For the past decade, the tasting menu has been the most revered of dining formats. In the 2000s, the world’s best restaurants, such as El Bulli and The Fat Duck, took French fine dining’s menu dégustation and transformed it into a theatrical tour de force: a marathon exploration of a chef’s creative vision across 13, 24 or even 30-plus courses. For the hardcore, it became the ultimate, daring way to eat.
But now that ground is shifting. The tasting menu is losing its lustre. There were always naysayers – people who refused to be taken on a four-hour ‘journey’, who wanted to choose three courses, thank you – but now serious chefs are wobbling, too.
Last April, the two-Michelin-star Midsummer House in Cambridge ditched its tasting menus for à la carte. ‘My time as a dictator is no more,’ chef-owner Daniel Clifford told The Caterer. ‘Diners want change, they want choice and they don’t want to be preached to anymore.’
Or do they? Clifford actually reverted to a tasting menu just a few months later – but the future of the trend remains unclear and open to question. Midsummer’s initial reset came amid a steady drip-drip of criticism within the industry. From claims that tasting menus feel elitist and no longer suit our busy schedules to chef Claude Bosi rediscovering his love of a buzzing à la carte service at Bibendum, the mood music is increasingly discordant. When Tony Fleming, the man behind Angler’s Michelin star, became executive chef at L’oscar, he dismissed tasting menus as ‘clinical’ and ‘stuffy’.
Part of the problem is that tasting menus are now everywhere. What started as a niche activity among a coterie of very talented chefs has become a marketing tool; a way of appearing sophisticated. These days, every gastropub has a tasting menu, every chef a ‘philosophy’.
Yet I remain a big believer in no-choice menus. Sure, they make choosing a restaurant more difficult; if you’re going to eat what you’re given, you need to be confident it’ll be good. That requires due diligence. But the upsides are profound.
Tasting menus force you out of your comfort zone. You eat things you wouldn’t otherwise order and, ideally, love them. Rather than inducing ‘palate fatigue’, the best tasting menus are an exhilarating sequence of intense hit ’n’ run flavours. Is that not what all foodies crave? Moreover, those miniaturised dishes will have been painstakingly practised until the kitchen can deliver them with unerring consistency. If I’m dropping big bucks on a special occasion, that perfectionism is a definite positive.
Whether three or 23 courses, no-choice menus are also an economic lifeline for small restaurants. Because they know precisely how many guests they’re feeding, and with what, they can splurge on quality ingredients and still turn a profit, with almost zero waste. It makes restaurants viable, sustainable businesses. The future for indies operating on tight margins is pre-payment in some form (to combat no-shows) and no-choice menus; Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In and York’s Le Cochon Aveugle are two thrilling examples.
Both of these restaurant also disprove the cliché that tasting menus must be painfully long, pompous affairs. Manchester’s Mana serves 16 courses in under two hours and, nationally, many super-casual places offer tasting menus that are varied in style (sharing dishes, small plates, etc) and accessible in their pricing. Not every chef can pull it off. It doesn’t suit every restaurant. But when a tasting menu takes flight, less (choice) is definitely more.
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Do you prefer à la carte or tasting menus? Leave a comment below...
Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian