I have always hated tasting menus. Those over-complicated, over-coursed, over-buttery, too much foie gras, too long, sick-inducing extravagances.
I have always hated tasting menus. Those over-complicated, over-coursed, over-buttery, too much foie gras, too long, sick-inducing extravagances. They can cost an arm and a leg and are too often about a chef’s ego than the realistic desires of a diner to have his or her taste buds sated.
There are times when I have arrived at a restaurant and the chef has said, beaming, ‘It would be my pleasure to give you the tasting menu.’ How can you refuse the prospect of course after course of chefiness? Each one exemplifying the master’s art.
Well sometimes I have fought back and refused to accept the largesse. I have put my foot down, said ‘enough is enough’ or rather ‘too much is far too much’ and have merely accepted a three course menu with freebies, amuses bouches and so on such that I might as well have accepted the full monty tasting thing in the first place.
Well I say that I have always detested these things. But occasionally events occur that make the food critic swallow his words, humbly admit that he or she was wrong, that the big, self-aggrandizing menu was worth it, that there were merits in its multi-mouthful marathon.
And such an occasion just happened to me. There I was nimbly nipping to Le Bernardin in New York – a posh fish place on West 51st Street, between 6th and 7th Avenue – thinking I could have a light fishy bite between meetings when the chef, Eric Ripert, approached my table and attempted to ruin everything.
‘Would you like the tasting menu?’ he asked.
‘Of course I wouldn’t,’ I replied. Actually it came out as, ‘Sadly not as we really don’t have the time.’
“Well how much time do you have?’ he persisted outrageously, quite clearly not getting the message that ‘I DON’T WANT YOUR OVER-BLOWN, PUFFED UP TASTING MENU.’
‘I have to be out by ten to three,’ I said knowing this would win the argument, because tasting menus take hours and this gave him precisely an hour and a half.
‘No problem,’ he said and disappeared before I could say amuse bouche of cauliflower veloute on a bed of broccoli cous cous in a suckling pig jus with radish reduction.
And before I had time to sniff a mere, ’It’s not possible to churn out all those courses with any kind of dexterous skill in the time we have’ they started to arrive.
There was a wholesome salmon pate type mousse with melba toast that was so far from the poncey idea of clever nibbley canapé type stuff that I had expected. Then the most beautiful piece of yellow fin tuna coupled with a strip of foie gras hiding underneath on toasted baguette astonished me. To mix tuna and foie gras. To mix lean, delicate raw fish with sweet, fatty duck liver? Christ it worked. And only the truly skilled craftsman could do that.
There was also a dish of crab-filled zucchini flowers, with a truffle sauce. Surely the sauce was going to ruin and overpower the main event. It didn’t; it added to it wonderfully.
On and on it went. Fish dishes with rich wines sauces, fish dishes mixed with turnip. Cruel insults to fish in the wrong hands. In Eric’s, revelatory moments. And each dish was paired by a sommelier with such a deft touch that we were left reeling. A sublime traminer from France, a wine from Austria that smelt so fragrantly of elderflower you wondered how a grape could possibly achieve such a flavor.
Then 2.50pm came and we had finished on the dot. And off I tripped for my meeting thinking of what culinary experience I had had while others managed a sandwich, brownie and a latte.
If you ever yearn for a tasting menu, or think you never wanted one, hasten to Le Bernardin. But for god’s sake put a suit on, unlike me, who was proffered a jacket and made to feel like a filthy urchin who didn’t know what was good for him. Which at the time was quite right.