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Nov 16, 2013 11:50 PM

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: 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. :)
      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:

          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: 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.