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The Taste With Vir: Tasting menus vs a la carte menu

By, Delhi
Nov 28, 2023 09:11 AM IST

If a chef can cook like Gaggan or Heston, then he or she can deny guests all choice. They won't mind. But if a chef can’t, then it’s time to dial down the ego.

Do you think a restaurant is the sort of place where you go in, sit down, look at a menu and then decide what you want to eat?

I have a golden rule. If I go to a restaurant and there is an a la carte option, I will always choose it over a tasting menu. (Pexels)

If so, then we are in total agreement. I like the freedom to choose what I want from a menu. Sometimes I feel like I want a bit of fish. On other days, I want something more carb-filled. Often, I want a spice hit. Or a shot of pure, dense protein.

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If I can help it, I usually never order the set menu. (Except in smaller French towns). There are only three circumstances where a set menu has its uses. The first is if you are dealing with a cuisine you are not very familiar with. Then it might help to try a balanced menu that the chef has put together for you.

In France, there has long been a tradition of two or three set menus at different prices. They will have the same dishes as the a la carte but if you ordered them separately, they would cost much more than they do as part of the set menu.

Price is a factor that leads many people in the West to order the set menu at great restaurants at lunch-time. It is far cheaper than the a la carte, the dishes are already prepped in the kitchen and come out quickly. And you can choose the menu with the sea bass or the one with the steak. So you don’t feel totally restricted. You still have some freedom of choice.

I don’t scoff at cheap lunches because in my younger days, when I did not have the money to go to dinner at very good restaurants, I would go for the cheap lunch. The food was nearly always very good and you had a sense of what the restaurant was really like.

These three circumstances are the exceptions. What we have now is the current rage: The tasting menu. In the beginning, this was an adjunct to the normal menu. The chef wanted you to try his best dishes so he took the greatest hits from the a la carte menu, made smaller portions and put out a menu of eight or more dishes.

There was a phase in my life when I was trying to assess restaurants and chefs and the tasting menu was a good way of doing it. If the chef says these are his best dishes and they aren’t any good, well then, he is not a very good chef, is he?

(Also Read | The Taste With Vir: Are restaurants too expensive?)

Over the years I have drifted away from tasting menus. It is just too much food and the starters are usually so elaborate and filling that by the time you get to the main courses, you are not very hungry any longer.

Now, I have a golden rule. If I go to a restaurant and there is an a la carte option, I will always choose it over a tasting menu.

This sounds simple enough. But what happens when you go to a restaurant that only does tasting menus? You can’t order a la carte and you have to eat whatever the chef wants you to eat in the exact order that he has chosen. If you don’t want to eat as instructed, you can leave and go elsewhere.

The refusal to give guests choice reminds me of two things. The first is school dinners (at a hostel or a boarding school). You never had a choice. You ate what you were served. The chef was the boss and you were the minions.

This is a pretty damning image. Nobody who goes to a restaurant, let alone an expensive one, should have all of his or her power taken away. They are paying large sums of money. Why should they have to be subjected to upmarket institutional-style catering?

The problem for diners is that the view of set menus as the only option has been complicated by the global popularity of the Japanese style of omakase eating. At a great restaurant in Japan you often say you will eat omakase which translates, very loosely, to ‘whatever the chef wants.’

In Japanese cooking --- even more than French --- the chefs are the point. They spend so long mastering their craft, so anybody who goes to a top Japanese restaurant is really going for the chefs. Guests have so much respect for the chefs, for their skills and for their years of training that they are content to leave it to them.

A top chef will know which vegetable is at its freshest that day. He will know whether the tuna has aged to the point where it can finally be served.

At such a place, you don’t just say, “two portions of shrimp tempura and two salmon rolls, please?” If you did, they would throw you out.

Because most of us will visit such temples of gastronomic excellence not more than a few times in our own lifetimes, if at all, we are content to let the chef make the decisions for us.

But do the rules of Japanese haute cuisine apply to the rest of the world? Many chefs think they do. And often they are right.

But mostly, they are wrong.

Following on from the popularity of Japanese omakase, too many western chefs have dispensed with their a la carte menus and serve only a set menu. Nor do they tell you what each dish is like. I remember going to Eleven Madison Park in New York, before the restaurant had received its third Michelin star and the menu said simply beef or duck with very little description of the dish. Each dish was a surprise and, of course, the food was great so nobody minded.

Many great restaurants around the world now only offer a tasting menu with very little choice. At the Fat Duck in Bray, I had one of the most exciting meals of my life though no choice was offered and Heston Blumenthal sat on my table, willing me to like everything (I did).

At Osteria Francesca , we had no say in the food but it was served with such ebullience by Massimo Bottura that even if it had not been as fabulous as it turned out to be, we would have been happy anyway.

So far so good.

It is worth remembering that in Japan, omakase is associated with great chefs. Nobody imagines that an ordinary chef is so wonderful that it is fine to rob customers of choice and force them to eat whatever he makes.

Sadly, that is what’s now happening all over the world. Even very ordinary chefs are refusing to present a la carte menus, and are saying “take-what-I-cook-or-go-elsewhere. Not all of those chefs are entirely without talent so one or two or the 12 or so dishes on the tasting menu may be good. But you have to eat an awful lot of rubbish to get to them.

If you are Gaggan Anand and every dish is a revelation, then a tasting menu can be amazing. But I am getting fed up of the ubiquitous modern tasting menu where mediocre chefs deny customers their right to choose and load them with wasted calories only because they think they are geniuses.

Unfortunately for people who like food, many of these places do well and spawn imitators. Speaking for myself I can remember only a handful of enjoyable tasting menu experiences in India: Gresham Fernandes when he cooked dinner at St. Jude Bakery (thank God, he is back and cooking again); Varun Totlani at Masque and the team at Bangalore’s Farm Lore which does a fabulous job.

You can be flexible and do what Himanshu Saini does. If you want his Indian food then you go to Tresind in Dubai and order what you like. But if you want to see what the chef is working on, then you go to the smaller, more experimental Tresind Studio (two Michelin stars) in another part of town. That way you get the best of both worlds.

But otherwise, I am beginning to dread the curse of the tasting menu. If a chef can cook like Gaggan or Heston, then he or she can deny guests all choice. They won't mind. But if a chef can’t, then it’s time to dial down the ego and recognise that the customer is king and he has the right to spend his money on the dishes he finds interesting. And not on any rubbish that the chef pushes on to the table.

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