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Form Swallows Function: The tyranny of tasting menus


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Age and experience has a lot to do with a person’s preference for dining formats. It never happened to me, but I am sure that if I engaged some codgers when I was running around from one “Nouvelle Cuisine” to another, at least one of them would have said, “ Too bad you never ate at Restaurant de La Pyramide when Fernand Point was alive, or La Cote d’Or when Alexandre Dumaine owned it. Maybe that’s why veteran diners like Sneakeater and I are on the same wave length and, bringing up the rear, Wilfrid.

 

But to answer Wilfrid regrading formats, of course there were prix fixe menus you saw a lot in tourist restaurants in Paris in mid-century Paris. When I was starting out, there was for example at Restaurant Alan Chapel a fixed, no-choice menu called “Un Moment de Mionnay” in which you had in full portions three or four savory courses the classics of the house. At the same time (circa 1975), in his one and only cookbook, Chapel took aim at tasting menus by writing that they were for people who hoped to experience everything about a restaurant in one sitting, which, of course, was impossible, particularly at his. Now I never recalled a “menu degustation” at an exalted restaurant at the time, but I did remember a restaurant in Paris (maybe two stars at the time) that did have one. I forget the chef’s name, but soon after he moved to DC and opened a restaurant. ( It wasn’t Jean-Louis Palladin). So I’m guessing that this period was the beginning of the tasting menu.

 

To skip to today, I am getting the notion that we have a new phenomenon designed to rip us off , which is a legacy of tasting menus. Perhaps you could call it the a la carte tasting menu. The end result is that a growing number of chefs are serving you half the amount of food you used to get for twice the price. (Recently I experienced this at the last two “major” restaurants I went to: Untitled and Cosme, both of which offer very nice dishes you wish were copious). At least you get some modicum of choice, but it’s really difficult to share dishes unless you order two or more of the same (which no doubt the restaurant wants you to do) and awkward if you’re with friends to order dishes in the middle of a meal.

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In general these menus were the economical and safe option, one you would use for a larger group, or on a somewhat tentative date, or just if you were a special-occasion diner.   I don't think anyo

Below is an essay I wrote over a year ago. I sent it on a lark to the New York Times Op-Ed page and to Edward Behr at the Art of Eating. It remains unpublished, but I believe I make an interesting and

Age and experience has a lot to do with a person’s preference for dining formats. It never happened to me, but I am sure that if I engaged some codgers when I was running around from one “Nouvelle Cui

 

It depends. at club chase et peche (15-20 visits) I almost always tell them to choose. I'd be happy do so at l'ambroisie if the knew my preferences.

I don't have to tell you that this is completely different from a set tasting menu served to everybody, right?

Of course. But as we go, we're narrowing the complaint to, basically:

 

We don't like long surprise menus served in restaurants we don't like and we think there are too many of those.

 

Like, ok.

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We don't like them in restaurants we do like, either. We're just forced to tolerate them.

Ko? Atera? Manresa? Franzen? Pujol?

 

All of these restaurants would work better if you could/do go a la carte? (When was the last time an mfer went to manresa and did the a la carte option? Or said "no Dave, I'd rather have three courses"?)

 

Do you not believe that a properly structured tasting menu is a great and different thing from a three course meal?

 

Is every dish better if there is moar! of it?

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At every one of those restaurants I have a tasting menu cuz I have to. I would go to them a lot more frequently (the ones that are convenient to me, anyway) if I didn't have to. And I think I'd prefer them. Or, at least, I wouldn't favor other restaurants over them.

 

ETA -- For example, if someone asks me if Atera is a "better" restaurant than Chevalier, then, trying to be objective, I have to answer that it is. But I certainly prefer to go someplace like Chevalier myself.

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a utilitarian complaint is fine but it's not a criticism of the quality of those restaurants, it's a statement of preferences. Fine, but it's not like you're availing yourself if the three course meal at jean George's or Le b on the reg probably as much as your are at ko.

 

This all elides the fact that these utilitarian 3 course meals have a funny way of taking just as long as ten course tastings.

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Not every dish is better in a large portion. It's that making portions small has created an overall approach to making recipes that has lead to the manifestations I mentioned at the top. I like going to tapas bars as an accompaniment to a glass of beer or wine and as a prelude to sitting down at a dining table and ordering a regular meal. I love kai-seki meals in Japan as they have centuries-old traditions and precepts (not to mention the quality that the chefs start out with), and I've greatly enjoyed half the meals I had from Adria and my one meal at Alinea (okay, so one of my all-time worsts was at Can Roca) because avant-garde or molecular cuisine works best (if virtually only) on small-scale creations. The problem is (to repeat myself) that money is driving dining to an extent never seen before and, like most most of man's activity, explains the changing state of most everything

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(snip) The problem is (to repeat myself) that money is driving dining to an extent never seen before and, like most most of man's activity, explains the changing state of most everything

 

That's the "money shot" in this thread.

 

Another aspect of change is the evolution from the brigade of often unpaid or underpaid cooks to a professional kitchen where professionals are treated and paid as such.

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The logic of these posts is that cuisine has been on an straight decline for at least three generations.

 

If only I could find that old nyt article...

 

Not at all, the logic is that certain types of restaurants have been on an almost straight decline (don't forget there were previous crises in other genres, like the vanishing of the Parisian bistro, which then led to the failed attempts by three star chefs to start them, and finally to bistronomique). I would think the facts (increasing prices, declining ingredients, entire service components vanishing, dining crowds worsening, etc.) would make it impossible to argue this isn't happening.

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