A few weeks ago Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for The New York Times, declared war on tasting menus.
Wells had been busy checking out a number of high-stakes new restaurants that involved 12 courses here, 15 there and more than 20 elsewhere. While duly noting the glories of tasting menus at great restaurants, he derided a style of dining where “the consumer … may feel as much like a victim as a guest. The reservation is hard won, the night is exhausting, the food is cold, the interruptions are frequent. The courses blur, the palate flags and the check stings.”
To illustrate the story, a slide show depicted all 28 courses of the menu at the New York restaurant Atera, which ranged from fried lichen to charred leek with hay and ash to a “black pudding wafer” that looked rather like a used Dr. Scholl’s insert.
I remember what happened the time my wife and I ate the absolutely terrific tasting menu at Alinea restaurant in Chicago. After about course 11, she just kind of slumped over in her chair like a stroke victim.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I can’t do it anymore,” she pleaded. “Too much food.”
After some deliberation, she agreed to let me walk her around the block, during which time I encouraged fortitude, like a boxing coach.
A couple of years later, we were lucky enough to score a reservation at the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, which serves a tasting menu of new Nordic food that’s lauded the world over. Maybe she was so spaced out from jet lag and startled by a mouthful of fried reindeer moss, but this meal didn’t lag for her at all. Which is a shame, because I was looking forward to snarfing uneaten food from her plate.
While I’m unaware of any restaurants in Atlanta that currently offer tasting menus with courses well into the double digits, Richard Blais did once upon a time offer a 31-course menu at the short-lived restaurant Blais. I remember it being kind of fun, yet exhausting and a bit too doodad-y.
Quinones at Bacchanalia, the restaurant that opens only Saturday nights, serves a nine-course menu, which becomes more than a dozen with all the small extras.
But generally the best restaurants here serve six-, seven- or eight-course dinners. Guests at Woodfire Grill can order a seven-course menu. At Bacchanalia (the main restaurant, not Quinones), the menu lists five courses, but by the time you factor in the various between-course nibbles and pre-dessert, you’re looking at an extremely varied meal.
Yet the Bacchanalia meal follows the time-honored appetizer/fish/meat/cheese/dessert format. This is an older dining story, told exceptionally well.
The kind of tasting menu that Wells derides is another beast. I think my first experience with such came in 2000 at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., where I counted 18 courses with all the unannounced bits and bites. I did get up and stretch my legs partway through, and wrote afterward that the meal left me “in a daze, not exactly stuffed so much as spent.”
But I was also enchanted because I had no idea where the meal was going. Each course disappeared leaving me wanting one more bite, but then the next course took my appetite in a different direction.
The French Laundry’s chef, Thomas Keller, had figured out a way to break the orthodoxy of a traditional Western meal by extending the number of courses and confounding guests’ expectations as to what they would consist of. He wasn’t the inventor of “Wow! Try this” per se, but he certainly popularized surprise and delight in fine dining.
I’ve eaten a lot of tasting menus since then, and have been pretty much coming to the same conclusion as Wells. Sometimes you wait for a one-bite course and drink a glass of wine waiting for the next one.
My most recent tasting menu experience was at Momofuku Ko in New York, which I enjoyed very much but felt was a bit too long at 12 courses. There were thrilling highlights and there were doodads. Meals, like movies, are often best when they don’t exceed two hours.
And that’s the problem. Nice restaurants today often bust out extra courses and gifts from the kitchen, and diners contemplate plates holding tiny tiles of fish with Nike swooshes of sauce and three baby leaves. All those creative little bites get paradoxically boring.
Maybe it’s time to bring fondue back.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog