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Tasting Menu Proliferation


darkstar965
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I'm sure many have already read the Food Section cover story in today's Post about the proliferation of higher priced tasting menus here in DC. The article uses the new Rogue24 as the poster child for the trend but also talks about CityZen (no a la carte), Eola (newly shifted to that format), Restaurant Eve, Citronelle, Komi, Obelisk (who introduced the format years ago before it was popular) and even the granddaddy of all tasting menus, Thomas Keller's French Laundry at $270/pop.

First a few very important caveats:

- I don't know RJ Cooper and don't remember if I ever had his food when he was at Vidalia. This reaction is absolutely NOT about Rogue24, though the Post piece largely is.

- I've really enjoyed many tasting menus and, given the choice, do partake of them (including at all the restaurants cited in the article; except R24, of course, since new)

- I will absolutely give R24 a try and look forward to it (maybe in 2012 or 2013 judging from OpenTable where nothing seems available for months out on any day of the week)

OK, with all that off my chest, here's the POV:

I think this expensive and restrictive tasting menu trend is a bit out of control. Further, for some chefs here and elsewhere in the country, I think it's a profitability crutch, a way to goose revenues (or even a desperate move to survive) instead of doing something really unique and compelling (the traditional formula for any business' success) more likely to delight customers and drive word-of-mouth advocacy. For some (decidedly NOT all), it's a mistaken focus on format over food (and customers).Finally, I think Carman does a bit of disservice to the many talented chefs in DC who offer tasting menus as part of a broader set of offerings.

In the article, Tim Carman mentions how diners have to really trust a chef to commit both the dollars and time required of a tasting menu. He's right, I thought. And maybe that indicates a bit of arrogance on the part of the many chefs nationally who are embracing this trend; the idea that of course diners will trust all of them and just shell out huge amounts of cash due to their self-proclaimed artistry. I'm not so sure about that. And, then Carman mentions Peter Pastan who developed his tasting menu before anyone knew who he was and before he had much experience or a reputation. Obelisk is great. Love the place. Clearly that worked out well for all concerned. :mellow:

My conclusion from all this: it's very much not about the tasting menu or the format. It's all about the food. And very high prices without alternatives afford little wiggle room for "time to work out kinks" or "off nights." Carman says as much in his piece. People will reward great food (and maybe great service and venue), when fairly priced, with their regular business, whether or not it's a tasting menu. That's been true for MiniBar. It's also been true for Ray's and Vit Goel/Tofu House.

Contrast the no-alternative, ultra high priced tasting menu with the formatting choices some other chefs make. Frank Ruta at Palena Cafe offers a restrictive tasting menu (at least 6 people must sign on, no real customization/changes allowed) affectionately called the "head-to-tail feast" (aka the "Tavola di Perpetua e Felicitý") at $65 as just one enticing option on his larger, more traditionally formatted menu. We've all posted extensively about that on the Palena Cafe thread. It's been a hit as has the Cafe.

I think Carman actually missed a beat by not mentioning more explicitly the flexibility that some of the restaurants he cited do offer. For example, he did lightly caveat some of his examples (Komi, Eve, Sushi Taro) by characterizing these as "chefs who rely heavily on tasting menus" (different from 'exclusively'--a key point here). Eve's tasting menu is in their tasting room, one of three options with the other two (bistro, bar) offering more choice on options and costs. Even Rogue24, as Carman did point out toward the end of his piece, offers a lower priced "progression menu" $20 or so less than the $120, 24-course "Journey."

I'd imagine that the article will prompt bewilderment (or even consternation) from many readers who'll never ring the phones of these places, not realizing there are more affordable ways to try them out; to build the trust Carman writes about.

BOTTOM LINE

At the end of the day, I'll pretty much go anywhere if the food is great and I feel like it's good value for money at whatever price point. The problem is the bar goes so much higher when prices are at these levels and, in my experience, most restaurants can't or don't hold up their end of the bargain leaving me annoyed after not being delighted with a meal and feeling like i was mugged. That's why Carman's piece unintentionally makes me appreciate chefs like Ruta, Armstrong and even Richard, and Wiedmaier even more. They give us options for a wonderful (and appropriately priced) tasting menu AND other, more affordable ways (Lickety Split, Palena Cafe, Central, Brabo Tasting Room) to get to know their cooking, build trust and then work them into a regular rotation. There's a humility to that kind of approach which really resonates with me. Seems like it might be a better business strategy in some cases also.

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One thing the article brings out very well is the economies of scale the kitchen gains from a tasting-menu format. Concentrating on an unvarying set of dishes allows the chef and his staff to take advantage of specialization and assembly-line processes in the kitchen. This reduces time, waste and costs, but in a format that many consumers still seem to regard as a luxury option worthy of a higher price. And that is precisely the reason I often (though not always) steer clear of tasting menus. Although they are widely seen as the best way to appreciate a chef's talent, skill and "personality", in many ways they are in fact the opposite: an efficient assembly line to reduce costs and maximize revenue, usually run by the staff.

