“Ah, the tasting menu. To some, the greatest expression of a chef’s genius, the edible equivalent of an old fashioned album. This isn’t about forgettable singles, rather an epic, edible version of Dark Side of the Moon.”
It was somewhere between the ‘gorgonzola shell, walnut, celery and apple’ and the ‘gnocchi of polenta with coffee and saffron yuba’ that my wife gave up. She pushed her exquisitely shaped plate away and sat back, shaking her head. “I’ve had enough,” she sighed. “Please tell me the end is in sight.” I glanced furtively around the incongruously rustic dining room of El Bulli to check if anyone had heard her treasonous utterings. That sort of talk was enough to get one hurled off the cliffs and into the foaming sea below. I frantically tried to hush her, putting a finger to my lips, imploring her to go no further. But she was having none of it. “I’m six months pregnant and bored of all this. I can’t even have a drink. Excuse me,” she smiled at our waiter. “Is there any chance of my skipping the next few courses and going straight onto the pudding?”
Suddenly, there was silence. Stark and brutal. And the blood drained from his face. I swear he began to shake. Her words had the same effect on the tables nearby, as vast cameras momentarily ceased their infernal beeping, and ‘Tiger Nut Milk Flowers’ were dropped in shock. Pretty soon, I felt the eyes of the whole restaurant burning holes in our backs. Any moment now, I was convinced Ferran Adria would come storming out of his perfect kitchen, Japanese surgical steel cleaver in hand, ready to hew these infidels limb from limb. By this stage, I had slunk so deep into my chair that my eyes were at eye level with the table. My wife stood firm. “Well?” she asked. The waiter had just about recovered. “I’m afraid not madam,” he said with a haunted smile, before disappearing off to the safety of the pass. My wife shrugged. “I love El Bulli,” she said, “But, god I hate these tasting menus.”
Ah, the tasting menu. To some, the greatest expression of a chef’s genius, the edible equivalent of an old fashioned album. This isn’t about forgettable singles, rather an epic, edible version of Dark Side of the Moon. Food as performance art, as theatre, constantly pushing the boundaries of taste, texture and perception. A symphony of brilliance, more ‘experience’ than mere dinner. At its very pinnacle, it can be stunning. Like at El Bulli. Even if the majority of dishes slipped from the memory, there are a few that will linger on my palate for years. The oyster leaf with the two blobs of non-descript liquid that tasted exactly like a native Whitstable oyster. Or the chewy Caipherino lollies. But I remember the dinner more as a glorious whole, rather than smattering of individual dishes.
Noma was a little different. In that I can recall pretty much every course, from edible flowers onwards. After more than a decade of eating professionally, I tend to veer towards the cynical. Another foam, another smear, another dreary description of yet another rare and blessed dish. Please, god, save me. Shut up. Go away. Let me talk and eat, unhindered by irritating lectures on provenance and how exactly I should devour the blob sat before me. But at Noma, I turned into a lovestruck teenager, my heart hammering and pupils dilating as I chewed on live prawns, hauled from the Fjord moments before, slow cooked carrots and various frozen seascapes. This menu put my faith back in haute cuisine, managing to both dazzle and delight. Redzepi’s food was technically brilliant, of course. What struck me above all, was the menu’s absolute expression of the Scandinavian terroir. I could have eaten like this nowhere else on the planet. And the only way to experience this was through his tasting menu.
I loved most of Murgaritz, too, and The Fat Duck never ceases to delight. Despite being avowedly ‘anti’ most Michelin poncery, I’d crawl naked over fields of cardoons for a taste of chefs such as Sat Baines, Phil Howard, Jason Atherton and Brett Graham. Yes, they present their food through tasting menus, but each mouthful they cook sashays across the palate. There’s a structure to the entire meal, balance, too. Just as importantly, they are as obsessed with flavour as they are with technique. Style AND substance.
But all too often, I’ve suffered in silence. Course after course of enforced eating, an edible prison from which there is simply no escape. Restaurants where presentation is everything and taste comes in a distant second. Sure, they might have their battalions of designer clad staff and enough strange crockery to open a museum. But these places forget that good food is fundamentally about enjoyment, the shared joy of breaking bread.
So in the worst cases, we’re supposed to bow down and worship at the temple of the man in white, sitting in hushed silence, barely daring to utter a word. Of course, this is not so much the fault of the tasting menu per se, rather those ghastly Michelin places where people seem too scared to dare actually enjoy themselves. My wife calls them ‘Clink clink’ establishments—the only noise being the clatter of steel on fine porcelain. They’re designed to intimidate, to show us that we mere mortals know nothing. They leach the pleasure out of eating, turn it into a fat and protein stuffed five-hour ordeal. When a tasting menu is done badly, pretentiously, or without thought for the diner, it’s hell. Enough, I say. Treat the tasting menu with respect. If you’re going to demand a few hours of our time (and a whole lot more money), then give us something to shout about. Otherwise, stick to a la carte. That way, when it all gets too much, at least there’s the possibility of escape.
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