and that's it.

                                      1. re: mamachef

                                        <It's interesting, because my impression was that the reference to The Emperor's Clothes, et. al, was directed to the persons creating the food; not the people consuming it. >

                                        My take is

                                        tasting menu chefs : tailor :: tasting menu consumers : crowds cheering naked emperor

                                        I love analogies!

                                        1. re: small h

                                          YAY! Somebody got it right. Thank you!

                                          Wanna go sit in the corner with me and trade analogies? I'll bring some milk and cookies. Mamachef, you wanna come too? '-)

                                          1. re: Caroline1

                                            I'd love to come, but they better be big, soft yummy delicious cookies, not some mincey little things that I need to eat a thousand of. :)
                                            I think we'd have a mighty fine time.

                                            1. re: mamachef

                                              Big, soft, yummy.... hmmm I wonder if individual Pavlovas could pass for cookies? Maybe with a light dusting of hazelnuts over them for a little crunch? Whadaya think?

                                              1. re: mamachef

                                                Haha, one day there'll might be "tasting menu" cookies, the size of Goldfish crackers or something [rolls eyes]. LOL.

                                                Kinda like mini cupcakes ..... what's the point ?!?!? (sorry, not making reference to your avatar).

                                                1. re: LotusRapper

                                                  That was actually something I thought of that I could really love - but that's because I'm way more into the savory than the sweet. Small tastes of chocolate and patisserie satisfy me very well.
                                                  haha on the avatar. :) That's no mini-cupcake, that's a big, buffed-out, toned bicepcake!!

                                                  1. re: LotusRapper

                                                    You're too late. At many places I go to, before or after the dessert, a platter with an assortment of tiny cookies and chocolates will be placed in the middle of the tables. They're probably 1/2" or so and are great little morsels to have. Don't roll your eyes, just grab and chew.

                                                    1. re: Bkeats

                                                      The fancy name for these are "mignardises." They are the sweet equivalent of an amuse bouche - a complimentary bite at the end of the meal offered by the chef.

                                                      1. re: Bkeats

                                                        Ha ! I wouldn't do well at those places then, I can just see myself grabbing the entire plateful in one handful and nom, nom. nom like the Cookie Monster .......

                                                      2. re: LotusRapper

                                                        Volt gave out four mini "cookie like" desserts at the end of Table 21.

                                                         
                                                        1. re: melpy

                                                          I need to put on my progressives ...... ;-)

                                        2. Hi Caroline,

                                          I have not experienced a tasting menu in the U.S. Have done so in Quebec. It was good, and a different experience, but not one I've sought to replicate.

                                          I shy away from tasting menus. I like to dine out with a companion when I'm trying a new restaurant and, if I like what I experience, plan happily for a return visit. As mamachef said, I generally prefer simple fare that's prepared and presented well.

                                          Kind of like a gelato stand I once visited...they offered a "gelato flight" of eight different flavors one could try--from Hazelnut to Smurf flavored (it was blue...don't know the flavor profile) or you could simply have a cup of whatever flavor you wanted. I had a cup of vanilla. It was awesome, spoonful after spoonful.

                                          Simple works best for me.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: pinehurst

                                            Yes! And that's part of what I'm thinking... I would rather go to a great restaurant with a talented chef two or three (or more) times a year and leave looking forward to the next visit than be so burned out that I don't look forward to coming back for a very long time! Sounds like a strange business plan on the part of the restaurants to me.

                                            As for the gelato, I might go for four flavors, but not eight, and a big "by" on the Smurf! Funny how the color of food can influence our choices. Waaaaaay back in the 60s, I used to love gin and tonic in a specific bar simply because they had black lights and the drink would glow in the semi dark! I thought that was sooooo cool. But Smurf gelato sounds a bit too Willy Wonka-ish for me! Maybe it's more inviting to 12 year olds? '-)

                                          2. "Is there enough of any one thing on the plate for me to fully experience its flavors? "

                                            From your OP. And I believe most people who have responded here would give a resounding yes. But their opinion is just like yours. Just an opinion.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: c oliver

                                              Thank you for taking that out of context.

                                              1. re: Caroline1

                                                Huh? Now I'm really confused. Throughout your OP, you were referring to quantity. And your opinion seems to be that there's not enough and many others think there is. Here's more just so you know I wasn't taking one thing out of context.

                                                "background to whether or not there's enough food on the plate in a really high end, fancy schmancy tasting menu presentation to REALLY taste it,"

                                                "we can taste the food better with a sufficient amount to fill our oral cavity"

                                                "So my GREAT fear of tasting menus, such as the example I open with above, is whether enough of the food expounded in the menu"

                                                "not the least of which is a large enough mouthful to experience the full flavor and mouth feel and texture of the food,"

                                                " I just prefer to do it at home where I can be sure there is sufficient quantity "

                                            2. I just remembered a dinner we had at Staple and Fancy in Seattle a few years ago. Here's part of my writeup. We certainly had plenty of each thing to taste.

                                              " We got the eight starters of

                                              o bright green, firm olives (pits in)
                                              o two plates of crostini (six per plate): one had a thin layer of feta and a white anchovy filet; the other had fennel salami
                                              o slices of octopus with garbanzos and cured black olives
                                              o "large white beans." I don't remember what they were or even how they were prepared but very good (told you I was gonna be vague)
                                              o fried oysters (these were fantastic and plenty of them)
                                              o sliced mozzarella and I cannot remember what was with it.
                                              o raw escolar on a cold, thin sauce of something spicy and Persian cucumbers

                                              Then a housemade fettucine with oo and a cheese (also don't remember - don't report me to the mods, okay???) Following that was a plate that contained two, skin on filets of dorado and a boneless chicken breast with the first joint of the wing attached.

                                              THEN three desserts: a key lime tart, a chocolate mousse-type dish and a 'cookie' round and bigger than a golf ball with a little warm chocolate center."

                                              1. One question.
                                                Do you like steak?

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: Gastronomos

                                                  Very good point! Steak is something that actually does need to be done in a certain minimum size in order to be at its best, and even at that, in general the larger the better. Some of the better steakhouses even recognise this in an outright policy of serving no steak smaller than a given (large) minimum size.

                                                  In practice tasting menu places either opt not to serve steak or alternatively to cut up one large steak between multiple diners. But really, the steakhouse is a specialty beast anyway - people don't go to tasting-menu restaurants expecting or even necessarily wanting steak.

                                                  On the mini-cookies/biscuits front: As pointed out the idea has already been thought of. I've had ones at tasting menu restaurants that are about the size of a 5p coin (US dime). I find that these seem logical and indeed even delightful, taken with coffee *after* dessert, but as a dessert course in their own right, veer towards the precious. Some types of biscuit also don't work in this format, e.g. chocolate chip cookies (where the chip size becomes disproportionate, and you can't get an effective softness to the cookie either)