Though it generally works out that ordering the tasting menu is a more “adventurous” course of action than ordering a la carte, I think this is much more often a function of the lack of an ability to choose your adventure rather than the offerings at hand.
I also think this is much more true in the U.S., where diners are less adventurous and the tasting menus more everyman than in Europe (I would include the rest of the world, but the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily eat the way people in the northern half of the Western hemisphere do).
The tasting menu has become a predictable, formulaic story. It’s not just a matter of beginning, middle, and end any more. It’s become a comfort zone for fine diners and, I suspect, chefs.
Admittedly, I’m one of them.
But it’s almost gotten to the point where I could approach Parker Bros. about making a board game out this, or cash in at Bravo, suggesting they make a tasting menu game show: “Guess That Tasting Menu.”
Let’s give it a whirl. You get three clues. We’ll start out easy:
Challenge #1: Name the protein.
Clue #1: 2nd Course on a 3-Course Tasting.
Clue #2: Average fine-dining restaurant.
Clue # 3: It’s not chicken and it’s not beef.
Here’s a harder one:
Challenge # 2: Name that course.
Clue #1: It comes before the pre-dessert.
Clue #2: It’s not meat.
Clue # 3: It will most likely show up on wheels.
Answer: Cheese course.
And, an even harder one:
Challenge #3: Name that pre-dessert.
Clue # 1: You eat it with a spoon.
Clue #2: It’s creation did not rely on an ice cream maker.
Clue # 3: It does not contain dairy.
Answer: Coconut tapioca.
* * * *
Can YOU crack the code? I’ve given it a shot and come up with a rough snapshot of tasting menus circa first decade of the 2000s.
For a basic fine dining tasting formula, you’ll most likely see:
Something Fish (salmon or scallop)
Something Meat (beef or lamb)
For an above-average fine dining tasting menu, you’ll most likely see:
Good Bread/Decent Butter
Something Fish (upgraded to a white fish: cod, or bass, or turbot)
Something Meat (if the beef hasn’t been upgraded to Kobe or some stock with provenance, then lamb)
Something Sorbet (fruit-based)
Something Cheese or Fruit
It gets less predictable at the elite fine dining level. All the same, you’ll most likely see:
Multiple Amuses Bouche
Excellent Bread/Excellent Butter (multiple choices)
Something White, Pureed and Topped with Caviar (cauliflower, parsnip, and celeriac are all candidates)
Something Foie (generous tranche of brioche is a must)
Something Pasta (bonus point if the pasta is filled)
Something Sea (upgraded to lobster, or some white fish done in an unfamiliar fashion)
Something Meat or Fowl (the rarer the breed the better, supplemental price if it’s game with shot)
Something Cheese (on a cart)
Something Pre-Sweet (most likely better than what is to follow)
Something Sweet 1
Something Sweet 2
Petits Fours (multiple flights)
Cute Take-Home Pastry
* * * *
Many chefs also seem to be under the belief that the seriousness of their tasting menu is buoyed by:
1. The appearance of at least one dish made freakishly Asian with miso this or yuba that;
2. The addition of black truffles, regardless of the quality or season; and/or
3. Table-side entertainment – be it bird autopsy, dissection of a side of beast, or dramatic feats with a sauce boat and a spoon.
And my favorite crutch: the legitimacy of a chocolate dessert has come to hinge on the ability to name the chocolate’s far-flung origin. If only I could get away with serving “Hershey, Pennsylvania Chocolate Cake” in my home.
This, of course, is a cynical, rough, and tongue-in-cheek caricature of an otherwise respectable form of a chef’s creative outlet (at least, that’s what I thought tasting menus were supposed to be).
I’m not saying that this sort of formulaic institutionalization is necessarily a bad thing.
Of course, a lot of it depends on what is being done with what products.
Of course, this is just how our society thinks of food in a linear progression.
Of course, I find comfort in familiarity and secured expectations – I happily accept the general small-to-large, fish-before-meat, end-with-dessert progression.
And of course, I willingly and often surrender to the above-mentioned equations.
The most compelling cases are those where the tasting menu represents the chef’s most treasured and classic dishes. This is especially true when I’m visiting a restaurant that I’ll most likely not be able to revisit in any predictable amount of time. [See Paul Bocuse, The Fat Duck, and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road (note the title of that blog post).]
But I truly relish those rare occasions when chefs surprise me with something novel, something that steers a wide berth around cliches, and – most importantly – something wholly theirs.