These days, a great chef without a tasting menu is as rare as a celebrity without a publicist. And as the trend toward expensive, four-hour, many-course, no-choice dinners becomes ever more pronounced in the upper reaches of high cuisine, so too does the debate over this fabulous, terrible way of eating.
Last fall, an article in Gourmet by Shoba Narayan revealed that several of the country's best-known cooks never order the tasting menu when dining out, and one unnamed chef who clearly has no future in marketing referred to it as "the fleecing menu."
Expensive, expansive and sometimes an emotional or even unforgettable experience, the menu degustation (now commonly called the tasting menu) offers the diner the ultimate luxury of putting himself in the hands of a culinary sensibility -- in some cases, experiencing an astounding array of dishes from a cook so gifted he might have, in another time, been cooking for a Roman emperor.
A question of control
Many chefs believe they can only express the full reach of their creativity through the total control a tasting menu affords them. According to Spago's Lee Hefter, "You can't eat one appetizer and one course and know the scope of a restaurant or the range of the chef's skill." Chicago's Charlie Trotter, who in 1987 was among the first American chefs to institute a "tasting-menu-only" restaurant, likens the creation of such a meal -- a series of anywhere from six to twentysomething smaller dishes -- to composing a score, where one component logically follows another to create a totality of experience.
It may be art. But is it really a good way to eat?
Although a couple of local restaurants, Alex and Aubergine, have recently altered their tasting menu-only policy to boost business among diners who like latitude, Bastide, the only restaurant currently holding four stars from The Times, has not. And in New York City, the two newest must-have/can't-get reservations are tasting menu only (Per Se and Masa, both in the new Time Warner Center and both run by chefs formerly working in California, Thomas Keller and Masa Takayama, respectively). Tasting menus are also the only choice at Chicago's Trio, London's Fat Duck and the Spanish Costa Brava's El Bulli -- the world's most cutting-edge restaurants.
Whether or not an a la carte option is offered, whenever a diner visits the shrine of a famous chef, the temptation to order the tasting menu can be overwhelming. After all, you've probably traveled and perhaps sacrificed for this meal. You may never be here again. Further, tasting menus are usually served to the entire table at once, which pressures smaller eaters to bow to the desire of the largest appetite at the table. And, as a star chef will sometimes visit the dining room, it often feels like simple good manners to let him take the reins.
While tasting menus designed by world-class cooks are the closest thing we have to the famous royal banquets of yore, most chefs will deny any similarity to the kind of meals that made the vomitorium a necessity. Bastide's Alain Giraud speaks of balance, harmony and proportion in his menus, if not necessarily moderation. Giraud sees this way of eating as a "state of mind.... We give the diner the experience of many small dishes. It's much more exciting to eat that way, to have a bite without being totally satisfied. If you have 20 bites of a dish, your last bite is not that exciting." Giraud, like most chefs, checks the plates coming back into the kitchen to moderate the food flow; not finishing your plate usually means a smaller portion in the next round. It should be said: It is possible to enjoy a menu degustation and not overeat.
But tasting menus tend to err on the side of excess. Most chefs like to provide a bountiful experience. When I told Thomas Keller that my 20-course meal at his French Laundry in Napa Valley had overwhelmed me in ways both good and bad -- and severely tested the limits of my internal organs -- he asked, "Were you uncomfortable?"
"Yes, I was uncomfortable."
"Good!" he said, delighted.
Keller does not advocate gluttony. He sees it more as ... generosity. "You can overeat anywhere -- in the local pasta place -- and come away with an uncomfortable feeling. What we want is to convey a sense of luxury. If someone wants to eat, I want to feed them. I don't think that foie gras or truffles should be served in a restrictive way. I want people to say, 'Where have you ever seen a piece of foie gras like that?' "
Clearly, faced with such a piece of foie gras, it's the diner's responsibility not to overdo it. For me, the tasting menu is the most difficult of temptations: It's put right in front of you, you've paid for it, and no one else will suffer if you indulge yourself as far as you possibly can. Waste not, want not....