I was reading this great piece in Vanity Fair -Tyranny, It’s What’s for Dinner, which, for those of you interested in restaurant trends, makes fascinating reading, not only about tasting menus, but also about American fine dining history.
Here’s a taster, no pun intended:
“As more and more restaurants adopt this model, tasting-only menus will empower formerly well-meaning, eager-to-please cooks and servers to become petty despots, and more and more diners will discover that absolute power irritates absolutely.”
And the plea he makes, towards the end, is this:
“But, ah, how nice it would be if at the world’s most celebrated restaurants we could get back to the point where the paying customer picks what and how much she or he eats, guided by helpful but not overbearing suggestions as to what a diner might enjoy most.”
In the piece, he’s arguing against the tasting menu, which, in his view, is there more for the convenience of the chef than the customer.
I’d not really thought deeply about the economics of no-choice tasting menus, or how they might be a showcase for a chef’s ego, but I can see the attraction for the chef. No wastage coupled with a degree of cost control which is impossible in a conventional set-up.
But you can have too much of a good thing and it can go too far and certain restaurants can, in my experience, be too rigid.
Mostly, I’ve had positive experiences with tasting menus and let’s not forget, I am choosing to have the tasting menu so it’s not like it’s a big surprise when I find I’m eating multiple courses and it’s taking a little while. But not all tasting menus, or indeed the establishments offering them, are the same and that’s key. Some insist you turn up at a specific time. Some won’t allow substitutions. A lot don’t do vegetarian options. Some change their menus all the time. Some only change them quarterly.
And the article reminded me of my own recent experience of the sort of inflexibility which is unhelpful and lends weight to the tyranny argument so eloquently made by the author.
I was meant to be in India, for a very big birthday, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. The the death of my father, two weeks before the planned departure, had made that trip impossible.
I was holed in, up north and with a week to go until the dreaded day, we were stuck for something to do. Clearly, we weren’t in going to be in the mood to party, yet we wanted to mark the day in a way that didn’t involve sitting round the house moping.
Food. That always works. And it would get the family together for something pleasurable, rather than the sad and painful gatherings we’d been having over the previous months.
My sister Juliet, had been to a particularly well-regarded 2 Michelin-starred restaurant, a few months earlier, which she had loved. She suggested that we try to get a lunch booking. So, only a week before my birthday, we telephoned. And amazingly, we managed to get a table for eight people.
We were told that we had to arrive by 12 noon, because we had chosen the 17-course tasting menu.
The day before the lunch, my brother phoned, to tell me that he had to go to the synagogue, to say a particular prayer for my father, so wouldn’t be able to leave in time to get to the restaurant for 12. Unavoidable.
I phoned the restaurant. I told them the problem.
- Could I perhaps move the reservation for all of us to 1 pm, perhaps? No, they said, I couldn’t.
- Could the two coming later start their meal at 1 pm, their estimated time of arrival? No, they said, they couldn’t.
They told me that they would serve lunch to the two of them at whatever time they got there, at whatever stage in the meal had been reached for the rest of the party. This was for a menu costing just under £100 per head.
Looking back, I am still taken aback at this. I had explained the position fully to the restaurant the day before. They knew exactly what time the two latecomers were going to arrive.
I still wonder why they couldn’t have put the early courses aside, or given them an alternative, shorter menu. Or made the courses when they actually arrived.
I had of course suggested all of those things, using my (clearly limited) powers of persuasion, but they flatly refused.
It seemed unreasonable to me, and took the edge off what was always going to be a bittersweet family get-together.
And by way of contrast, when we arrived, they were very happy to accommodate all the various dietary permutations that were required; friendly and informal throughout and brilliantly efficient, so that the inflexibility over the timing of the meal was even more difficult to fathom.
And my brother and his wife had to miss out on quite a lot of the food. Six courses, as it turned out.
And there was no reduction on the bill to take account of that.
I had almost forgotten about this little episode, but the Vanity Fair article reminded me. And made me irritated about it, all over again.
It also made me think about the various tasting menu experiences I’ve had over the last year or so and to consider whether I really like that style of meal.
I won’t lie, but more than once, I’ve been yawning over my plate as the meal stretches past midnight. Less of an experience, more of an ordeal. And how awful is that to say, when I should just be bloody thankful that I can afford to get to taste all this (mostly) great stuff? And of course, I am. But unless courses are brought at a reasonable pace, the whole tasting-menu thing can be quite boring, nay excruciating. And all that happens is that you get pissed too quickly on your matching wines and the extra glasses you order whilst you’re waiting. Or is that just me?
But not all of the tasting menus are the same. The menu devised by James Knappett at Bubbledogs Kitchen Table, for example, is a very different animal to that at The Ledbury, where James once worked. It’s a tasting menu, yes, but not quite what you get at some of the more formal restaurants.
Bubbledogs is more a piece of cooking theatre. The chefs are there, in front of you, talking you through everything they are doing, whilst you watch and (if you are me) try to pick up new techniques. Sandia and Jack are there on the wines, helping you along and steering you towards interesting and unusual combinations. And the food changes all the time, so this isn’t one of those rigid, unchanging tasting menus you see at so many places. It’s a combination of cookery masterclass and dining experience, done with humour.
A quite different feel to the tasting menu at its almost-neighbour Dabbous, which has its own, much shorter 5-course tasting menu, which I really loved. Twice. And they brought me an extra chocolate dessert at Dabbous . Which I really needed.
A brilliant tasting menu was had at Nathan Outlaw in December – there was no choice, but the food was truly inventive and I need to go back to try the wines, at a time when I am not on antibiotics. Or driving. I could listen to their sommelier all night. The hotel is a bit of a surprise though. Not what I’d expected.
And excellent food in the solid and in my view, vastly underrated Hélène Darroze at The Connaught.
And most recently, The Ledbury. There was only the tasting menu available, as it was those odd days between Christmas and New Year and that was all that was offer. I was a bit disappointed at having no choice, but it was truly magnificent and one of the best meals we had all year.
So on balance, I’ve had good experiences with tasting menus and I think that when they change often and are not inflexible and when the food comes quickly, they can be an entertaining experience and can work well. And I also like the surprise element that accompanies a lot of tasting menus. But I also like being able to control the amount I eat. Sometimes.
So this year, where there is a choice, I will probably be eating from the a la carte menu, in no small part because I need to limit the vast amount of food that I’m consuming.
5 or more courses on top of a mountain of bread isn’t big or clever, but I will do it. I am the bread hoover, the fast-eating, clean plate queen, utterly powerless in the face of carbohydrate and never knowingly underfed. And unless I want to turn into Mrs Creosote, I need to stop. At least for a while. Something needs to give. And not just my zip.
Categories: food writing