Tasting Menu Tyranny

ELV note:  A quick aperitivo of opinion to whet thine appetite for the flurry of essential eateries to come:


(ELV’s worst nightmare)

A few of our ardent Facebook foodie friends (and we have many of them) have asked why we didn’t make it to Coi, Crenn, Benu or Saison on our just-finished, four-day trip to Frisco.

Our answer is simple (and – with apologies – a bit insulting): The last thing ELV wants or needs at this point in his insatiable existence is to be enslaved for 3+ hours by a team of 30 year old cooks assaulting his senses with dozens of “wildly inventive” teeny-tiny plates of overwrought tweezer food.

Many of you forget that six years ago, DJT was all the rage in Vegas — for about 4 months — doing the same sort of thing. It was all very fancy and a lot of fun. But we thought the whole phenomenon was over with then, just as we thought it was on the wane after being being led through a dozen remarkable courses by Pierre Gagnaire in Gay* Paree a few years before that.**

The trouble is, about the same time, Grant Achatz took the whole concept to “11” in Chicago, got tons of national press (and Major Awards!) in the process, and became the poster boy for “look at me! look at me!” cuisine. (Wethinks the rise of cell phone-food-porn had a lot to do with it too – see top of page.)

Suddenly, every young chef in the country wanted to show what an “artist” they were by turning food on its head and doing something “different.”

Trouble is, there isn’t that much different in food. Asparagus will always go with hollandaise and ground meat needs cheese like fried potatoes need a sauce. Every chef knows this, but to capture customers (and press) they have to distinguish themselves by various forms of cooking (and visual) jiu jitsu….all to keep the clients “fascinated” and the dollars rolling in.

The real trouble is, this whole tasting-menu-thing is restaurant narcissism at its worst, and what began as a novelty by those wacky Spanish (and Thomas Keller and Gagnaire), has become a form of kitchen tyranny. And don’t forget: it’s a form of fascism you will pay for in hours of your time and hundreds of your dollars. Talk about gluttons for punishment!

(Lest you think we at ELV deplore molecular, avant garde gastronomy, we remind you that we have been big fans of Wylie Dufresne for years. But even he (and Gagnaire and most major frog ponds) allow you to order à la carte — not so at Crenn, Coi, Benu or the oh-so-precious Saison.)

Eating Las Vegas® is happy these things excite Millennial sensibilities (and loosens their food pocketbooks), but ELV (the man, the myth, the galloping gourmand) would rather pick and choose what he eats, not be forced to admire some youngster’s oeuvre…for hours.

Think about it: That’s one of the best things about restaurants — you can decide what you’re going to eat at the very moment you want to eat it, rather than be forced to endure a chef’s “vision” at the point of a fork.

And let’s be honest: It really is a generational thing. If ELV were a budding gourmet, like he was 40 years ago, he would be keenly interested in what his contemporaries were cooking (as he was, back in the day). But now, being a gentlemen of a certain age, watching chefs doing cartwheels in the kitchen just ain’t his thang….and he can’t wait for all of this “behold my creativity” shite to die its slow, unnatural death.

To read what food maven/restaurant critic extraordinaire John Mariani says about this sort of cooking (in his most restrained, diplomatic voice –  in New Orleans of all places) click here, and scroll down to his review of Square Root.


* As in joyful and full of mirth.

** Keep in mind, we’ve had hundreds of multi-hour tasting experiences at this point in our career, going all the way back to the early 80s when they were still called “degustation” menus. Back then, many gourmets scoffed at them as a sideshow the restaurant put on to make a pretty profit on a plethora of paltry plates.

2 thoughts on “Tasting Menu Tyranny

  1. who cares about Benu or Saison, you should have at least ran over to Mitchells Ice Cream to fight your way to the front of the line for the best damn ice cream around!

  2. WD-50 hasn’t served anything but it’s degustation menus for a little while now. Benu also hd a normal menu, but nobody ordered from it – the customers demanded just the tasting menu, so over time as the restaurant become more and more popular and reservations became hard to get, they switched to a pure degustation experience like WD-50. The first time I went to The French Laundry in ’01/’02 they had a traditional menu, now a days you cannot book a table without an American Express Black Card concierge and there is only two menu options to pick from – the standard or the vegetarian tasting menu. For a restaurant turning out the absolute best, its just a matter of economics – sometimes a degustation only experience makes financial sense if thats what the core customer demands and expects. On the bright side, gastronauts (which are ranked higher than epicures, gourmands, and gastronomes yet remain unmentioned by New Yorker) can vote with the wallets. Considering the epic success of Benu, TFL, Meadowood, Coi, and even the masterabatory Saison, it appears that the voting has gone in their favor regardless of the 3 hour + commitment. It should be noted that none of these places are making money hand over fist, each are labors of love for their investors, the cost of overhead is really high for menus this extravagant, it helps management keep costs down when they know exactly how many of each dish will be served in advance… that is why it is becoming rare to see exquisite creativity unless it is presented in a tasting menu. I’m with you in that I don’t like creativity at the expense of the dish, but there is a lot of latitude thanks to modern cooking techniques.

    PS: Benu’s chef/owner is Cory Lee, you might remember him from The French Laundry Cookbook – he was the executive chef when the book was created. Benu has Thomas Keller’s support and backing, some consider it the SF sister to TFL. His cuisine at Benu is an amalgamation of TFL’s French fine dining perfected for the Northern California audience; mixed with various asian influences. There is no place else like Benu in the USA, you should check it out sometime provided you have 3.5 hours to spare. Its in my top five in the USA, top ten worldwide that I have visited – and thats saying a lot.

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