A year ago, after writing a fairly long article about tasting menus in restaurants, I was dismissed as an intolerant, anhedonic, art-quashing killjoy.
It’s true I wasn’t shy. I implied that chefs who offer tasting menus as the only option are overcome by monstrous egos, intent on showing off their artistic genius at the expense of the diner’s comfort, enjoyment, appetite, good will and financial solvency. This tyranny, I argued, must stop.
Chefs were, unsurprisingly, dismayed. Aside from the wound to their artistic pride, they pointed out that customers have only themselves to blame if they don’t like what they get. My favorite reply came from José Andrés, the extremely successful Spanish-born chef and owner of Minibar, a 12-seat tasting-only restaurant in Washington, D.C. (who’s also a good friend). “We don’t put a gun in your brain and say come,” he told restaurant news site Eater.
True, but I’d had too many merciless meals whose parade of courses refused to end—whatever the expressions on our faces—brought by humorless servers who made diners feel lucky they’d been admitted and grateful they could enjoy 17, 22, or 33 courses with colossally expensive wine pairings.
Then, as part of my obligations as Boston Magazine’s restaurant critic, I was assigned a tasting-only restaurant, only after my editor asked if I could really be objective. But there was a surprise: The restaurant—quirky down to its name, Asta—was my favorite of last year. Asta had features notably different from the big-name places I’d found so oppressive. It didn’t take itself too seriously. Portions were scaled so that whether you chose the three-, five-, or eight-course menu, you left feeling light on your feet. You could actually keep track of what you were eating. The pace was sufficiently rapid-fire that you felt you could linger after dinner.
Maybe I had to rethink my ideas. So I talked to Alex Crabb, the chef-owner of Asta, and Daniel Patterson, a chef’s chef whose Coi, in San Francisco, is both startlingly expensive and startlingly hard to get a table at, to ask about the philosophies behind their tasting menus. I wanted to know how they made them not just bearable but even fun, as my meals at Asta were, or thrilling, as people I respect report about Coi.
Patterson is a superb if prickly writer whose Coi: Stories and Recipes, published last year, is a new must on chefs’ shelves. When I called him, he came out with chef’s knives blazing. “The chefs who have most influenced food over the past 20 years have all cooked tasting menus without choices,” he began, knowing he’d get me with a reference to Chez Panisse, which for more than 40 years has offered a four-course set menu in its downstairs dining room. “There’s something about the form that draws in the people who are the best in their profession.”
Fair enough. Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse has had a profound and essential influence on how two generations of Americans have eaten. Thomas Keller, at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley; his protégé Grant Achatz, at Alinea in Chicago; and Wylie Dufresne, of wd~50, have progressively moved haute cuisine in experimental and fruitful directions. They perhaps could not have done that with à la carte menus that let diners stay in their rutty comfort zones. But four courses turns into 40, and meals become excruciating.
The problem, in Patterson’s mind, is less attitude than skill: “You can’t dabble in it,” he said. “You have to think of portion size and make sure there isn’t a sameness. You need energy and forward movement. Balance is huge.” So is judging the attention level of guests. Recently, Patterson trimmed his meal from between three and three and a half hours to two and a half, responding to the desires of his customers—and the shortened attention spans, a San Francisco observer told me of the young, always-wired Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who can afford his meals, which start at $195 a person with a $115 optional wine pairing.
Crabb told me that he makes sure his staff reads the signals from diners—but, in a piece of insight I thought every chef should learn, he compared the glum experience he’d had eating at several of New York’s busiest tasting restaurants with what he aims to create at Asta. At two of the three, he sat at the bar, a format that seems to be the New York way: Momofuku Ko, the tasting-menu outpost of David Chang’s empire; Little Elm, a branch of the celebrated Paul Liebrandt’s new Brooklyn restaurant, the Elm; Atera, opened by Matthew Lightner, a prominent Noma protégé from Portland; and the three-Michelin-star Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare—all of them are exclusively bar seating or prominently feature it.
Eating at bars can and should offer the best of many worlds: a chance to watch a kitchen at work; an intimate, face-to-face interchange with waiters; the delight of chance meetings with other companionable diners. That’s what Crabb built into Asta, where 10 of the 45 seats are at a horseshoe-shaped bar.
Crabb told me no one at the bars where he ate in New York looked to the left or the right, so intent was every customer at wringing every last drop of culinary wizardry out of the hard-fought reservation and high-priced meal. And the staff encouraged that solemnity, sullenly and silently performing their chores as if in a Dickensian workhouse. He tried to make conversation with servers and neighboring customers. It didn’t work. At his Asta, as at Noma, cooks “run” food to the tables, so diners feel in on the preparation; at Coi, Patterson says the staff is told to engage with diners as much or as little as the diners like.
That observation crystallized much of what I so strongly dislike about big-deal tasting-menu restaurants: the big deals they so clearly think they are. Hearing Patterson’s impassioned defense of how “transcendent” a tasting menu can be and Crabb’s contrast between what he himself felt at big-deal places and the atmosphere he successfully creates at Asta made me think of ways to make the experience bearable from both sides of the plate. I’m prepared to be convinced that the true avant-garde can be glimpsed in a tasting menu that takes you places you didn’t and couldn’t know you wanted to go. But I’d also like to suggest a few rules for diners and chefs to follow.
Diners: Make preferences and aversions clear when you book a reservation. Tell servers any time or budget restrictions at the start of the meal. Don’t bring crying babies because your babysitter bailed and you didn’t want to lose a table you waited months for (a notorious recent incident at Alinea; the lesson is to call the restaurant, explain, and they’ll find you another time).
Chefs: Think about portion sizes and pacing. Eat one of your own multi-course meals and see how you feel at the end of it. Relax! Or, if you’re like every other driven chef, try to keep tension in the kitchen and ask the staff to lighten up, whatever’s going on in the back of the house. If someone—cook, server, bartender—can look like she or he is having fun, the diner is a lot likelier to as well. Even serious art—a description given to very, very few of the chefs who want to serve tasting menus—goes down a lot easier if you don’t take it too seriously when you serve it.
Click through the gallery above to see photos from top tasting menus, past and present.
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