Friday, 9 August 2019

In defence of tasting menus

Tasting menus have had a tough time over the last decade or so. High profile chefs have turned their backs on them, food writers are having a pop at them (even el buli took a kicking) and it’s now fashionable to dislike them.

The Independent referred to them as the culinary equivalent of a “vomit-inducing loop-de-loop for four hours” ... “overly formal” and said they “rob customers of choice”. Eater viewed the chefs behind these menus as “tyrants” and a journalist for Hardens said, “most of my tasting menu experiences have been terrible.” 

Even (former) ‘tyrannical’ chefs have referred to them as an “off-putting straight-jacket” (Richard Turner) and Daniel Clifford said he’s “pissed off” with eating tasting menus. 

For me, these criticisms are wrong. Wales has so many places offering delicious tasting menus and I hope this article will persuade you to give them go. 

The issue isn’t with tasting menus but with poor tasting menus. I’ve had my fair share of them over the years. Lying on my side in bed at 2 a.m. having eaten 9 courses over 4 hours feeling like a python having swallowed a whole cow (google it).

The issue here is the over-sized portions of rich ingredients, not tasting menus. They are invariably an incoherent gastronomic gang bang of different meals. Foie gras at every turn, deep rich sauces and a bonus dessert from the kitchen. Criticisms also include the lack of choice. There is a choice though - go to a different restaurant. I don’t hear people complaining going to the theatre to watch Hamlet but not wanting to watch all 5 acts: “can we just have a Julius Caesar salad?” (Yes, I went there).

It’s not just that tasting menus are not bad things, they are a positive culinary delight - when done properly. It’s a truly magical experience when you don’t look at a menu and your dining destiny is placed in the hands of a talented chef. You sit back and enjoy what’s to come. 

Daniel Clifford’s view is that the customer doesn’t want to be “preached to”. Oh, but we do because the talent is with the chef, not with us the customer. I would never dream of ordering a pebble which is a vegetable lasagne in a shell made of white chocolate, coloured using squid ink. But Restaurant James Sommerin did more than dream of this. They made it. It was delicious. The genius of Gareth Ward paired beef with fudge. Blumenthal put snails in porridge. They innovate, they push the boundaries, they wow us. Nobody asked Henry Ford to build them a car, nobody asked Steve Jobs for the iPhone but unshackled from any findings from a ‘focus group’ they create the new wave.  
Image courtesy of @DiariesOctopus
Tasting menus are also a more sustainable way of running a restaurant. We’re supposedly in a climate crisis. The food and farming industries have parts to play in this crisis. Second guessing what customers want, creating multiple menus resulting in a fridge and larder full of ingredients which may or may not be eaten. This isn’t a problem with tasting menus - Sosban and the Old Butchers’ decision to go down this route means there is precisely, zero waste.

So, next time you consider dining out at a restaurant with a (good) tasting menu, just go with it. PLC sums up this release perfectly when writing about Ynyshir. Resistance is useless: just submit. Allow yourself to be seduced by the spell of this kitchen.

Here are a few recommendations of places nearby which definitely deserve a go:

Restaurant James Sommerin (à la carte menu also available)
The Whitebrook (à la carte menu also available)
Heaney's (à la carte menu also available)
Sosban and The Old Butchers
Hare & Hounds (à la carte menu also available)
Beach House (à la carte menu also available)