Nibbled to Death
Tasting Menus Can Be Too Much of a Good Thing
By Pete Wells, NYTimes 10 Oct 2012
One of the most inviting openings to a restaurant meal I’ve ever heard came when I had closed the menu at Bouley and a server asked, “What shall we cook for you this evening?” The question managed to suggest that my choices would bring the kitchen intense pleasure, and that the pleasure would be returned to me many times over.
Compare this with the words of another server this year at an unnamed restaurant that offered tasting menus of several lengths. When I said I would tackle the whole megillah, a 12-course $245 spectacular, this was the response: “O.K., I’ll go get that started for you.”
If the server at Bouley had made me a partner in an imminent adventure, this one turned me into a cog in an invisible machine. The machine would operate for a fixed length of time, and my function would be to eat anything it produced until the gears stopped turning and I was allowed to leave.
Not all tasting menus get off to such an awkward start. Even so, when I face a marathon of dishes chosen by the restaurant, I often feel the same trapped, helpless sensation.
In the hands of a chef who grasps the challenges and possibilities of the form, a tasting menu can yield a succession of delights that a shorter meal could never contain.
At other times, though, the consumer of such a meal 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.
I’m getting used to that sting. Across the country, expensive tasting-menu-only restaurants are spreading like an epidemic.
This year in New York, two such places were born, Atera and Blanca, while two other restaurants, Eleven Madison Park and WD-50, dropped their à la carte menus in favor of all-or-nothing tastings.
Many of these restaurants are hits, with long waiting lists for their limited number of seatings. They have been hailed by critics (including this one) and by Restaurant Magazine’s suspect-but-influential ranking of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The Michelin Guide to New York, published last week, piled on, awarding three such restaurants three stars, pinning two stars on two more, and giving one star to two others.
A high-end anomaly a few years ago, three- or four-hour menus now look like the future of fine dining. Before corner delis begin parceling sandwiches into 18-course pastrami tastings, it’s worth asking if this is the future we want.I am not talking here about Japanese kaiseki or omakase menus. Both are old traditions with underlying structures that chefs and diners understand. The kind of tasting menu I mean is a younger, more free-form invention, championed at destination restaurants like the French Laundry, Per Se, Noma and Alinea. Being so new, the genre has no rules and few limits.
This is a challenge no chef should saunter into casually. A restaurant whose sole product is an expensive, lengthy, take-it-or-leave-it meal sets a dauntingly high bar for itself. And a few of them vault right over it with a grace and agility that are truly thrilling.
At Benu in San Francisco, Corey Lee’s menus are breathtaking explorations of the potential for treating Asian flavors with a modern American sensibility, and the look and flavor of each fresh course are surprising. In a quieter voice, Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Calif., puts together menus that gently unfold as meditations on the season and the region.
César Ramirez of the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare has an almost supernatural gift for seafood cookery and noncookery, assembling meals that build from a salvo of sashimi-like bites to more complex hot dishes, made with ingredients of staggering quality. Technical mastery and a sensitivity to nature’s forms distinguish Matthew Lightner’s tastings at Atera in Manhattan.
The tasting menu reaches what may be its most sophisticated American form at Alinea in Chicago, where Grant Achatz composes meals that are almost like symphonies in their skillful manipulation of complexity, volume, tempo and harmony.
In other cases, though, much of the work of clearing that high bar falls to the heaving, struggling patron.
Making each course as different as possible from the last is not just a chance for chef to show off; it’s necessary to keep the diner’s attention. During an epic evening at Saison in San Francisco, I was often amazed by the way Joshua Skenes coaxed extra flavor from his ingredients through ancient means like dry-aging, curing, fermenting, smoking and grilling over fire. But some of the courses, more than 20 in all, were repetitive in ingredients or preparation, and others felt like padding. I walked out dazed when I could have been dazzled.
Wylie Dufresne’s vision has been consistent from the day he opened WD-50 in 2003. But a recent tasting menu there was, perhaps, consistent to a fault. Almost every plate was composed the way Mr. Dufresne used to put together his appetizers and entrees when he still served them; nothing broke the pattern. Rather than using the tasting menu to tell a different story, WD-50 tells the same story more often. Mr. Dufresne is one of the least boring chefs in the country, and his plates never lack originality, but the shadow of monotony loomed over the meal by the end.
If a meal goes on for hours, even radical costume changes from course to course may not be enough. Daniel Humm has rounded up an amazing variety of ideas for his new $195 tastings at Eleven Madison Park. But I wasn’t sure why he was presenting so many at once. Some of the menu was based on classic New York dishes, but a lot wasn’t, and I struggled to find a single point of view.
The shapelessness of certain tasting menus might be blamed in part on a broken feedback loop. A restaurant that sells appetizers, main courses and entrees quickly learns which ones customers like. But one-bite dishes rarely come back to the kitchen untouched, so the chef has little chance to learn what customers think. Asking “How was everything?” of somebody who has just consumed 27 items isn’t likely to produce constructive criticism.
These restaurants can deviate from old-fashioned notions of hospitality in other ways. The ideal of serving a hot meal has been increasingly a lost cause, given how quickly a morsel the size of a cat’s tongue will cool.
The strangest of all the anti-hospitality gestures, though, is the delayed-bread power play. For centuries, good hosts have placed bread on the table. Blanca, Momofuku Ko and other restaurants do the same thing, and their bread is often superb, but the meal is about half over before it appears. When I’ve asked about this, I’ve been told that the chef didn’t want diners to fill up on bread. When did it become a restaurant’s job to keep its customers from feeling full?
It’s rather unaccommodating when those customers are giving up unusual amounts of time, control and, of course, money. Dining at the upper tiers will never be cheap, but tasting menus have made some of the country’s greatest restaurants into luxury goods. A meal at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is now $225; it was $135 at the beginning of 2011. It’s true that Mr. Ramirez buys more expensive ingredients than he once did, but it’s also true that in the same period, accolades for the restaurant piled up while the number of seats remained constant at 18.
A small restaurant serving a set menu to just a few customers each night can transcend the normal laws of restaurant economics. Everybody knows how much a plate of chicken should cost in a fancy New York restaurant, but what is the value of 30 courses you haven’t seen yet? You’re not buying 30 courses, of course. You’re buying a ticket to a show that is probably going to sell out, which leaves the restaurant free to charge scalper’s prices if it likes.
It’s my job to urge readers to try the best, so I can’t feel good about watching great restaurants that were already serving an elite audience taking themselves further out of reach. (Several tasting-menu restaurants serve lower-priced options in their lounges; WD-50 also offers a shorter, cheaper tasting of its greatest hits over the years.)
And the elite who now fill these dining rooms are a particular kind of diner, the big-game hunters out to bag as many trophy restaurants as they can. Another kind of eater, the lusty, hungry ones who keep a mental map of the most delicious things to eat around town, may be left outside.
That’s one reason these dining rooms can feel less lively. A monoculture of earnest foodies has replaced the old biodiversity in which senior partners taking out the sales team from Atlanta would sit next to couples on blind dates. You can’t eat a meal like this with a passing acquaintance since you’ll be together for hours, but you can’t go with somebody you really want to talk to, either, since there’s little time between courses for sustained conversation.
Once in a while, I’ve had tasting menus so extraordinary that none of these things seemed to matter. But the format presents formidable hurdles for customers and restaurants, enough to cause us to stop and wonder how many more meals like this we need. Not every novel should be “War and Peace.” Sometimes, enough really is enough.>