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Contrast the no-alternative, ultra high priced tasting menu with the formatting choices some other chefs make. Frank Ruta at Palena Cafe offers a restrictive tasting menu (at least 6 people must sign on, no real customization/changes allowed) affectionately called the "head-to-tail feast" (aka the "Tavola di Perpetua e Felicitý") at $65 as just one enticing option on his larger, more traditionally formatted menu. We've all posted extensively about that on the Palena Cafe thread. It's been a hit as has the Cafe.

I think its important to note that at least one place Carmen mentioned is the same price - Eola's regular tasting menu is $65, vegetarian and offal $61. I went shortly after the switch and thought it was a great deal. You get a 4 course meal (choices for each course), plus several set starter snacks (4 if memory serves). You could easily hit that mark at other restaurants and not get nearly the same amount of food or number of dishes.

I've enjoyed the tasting menu meals I've had, with the caveat that none have been over $75. I prefer the slowed pace and the reliable/great service that a place only serving a tasting menu provides...although maybe I've just gotten lucky at the places I've gone. There is also a difference between a $120+ tasting menu commitment and $60-75 tasting menu commitment, and I think that distinction should be made.

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In the media surrounding R24 over the past month, it has been stated that there would be a small lounge/bar area where you can order certain dishes ala cart. I assuming this is still the case, so one could sample R24 before making the 24 course plunge.

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More terminology anal-retentiveness, but I'd suggest that a 4-course price-fixe menu -- especially one offering choices with each course -- is a very different animal from a "tasting menu," which implies many more courses and the diner putting him or herself completely in the chef's hands.

(Now, to add a little pretense) In France, the former would be simply, the "menu" and is the standard format through which one orders a meal, and the latter might be presented as the "degustation."

Although they both involve "in for a dime, in for a dollar" pricing, the Rogue 24 experience and Eola experience are pretty different in a lot of ways.

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...I've enjoyed the tasting menu meals I've had, with the caveat that none have been over $75. I prefer the slowed pace and the reliable/great service that a place only serving a tasting menu provides...although maybe I've just gotten lucky at the places I've gone. There is also a difference between a $120+ tasting menu commitment and $60-75 tasting menu commitment, and I think that distinction should be made.

+1

In the media surrounding R24 over the past month, it has been stated that there would be a small lounge/bar area where you can order certain dishes ala cart. I assuming this is still the case, so one could sample R24 before making the 24 course plunge.

Thought I'd read that somewhere also. If so, it ties into my (hopefully constructive) critique of Carman's piece. The whole story (rather than the all or nothing implication in some cases) would better serve the restaurants given the Post's readership. I know his theme was the tasting menus but there are big differences in how they are positioned: price as thetrain pointed out and whether it's the only option a restaurant offers.

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Short answer: if you don't like the format, the pricing, or anything at all about a restaurant, then don't go. Fuck this whining about spending money and time. No one's holding a gun to your head. No one's saying you're not the cool kid if you don't go. I especially don't care when you think you might go to a restaurant. You want to wait a week, a month, a year, a decade - I don't care.

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I have to side with the "elitists" on this issue. I enjoy a great-value meal as much as the next person, but lately I've been sensing from the general populace that a great meal has to fix squarely within the "less than $xxx" box and also "I should feel full afterwards" box. Totally disagree. Fine dining is more of an journey than a destination, so if I drop $500 for a life-altering meal (even if I have to grab a burger afterwards), who's to say that I was cheated? The big-dollar, multi-course concept shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Sure, maybe some venues won't pull it off, but let's at least discuss that on the course-level detail instead of the big picture concept.

The flip-side is also true, sometimes I don't read good reviews of a restaurant unless they are running some insane, non-sustainable deal for that night. Reviewers need to get better at separating the "value" critique from the "food as art" critique. Both are important to me, but they are separate issues, and one should not impact the other.

Here's the core of the author's argument:

It’s my job to urge readers to try the best, so I can’t feel good about watching great restaurants that were already serving an elite audience taking themselves further out of reach. (Several tasting-menu restaurants serve lower-priced options in their lounges; WD-50 also offers a shorter, cheaper tasting of its greatest hits over the years.)

And the elite who now fill these dining rooms are a particular kind of diner, the big-game hunters out to bag as many trophy restaurants as they can. Another kind of eater, the lusty, hungry ones who keep a mental map of the most delicious things to eat around town, may be left outside.

I guess I would respond that for every great restaurant out there that is "out of reach", more often than not I've checked out their cookbook from the public library, for free. And I can replicate some of their great dishes at home, or borrow an idea and re-apply it in my home cooking. Obviously that's a different product than what you would get at the restaurant, but I disagree that they are taking themselves "further out of reach". Chances are you'll see a cutting-edge concept five, ten years later in mainstream restaurants. Jack-in-the-Box now has a bacon milkshake, for cryin' out loud.

There's also the food cost issue, which the writer doesn't address. Again, this discussion needs to take place at the course-level detail for the "is it worth it" debate to have any merit.

As to trophy hunters versus lusty, hungry diners, who cares?? BOTH can be left outside of the restaurants, along with dogs and crying babies. What matters is what's on the plate, not who is in the chair.

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