Relative advantages of a la carte and chef's tasting menus
I was interested in JT's recent comment that he never orders decouverte menus. And I know that Pti often orders them when she knows the house, Septime and Youpi, for instance. I remember, too, that Phil said that he enjoyed the chef's menu at Youpi.
Can we discuss? Why and why not? Where and when?
I'll add a tangent that at this point, I enjoy and prefer multi-course no choice restaurants.
Even when I don't know the house. I love not knowing what I am going to eat.
Besides, it's part of my job to get to know the full range of a chef. I am not constrained by profitability when I eat and I do not need everything to be a pleasurable experience but rather a telling experience. So it's not a big deal if there are misses.
Menu du chef is a great way of finding out how the chef thinks (or doesn't think).
I love no choice menus (I think I started a thread on it once and I don't start many threads!) and being put in the chef's hands since this usually means tasting many different things - and that is how I like to eat. In fact, I hope that the "small plates" trend never goes away.
I also like, as others have already mentioned, the idea of 2 choices since my husband is exactly like me and this way, we get to taste the whole menu.
I am not a dessert person either and don't order it in an a la carte situation, but I love it in a tasting menu and never ever regret it. As a mainly non-sweets eater, it totally opens up my world to what dessert can be - and many of them are so very creative and delicious these days. They're not my mama's desserts, that's for sure!
The more I eat and the more I discover things, the more I realize that Jeffrey Steingarten was right : you can like anything if you've tasted it enough times, and if it is rightly prepared. At the risk of sounding snobbish, the palate is like culture, it needs education. And although I know people hate it when "foodies" tell them "you don't like parsnip ? you never had GOOD parsnip"... the more I learn, the more this seems true.
Therefore, I usually enjoy no-choice menus at restaurants. It gives me a chance to sample what the chef considers to be his best (or at least it should be like that), and more importantly it allows me to try things that I would probably never order, and therefore be surprised and expand my knowledge.
This is all fairly "poetic", but to make it more pragmatic, I would simply say that I've has as much "misses" from à la carte ordering than from tasting menus. Whether I know what I'm going to eat or not, if it's flawed, it's flawed, if it's bad, it's bad (same goes the other way around of course, but the tasting menu adds this extra bit of adventure).
I'm not a fan of decouverte / long tasting menus. Yet, we frequently take them in a destination restaurant where we are eager to try the many specialties of the house. Almost always these long tasting menus are at starred restaurants. I'm referring to 8 - 12 courses.
In the worst case scenario, it is a painfully long ordeal whereby we are served a two-bite course, and then wait another 20 minutes for the next, all the while drinking more wine. In the best example, all the right elements converge to make a memorable experience. In France, this happened for us at SaQuaNa in Honfleur - the cuisine, service, pacing, and ambiance were just right. As well at La Bastide de Capelongue in Bonnieux.
I do prefer ALC, where I can order specifically to my wants, but also love the bistros where there is a prix-fixe with a 2-2-2 (as JT calls it) or a choice of 2-2 for days when appetites are less. This allows some choice, and a chance to try more options with your partner.
The smaller surprise or no-choice menus at the like of Septime and Spring are a delightful change, especially if you don't have any allergies, and are confident in the house.
When I'm on holiday (or in Paris), I prefer tasting menus. I particularly prefer having small courses of wide variety. I'm a great fan of restaurants that only serve such menus. This can allow for focus in the kitchen and, with hope, well-executed dishes given the standardization of the menu. For me, having a tasting menu comprises the evening's entertainment -- I don't "do" lunch, only dinner.
With the very notable exception of Jego always in Parigi's company (looking forward to April 18) and some other exceptions, l am not generally a fan of chef's choice.
l am very menucentric when l choose to go out, and if something l make quite well l figure why bother ordering that out or things l am not too terribly fond of either.
The other bigger reason is if something l like l am always afraid of a dish with very many ingredients with the main portion, usually protein, in 3-4 small cut up sections which by the time l get it, has lost its juice, heat, and substance.
And finally l almost never eat dessert, thus 2 or more courses of the choice will be sweets and that is again lost on me.
OK, really finally when l order a multicourse a la carte meal, my guest does the same thing but different choices, thus l can taste twice as much, with chef's choice other than for allergy all get the same dishes so less tasting...
I totally get the dessert part. Sometimes it's just a waste since, if I can't trade it off for cheese, I will either refuse it or just leave it. Have stopped letting DH take up the slack.
"At this time", and I emphasize that my dining preferences evolve, I rather like have three or four different small protein courses. I tend to get both overwhelmed and bored when faced with 8-10 or, God forbid more, ounces of the same meat.
I am thrilled by blind-fold menus. Besides Chez Ami Jean (Friday !), I also enjoy it at Olhabidéa in Sare in the Basque country. The chef used to play a game with us, where we would taste a dish and then make a guess of what it was and how it was prepared.
It is by now well known that we go to Chez l'Ami Jean and ask Stéphane Jégo: "Fais-moi mal". The only drawback is that his mini-blind tasting menu is supposed to have 4 dishes but often stretches to 6 dishes, and his bigger-blind tasting menu actually had 9 dishes last time. And they were not one of those little pop-in-mouth things that the Japanese chefs excel at but really should not be called a "dish", come on. Stephane's were moaning-out-loud full-fledged dishes. Nine is too much. The last two times I had to whisper to Mario to pack me a baggie dog.
-- If you call that a drawback.
Well, as you know M.,
1. I only eat out at lunch, albeit every day, like Parnassien and I eat at places that usually don't have such menus, and
2. I'm very old, venerable to some, same reference, and
3. I have no problem with forced choices as long as I'm in a place where the chef knows what he/she is doing - as at Spring but as with today's forced choice menu at Flamel, it rang no bells.
As for Septime, its choices are limited anyway but Bertrand Grébaut's skill means I will never go wrong.
I like nothing better than walking into a place and saying "I place myself in the chef's hands."
Also I want to challenge someone to eat with me at Youpi and show me its stuff; I don't get it. And I love Pti, off eating great stuff in Japan, love her.