Food for Thought: What Happened to the Tasting Menu?
When I think of tasting menus, I think of the city’s top-shelf restaurants — Le Bec, Fountain, Vetri — where the kitchens are capable of creating an exciting, adventurous multi-course affair that changes depending on the night you visit. After all, the best tasting menus involve some element of surprise, and who wouldn’t want to be surprised by Marc or Georges?
But lately, the phrase “tasting menu” is prolific at more casual, less-inspired spots like London Grill, Varalli, Matyson, and newcomer Gemelli, to name a few. At some, it’s unclear on whether you are actually just getting a prix-fixe made up of pre-existing menu items for some type of meal deal, instead of an exercise in ingenuity from the chef.
“I’ve been doing chef’s tastings for over 20 years,” boasts Georges Perrier, who is skeptical of the growth of the tasting menu phenomenon. “I don’t know what some of these other chefs are doing, but the dishes I’ve made for the tasting — we have no dishes like this on the regular menu. That’s what we do in tastings. We showcase the talents in different way with different foods and produce.”
Mémé’s David Katz does not offer a tasting menu at his acclaimed Fitler Square bistro because he feels it’s inappropriate in such a “rustic” spot. He’s also wary of the trend: “If I want a chef’s tasting, I’m looking for a Vetri or a Per Se,” he explains. “If I went to a so-called gastropub or a casual BYO, let’s say, I wouldn’t want a tasting. There’s not much to be excited about at some of these places.”
My recent chef’s tasting at Gemelli was a prime example of this. There’s been some good buzz on the Main Line about this new spot in the former Margot and Carmine’s location. Specifically, I’ve heard great things about the pastas. But while chef Clark Gilbert has held a spatula in more refined spots like the Fountain and Taquet, the food I had from the $45 tasting menu was sub par, over-salted, and over-portioned. I’m sure I would have done much better ordering the much-raved-about pastas off the regular menu. (And if pasta is what the chef does best, why wasn’t his dexterity proven on what should be a shining example of his best work?)
So if you can’t produce a chef’s tasting that’s at least as good as your regular menu, why bother? Yes, you’ll increase your check average for the night, but that doesn’t do you any good in the long run if your customers don’t come back. Alternatively, just call it what it really is — a prixe fixe meal.