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Does this scenario sound familiar to you: You go out for dinner at a typical, run-of-the-mill American restaurant. You order an entrée which comes with soup or salad so you pass on an appetizer. You finish your salad, the main course arrives, you scoff it down and skip dessert, full from the salad, the entrée, and the bread you nibbled on in-between. Maybe you order coffee, get the check and you’re done. The whole shebang took less than an hour. And this is what millions of Americans consider “going out to eat”: A gastronomical pit stop. A utilitarian meal designed only to fill your gut and not have to cook or do dishes. Technically this may be going out to eat but it is definitely NOT dining. This is the human equivalent of gathering around the kill, wolfing it down, and retiring to the shade to await the next hunger pang.
For gourmets eating is not a means to an end but a process to be enjoyed in its own right. Gourmets like to “dine.” That means peacefully taking one’s time to sample the food, drink some wine, and immerse yourself in your sweetheart’s eyes, or the musings of friends and family. The food is savored, the wine is sipped, and the company is reveled. I can think of no better vehicle for this epicurean interlude than a tasting menu.
A tasting menu is simply a series of small courses showcasing a restaurant’s signature dishes and/or specialties. They are generally between three and eight courses, although Robuchon in Las Vegas boasts a 16 course extravaganza. Tasting menus are normally only found at upscale eateries. They are a mainstay at your top of the line French restaurants and in rarer instances, the only option.
Like cheese or wine tastings, a tasting menu follows a hierarchy of increasing heartiness. It will likely begin with one or more amuse-bouche, a French term for hors d’ oeuvres. Vegetables, shellfish, fish, and foie gras will dominate early courses. Raw items such as tuna tartare will usually precede cooked ones. Fowl often serve as a transition point in the sequence toward heartier fare but don’t even think chicken. Squab, quail, duck, and/or other game birds will adorn the midsection of your gastronomic journey. Red and sometimes organ meats will highlight the culmination of the tasting menu. Rack of lamb, beef tenderloin and braised short ribs or shanks are commonplace.
But depending on the establishment you may be privy to ostrich, wild boar, sweetbreads, and other exotic carnivorous delights. Finally there will be a dessert course and in a traditional French restaurant, the coup de grâce will be a cheese course. You will be presented with an array of extraordinary cheeses, unlike any you have probably had before.
As stated, testing menu portions are small, but the number and variety will leave you quite satisfied. The tasting menu will also unfold at a relaxed pace. There will be ample time between courses to digest not only the last dish, but each moment of the experience. This is the antithesis of the typical American meal. It is a protracted period of serenity and enjoyment, unfettered by the trappings of our harried, on-the-go lifestyle.
Virtually all restaurants that offer a tasting menu will also provide the option of having each course accompanied by a sample of wine appropriate for that particular dish. A half glass is a common serving especially for more extensive tasting menus. If you’d like wine with your tasting menu opting for the established pairings is preferable to ordering a bottle from the wine list. With such a broad range of victuals, no wine in the world could adequately harmonize with them all. You certainly don’t want to be drinking a Cabernet with your ceviche or sipping an Alsatian Riesling with your beef.
However, the pitfall of the tasting menu’s wine pairings is that you are somewhat locked into the wines that the sommelier has chosen. If there is one or two that you are adamantly opposed to, most places will try to substitute something to your liking. For example, my wife and I recently celebrated my birthday at a 4-star French Manhattan restaurant with their eight course tasting menu and wine. The rack of lamb came accompanied by a California Cabernet. Now, no offense to the Golden State or any of its devotees, but I’m just not a fan of California wine. I didn’t come to one of the country’s best French restaurants, on my birthday no less, to drink domestic wine with one of my most beloved meats; especially not at the prices I was paying. I balked and the sommelier presented me with Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron, a world class Bordeaux.
California vs. French wine arguments aside, my point is that most places will endeavor to accommodate you if you have objections to one or two of the tasting menu’s wine choices. Despite the limited flexibility of the predetermined pairings, this is an auspicious opportunity to be exposed to a variety of different wines and experience how they complement different foods. With the exception of personal dislikes, the wine pairings of virtually all tasting menus are well thought out and highly compatible.
Tasting menus vary in price depending on the number of courses and the nature of the establishment. At top notch restaurants in major cities like New York, expect around $100 for a three course menu and $150 -$200 for five to eight courses. Expect at least another $100 for the selected wine pairings. Suburbanites can find more reasonable prices at fine restaurants off the beat and path from the major metropolises. If you’re a New Jersian I highly recommend Tre Vigne in Basking Ridge, (trevignerestaurant.com). Their five courses of exceptional Italian/Mediterranean cuisine is more than fairly priced at $69. And if that’s not good enough, you can add the accompanying wine for a paltry $30.
Tasting menus, even when not hailing from a metropolitan palace of haute cuisine, are nevertheless costly. Only your passion for food and your budget can decide whether they are worth it to you. If you are a gourmet then there is no question. The opulence of a fine restaurant’s tasting menu, paired with superb wine and company, is a sublime experience. It’s another world; a realm of sensual delights, soothing elixirs, fawning service, beautiful ambience, and the love of friends and family. It is a tranquil escape that feeds our mind and soul as much as our body. Such is the art of dining.