A MATTER OF TASTE

IMG_9260And while I’m on the subject, I’d like to expand on my defence of tasting menus, another target  of the obloquy of our guardians of contemporary eating.

For the life of me I can’t see, what on earth is wrong with them? Ok, the digestive systems and aesthetic sensibilities of those few jaded folk who eat for a living may be bored with them, but most of us go out to restaurants for pleasure, and among those pleasures maybe the dreaded tasting menu.

Think of their attractions. They do away with the agony of having to make a choice. Oh, is it to be fish and fish or meat and mea? I really fancy fancy the scallops and the crab. Will they mind if I ask for two first courses? Oh, decisions, decisions. Under certain circumstances, choice is the enemy, bringing about emotional instability or causing us to revert to our comfort foods because we can’t make up out minds.

Tasting menus also neatly circumvent the possibilities of  menu envy. How many times have you thought ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I was having that’ as you peer at the food on someone else’s plate? Or resented when someone else at your table says ‘Do you mind if I try your (whatever it is)?’ Yes, I bloody well do!

Nor do you get those embittered thoughts when it comes to paying the bill, You know the kind of thing –  ‘ I know we agreed to go halves, but that was before you decided to have the lobster and I had the quinoa salad.’

There are none of those kinds of discordant notes with tasting menus. They provide absolute certainty that you know what you’re going to be eating, how much you’re going to be eating and how much it’s going to cost you.

Chef’s don’t come up with tasting menus because they want to show off their dazzling skills. They don’t need nine or ten courses to do that. No, they do them because that’s what many people ask for. It’s an economic decision, not a culinary one.

I once took Heston Blumenthal to task for doing away with the à la carte menu at The Fat Duck. He said that when they’d analysed what people actually asked for, 90% of them went for the tasting menu. It didn’t make financial sense, he said, to keep an a la carte menu, with its associated implications for quality control, kitchen management and wastage, for the remaining 10%. Small wonder that not-insignificant restaurants as El Bulli, Noma, Mugartiz opted for only serving tasting menus. They’d’ve been bust otherwise.

If you don’t want to work your way through a tasting menu, you din’t have to. In truth, most restaurants off alternatives, and  there are plenty of restaurants that don’t offer them at all. It’s your choice.

But to object to them on a matter of  principle seems peevish, petty minded and restrictive.

5 thoughts on “A MATTER OF TASTE

  1. Hi Matthew – I think you hit the nail on the head – it’s an economic decision for restaurants. It’s far easier for them to manage their operation if they know exactly what to buy-in. What I would welcome though is more choice on how many courses. I was in Stockholm at Gastrologika where they do a 20 course menu. It started well, but 14 or so it became something to endure rather than the pleasure it started off being – ditto L’Enclume. That can’t be right.

  2. Actually, I agree with you. Some chefs need to put themselves in the place of the customer, and exercise a bit of common sense and restraint in the number of dishes they serve. The French got it right about 60 years ago when restaurants habitually offered a choice of what were, essentially, tasting menus – Menu du Jour, Menu du Marché, Menu des Affaires, Menu Exceptionnel etc etc – at various price points. I haven’t eaten at Gastrologika, but I have at L’Enclume,and, do you know, having finished the tasting menu, I could’ve eaten it all over again. But then, I’m exceptionally greedy.

  3. Playing devil’s advocate a tasting menu requires the diner to be pretty much omnivorous in his or her tastes, especially in those places that don’t also offer alc or a mix and match with a vegetarian menu (Martin Wishart’s restaurants are excellent in providing these options). The 2* Raby Hunt offers only one menu with no accommodation for pecatarians or veggies. Fair enough, it just means that the customer base is narrowed. Personally I find half the fun of eating out is in sitting with the menu and making a choice. In addition I get to taste my wife’s dishes and vice-versa as we rarely order the same dishes. We have even been known to swap plates half-way through! Totally agree about menus that become marathons, I eat out as much for the company, the wine and people watching as the food. Having waiters endlessly explaining course after course can get tedious.

    1. In my experience, most high end restaurant are very happy to cater to vegetarians (or,indeed, to any customer able to pay the bill) and have vegetarian menus. According to the Vegetarian Society, 2% of the population was vegetarian in 1012, the last year for which they give statistics, which, of course, that 98% of the population isn’t. There is some evidence that there’s been a sharp increase in vegetarians since then. I have seen a figure of 12% quoted. That still means that 88% aren’t. But I agree with you wholeheartedly about the tedious recitation of every micro-ingredient. I just want to eat!

      1. Matthew, Raby Hunt is probably an extreme example. I’m not vegetarian myself but a medical condition leaves me unable to chew medium-rare steak, pink duck etc so the tasting menu can be hazardous. What’s interesting is how much this concept is prevalent in the provinces now, just when some London restaurants are going back to alc. I assume the tasting menu also puts a little less stress on the kitchen brigade who know exactly what they’re going to cook each evening.

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