Done well, a tasting menu is a wonderful meal where the chef picks a theme and the kitchen shows off what it can do; you leave satisfied and awe-struck, and wanting to come back to taste the kitchen's prowess again. I've had great tasting menus in Orange County and outside of it, and I've had absolutely execrable ones. Sometimes they're well-constructed journeys through the chef's experience, and sometimes they're proof that the chef is actually just a caffeinated squirrel. Five courses that flow together, or twenty-three courses that become tiresome after number 7?
Unfortunately, there are more and more restaurants, good and bad, serving only tasting menus, and sometimes they're restaurants where the chef really shouldn't be showing off. Here are five reasons why I try to avoid tasting menus.
1. They're expensive.
Why pay $50 or $60 for three courses when you can pay $129 for fourteen little bites of food, including three desserts? Don't forget the wine pairing, too, which causes the sommeliers to approximate Brownian motion as they replace your glasses after every second course. The problem is that the cost is probably justified: the more courses you make, the more everyone has to work. The question is whether it's worth it.
2. They're annoying to eat.
For some reason, many chefs who do tasting menus all think they're Wylie Dufresne or Ferrán Adria, and they create these elaborate presentations that have to be deconstructed before they can be eaten (or consumed, in the case of flavored smoke). Even in places without that level of pretense, the different sauces and flavors mean you're going to go through a dishwasher's worth of utensils by the time you're done.
3. They're full of chef worshippers, who may be the most annoying restaurant-goers on Earth.
The fancier the restaurant, the more likely it is that they'll be full of people who are determined to have a really intense experience from their favorite chef. Once relegated to the table in the kitchen, these folks have now spread like mint throughout the restaurant. In the fanciest places, it can be hushed, like a museum (or its -eum cousin, a mausoleum). God forbid you should interrupt their experience with anything like normal human conversation or laughter; they'll turn amusing shades of red and splutter about the death of decorum on websites like Yelp and Chowhound.
4. They're contributing to the demise of the three-course dinner.
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The three-course dinner has a long precedent in our culinary history; like it or lump it, much of the fine dining we do is modeled on the French meal. But between the tasting menu and the culinary cancer of "small plates", the appetizer-main-dessert model is quickly falling away, which is a shame: it's easier to moderate your consumption that way, and it leads to awkward dinner parties where would-be chefs try to make a dozen dishes in a home kitchen.
5. They take twice as long as a normal dinner.
I can appreciate a long, pleasurable sojourn at the table as much as anyone, but it must be timed well, and even the sturdiest butts begin to ache after three or more hours in the same chair. There may be hope: I went to a four-hour dinner in New York City once where there were activities interspersed with the courses, both to give the kitchen some slack and to provide some ass relief for the diners.