The march of the tasting menu

The 12 or 15-course meals that restaurants increasingly offer are a great way to showcase  a chef’s creations. But, wonders Samuel Muston, are they really what diners want?

One of the most superfluous questions I’ve ever been asked in a restaurant came at the end of a dinner at Per Se in New York back in April. The captain, which is what they call the head waiter there, took away the empty coffee cups and asked: “How was that for you?”

He said it, head tilted, donnish smile, in a way that suggested I had just completed a rather taxing, but  edifying puzzle to his satisfaction.  He didn’t expect a serious answer.

Why? Well we had, over the course of four hours, consumed 12-courses, innumerable amuse bouche, and a magnificent flight of wine that had taken us from the old world to the new world – and onto another world.

I was drunk, it was 11.30pm and I was so full I thought I would have to go out on a trolley. I replied feebly, “I don’t know quite what to say.” But, hey, this was fifth best restaurant in the world, so I sucked it up.

It was certainly one of the most memorable meals of my life. Each dish its own little constellation of genius, everything taut and precise. No speck of caviar out of place, no pat of butter spared a scoop for a dish. Everything the finest, food as seldom experienced. At one point a chef emerged, dazzling in whites as shiny as his teeth, and grated preserved tuna heart over one of our courses. It was intricate, down-the-line consistent, a sort of culinary symphony; it was also a slog, palate-crushing and an evening in which conversation was frequently stretched and broken by the endless ministrations of the staff. The pressure to create 15 dishes, each unlike the previous, and then serve them with the reverence due to diners paying $400 (£250) a pop, was simply crushing.

I felt like I’d been whirled into a machine, from which I had been spat, albeit with full ceremony, only with the coffee. But then you might say, “you knew what you were getting into.” And indeed I did: at Per Se you must cede all choice to the chef and order the tasting menu if you wish to eat in the dining room.

Six or so years ago, a three-hour, nine–course meal would have been an oddity in Britain (though they have been around since the 1970s). We liked our starter, main and pudding, and possibly a spot of cheese, but that was it. But steadily, tasting menus have spread here like an office cold. Now the trend has reached its conclusion: tasting-menu-only restaurants.

This month in London alone, two such restaurants were born, Hakkasan group’s HKK on Snowden Street (nine or 15 courses) and Ben Spalding’s John Salt (four, eight or 12 courses) in Islington. They join Kenny Atkinson’s The Orangery at Rockcliffe Hall in Co Durham, which opened in May and offers only five, seven or nine-course menus, which the chef hopes gives a taste of “the north-east larder”.

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to think we may be seeing the future of upper-end dining here – but is it something we necessarily want?

Of course, tasting menus can be things of wonder that don’t overwhelm the diner. In London, Oli Dabbous creates elegant menus that unfold as meditations on seasonality and natural forms – and do so at £54 for eight courses. At Noma in Denmark, Rene Repzepi has harnessed the form as means to  produce parades of dishes of staggering imagination and quality. Though even he, the finest chef in the world, may feel the pressure to produce another course that delights and surprises more than the last; look, for example, to the live ants he served at his summer pop-up in London. Were they a genuine pleasure for diners?

Question is: does that really matter? Should food be what diners want to eat or what chefs want to serve? Ben Spalding is firm: “It’s not about me being arrogant and telling you what to eat. I’ve learnt a lot in my career and I just want to share it with diners. I feel that tasting menus are like songs, you can play with them to create different effect. They are a way for me to give diners the benefit of that.”

Tong Chee Hwee of HKK expresses a similar sentiment. “Tasting menus aren’t the only way to express creativity but the inspiration behind HKK called for a carefully crafted menu… something that a tasting menu  really captures. I work in the Chinese  feasting tradition.”

Fair enough, but it will be a brave diner who stops midway through a  10–courser, says “that’s it” and asks for only half the bill. More likely they will take it on the chin – an inversion of the restaurant hospitality principle – or will be so rich they won’t care.

Spalding (menus from £28), Dabbous and Chee Hwee excepted, this type of dining is pinchingly  expensive. At Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, prices start at £195 per head.

But sometimes, even the cheaper ones can fall prey to shapelessness. “They are very often not that innovative at all and simply follow a bell curve approximation of a classic European meal – the fish, the meat, the soup” says Richard Harden of Harden’s Guide.

Or else they fail because they are  unable get feedback from diners – how could it be any other way when the food sent out is only a couple of mouthfuls. Who leaves half a mouthful on a plate as nod to the chef that your  pigeon is a bit dodgy? You just eat it.

So putting creative scope to one side, what’s the advantage? According to Richard Harden, there are two advantages. “If you offer a full à la carte menu, by definition, you end up throwing a lot away, as you never know who will order plaice or whatever. If it is a fully booked, no-choice tasting-menu restaurant you know exactly what you are serving and that cuts wastage and saves money,” he says.

There are also spiritual economies. “If you are making the same menu time and again it gives you the chance to make dishes perfect – which   obviously every chef wants to do,” says Harden.

Sometimes, it is simply worth taking the gamble that a meal will change the way you think about food. But just as one might not want every film to be the length of Gone With the Wind – one doesn’t want every dinner to last the same time as a flight to Portugal.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor