Posted: May 01, 2018
New York CNN I still remember the "Oysters and Pearls," a dish described as a "sabayon" of pearl tapioca with oysters and caviar.
It was one of many perfect little Thomas Keller dishes, and they just kept coming.
I was delighted to be dining at Per Se that night in 2004, just a few months after French Laundry chef/owner Thomas Keller and his partner Laura Cunningham had opened their East Coast outpost in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan.
There was no traditional choice of appetizer, main course and dessert. It was the tasting menu to end all tasting menus, I thought, all perfectly orchestrated by Keller, Cunningham and their staff.
As would befit a fine dining restaurant, the mood overlooking Columbus Circle was quietly elegant, and the service was sublime. (The wait staff had taken movement classes to learn how to walk gracefully within the space.)
And the food? I counted more than a dozen perfect little dishes before the night was over, and it took most of the night.
And yet, it sometimes felt like an endurance race for my stomach.
Usually offered in restaurant-obsessed cities with enough people who have lots of disposable income, tasting menus are often seen as the domain of wealthy patrons who can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on three-hour meals decided exclusively by the kitchen.
For chefs, tasting menus can be an opportunity to get creative with the different dishes and show off their skills.
"Thomas Keller is the leader of this movement," says restaurant consultant Clark Wolf, who has worked with restaurants in New York City, Las Vegas and all over the United States.
"His philosophy has always been, make a small dish that's one and a half bites, a taste of what's being offered, enough to really get it, but not so much that you can't go onto the next bite."
Our taste buds prefer small plates
Ideally, tasting menus would be perfectly suited for the human palate.
That's because humans often suffer from "palate fatigue" after three or four bites, says food historian Beth Forrest, a professor at the Culinary Institute of America's New York campus.
Essentially, our taste buds get bored. "But not if you stop right at the moment where people are in full enjoyment. Their memory of the food is going to be much more pleasurable," she says.
Taken to extremes, however, the experience can become too much -- a macho demonstration by mostly male chefs "to beat the diner into submission," Wolf says. "That's forced feeding."
(Keller took a beating with a 2016 review by New York Times dining critic Pete Wells, who criticized the bicoastal chef's staff for getting sloppy and knocked them down from four to two stars.)
Even farm-to-table icon Alice Waters is tired of them.
Waters can recount legendary longer tasting menus of her young adult life, she's become less of a fan as she's gotten older.
"I always feel like if there are small portions, it's too much and too long," says Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, home of a three-course, prix fixe menu.
This is not Japanese omakase
While many Western tasting menus pay homage to Japanese omakase, they are different creations, says Greg de St. Maurice, a culinary research fellow at the University of Toronto.
Omakase comes from the sushi tradition, which is usually ordered a la carte. By ordering omakase, diners are asking the chef to choose what is freshest and in season, says de St. Maurice, who studies Japanese cuisine.
Even when dining at high-end restaurants in Japan -- some of which are hundreds of years old -- guests often don't get a menu, says de St. Maurice. They let the chef decide. (This is not omakase.)
"It's taken for granted that the chef is going to give you what's in season and what's fresh. It's a very different place to start" than Western tasting menus.
A Western tasting menu "seems more like the chef's greatest hits, while omakase is what's more in season and on the fly," he says.
The history of the Western tasting menu
While the current wave of tasting menus probably dates back to the 1960s, Western multicourse menus can be traced back to the 19th century and even earlier, says Forrest, the food historian.
"You can go back even further to medieval times with three large courses, but upwards of 25 dishes per course," she says. "The drama that you see is because you had so many plates on the table at once."
The 20th century trend of celebrity chefs cooking tasting menus started with chefs coming out of France, including Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Michel Guérard and the Troisgros brothers, who introduced smaller portions and six, seven and eight course menus, said Forrest.
"It's in the late 1980s where we really see the ballooning of courses, not just nine courses but upwards of 20 courses," she says. "It's absolutely a symbol of status and capital, whether it's economic or cultural or social."
They survive in large, food-obsessed American cities such as New York and San Francisco, where there are enough residents and visitors -- and face it, Wall Street and tech moneymakers -- to support high-end meals that go on for hours.
High-end food as theater
For some of the most powerful and wealthy diners, it's an interesting choice to turn their power over to a chef to dictate their entire menu choices.
That's what diners do for $255 at the two-Michelin star Momofuku Ko in the Manhattan's East Village, where executive chef Sean Gray currently serves a 12- to 15-course menu over 2.5 hours.
Famous for the way he serves foie gras, a visit to Ko last year found Gray's food doubling as entertainment, just as Wells described it in a 2015 review.
A cook rubs "a frozen cured brick of it across a Microplane held above a bowl with pine nut brittle, Riesling jelly and lobes of lychee, showering them with falling pink flakes of airborne pleasure," writes Wells.
At Blanca, tucked behind Roberta's in Brooklyn, guests at one of two seatings sit around a bar to watch the cooking crew prepare the food and serve everyone at the same time. It's also food as theater, with Chef Carlo Mirarchi and his cooks in the starring roles.
"It's not just about the dish they're eating, it's about the dish before and after, too, " Mirarchi said. "There's an up and down flow, not just reaching this peak and it's over."
"We like to do a lot of things with temperature contrast, making sure people don't get palate fatigue. And for the actual food itself, for me it's about finding a unique or interesting ingredient and the best expression of that ingredient."
The small plates are perfection. And yet, as course after course arrives, the portions seem to get bigger -- more American perhaps -- until a huge piece of freshly baked bread is torn off. To eat it all, and it's amazingly warm and fresh, would make it impossible to eat more.
In other cities that support a robust restaurant scene, but where customers don't want to spend quite so much money or time on a regular basis, the American tasting menu has evolved to a more manageable size.
Empire State South in Atlanta has a six-course tasting menu in addition to the regular menu.
It's listed on the website but not on the paper menu, so regular customers most often reserve it in advance. Sometimes waiters will suggest the tasting menu to indecisive guests who want to taste everything.
Started by former executive chef Ryan Smith (now at Staplehouse in Atlanta) in 2011, the shortened tasting menu showcases the chef's technique, curiosity and creativity.
"Sometimes it's comprised of dishes fully on the menu, and sometimes it's got new additions and different things Josh is playing around with," says chef/owner Hugh Acheson. "And it's always a showcase of technique, and the idea of the food that (we're) really into at that time."
"Sometimes it's future dishes, and sometimes you change a dish, if you want to see a different flavor with it or try out a taste," says executive chef Josh Hopkins, who just left the restaurant in late April.
When Hopkins arrived at the restaurant each day, he reviewed the menu and tweaked the dishes to reflect whatever new ingredients or ideas he had that day. If tasting menus had been reserved, he might have tweaked a recipe to give the guests something special.
"I think it's a bit of a magical thing, though, to have a dinner that's that many courses, interesting, and then surprises in between, and sort of a change up for our staff to be professional in a different way," says Acheson.
Adapting dishes from the printed menu, Empire State can adjust its tasting menu for allergies, vegetarians or other dietary restrictions.
As long as the entire table gets a tasting menu, dietary restrictions "are something we've never had a problem dealing with," says Hopkins. "We're always able to accommodate."
Empire State couldn't survive on tasting menu orders alone, however. People love to celebrate or host business dinners with that menu, but many people want the meat, cheese and vegetable plates with drinks or more vegetable-laden dishes, they say.
Even Alice Waters added a cafe
Giving diners a choice isn't just an option at Empire State South.
Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters says her iconic farm-to-table restaurant has has to evolve with the times.
The downstairs restaurant, which opened in 1971 when Waters was 27, has always offered a fixed price menu. Chez Panisse opened the upstairs café in 1980 to give diners a choice.
Alice Waters, Chez Panisse and her farm-to-table journey
Guests can order off a menu of fresh menu items prepared in the classic Chez Panisse way, where chefs get training and inspiration and eventually leave to launch their own restaurants.
Momofuku Ko, that exclusive tasting menu-only restaurant in Manhattan, recently added an a la carte menu to its expanded bar area. And Per Se has a five-course tasting menu offered in its salon.
Is the tasting menu still relevant?
Waters and the rest of the Chez Panisse team are asking that question in the iconic restaurant's 47th year in business.
"I've been really been thinking about it a lot," Waters says.
"If we didn't have the café alternative upstairs, it would be more difficult to accommodate all the people who have various allergies and various resistances to kinds of food," she says. "That's the biggest impediment (to the tasting menu) aside from the price."
"I do love feeding people things that they may not have chosen themselves, like they've never tasted mulberry ice cream before in their life. Because of its part of the fixed price menu, they taste it and fall in love with it. That thrills me."
She doesn't want it to be rarefied or incomprehensible, she says, but a delightful experience. Besides, she says, she's in a place in her life where she can't eat huge amounts of complicated food.
"I'm a lot less interested in technique than I am in a taste of a berry that I've never had before."
By Katia Hetter
April 30, 2018
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