Tasting Menu 101

Tasting Menu 101

My husband and I are self-classified foodies (in case you couldn’t tell from the name of the blog!).  For years now, when we want to have a special night out we usually opt to dine at a nice restaurant down in New York City and try the tasting menu.  A tasting menu is a way for a chef to highlight some of their signature dishes or seasonal ingredients.  Some restaurants only offer a tasting menu, like the most recent that we ate at: Chef Shaun Hergatt’s Juni in New York City or our favorite, Chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns .  Occasionally, restaurants will offer a tasting menu as an option, like Chef Boulud’s Daniel in New York City.  We’ve eaten at our fair share of restaurants and have tried many tasting menus and thought it would be helpful to offer some insight to what we’ve learned.

Be prepared to spend big bucks. 
Tasting menus come with a hefty price.  Our first and cheapest tasting menu was at Chef Nicholas Licata’s Degustation ($75/pp several years ago) to Blue Hill at Stone Barns (approximately $225/pp).  That price tag does not include beverages or tips.  Restaurants offer wine pairings with their tasting menus for a hefty price.  We are not big wine drinkers and have never opted for this.

Everyone needs to partake in the tasting menu.
For those restaurants that offer an optional tasting menu, if you want to order it, everyone at the table must partake in it as well.  This helps with the timing of the dishes and the overall dining experience.

Tasting Menu sizes differ. 
At some restaurants the diner is offered a choice between two different sized tasting menus.  At Juni, we had the choice between a four or five course tasting menu (of course we went for the five!).  We’ve eaten at restaurants with four course tasting menus as well as ten course menus.  At Blue Hill at Stone Barns we lost count of the number of courses!  But do not fear that you will go hungry.  Chefs create portion sizes appropriate to the number of courses.  We have never left a tasting menu feeling hungry. I did, in fact, leave Blue Hill at Stone Barns feeling stuffed!

You will most likely receive one or more amuse bouche. 
I think almost every restaurant that we’ve eaten a tasting menu at offered at least one amuse bouche, often more.  These are usually small, single bites of deliciousness provided by the chef prior to the start of the official tasting menu.

Be prepared to stay awhile.
Tasting menus are meant to be enjoyed.  The courses are spread out and you will not be rushed.  Most of our dinners have lasted at least two hours.

Dress appropriately.
If you are spending big bucks on your dinner and eating at a nice restaurant, dress appropriately.  Some restaurants have dress codes, so check out the website before arriving.  There are restaurants that will provide men a jacket, if they are not already wearing one.  On the same note, at our recent dinner at Juni, an older gentleman came in wearing jeans and a denim button-down.  Although Juni has a recommended dress code, they apparently don’t turn diners away who do not adhere to it.

Peekytoe Crab appetizer with cilantro and jalapeno powder

Do not be turned off by menu descriptions. 
In our experience, the menu tends to be vague.  Menus often list a couple of ingredients in a dish (often some that we haven’t even heard of!) but when the dish arrives, it is often nothing like you expected.  My first appetizer at Juni was listed as peekytoe crab – cilantro – jalapeno powder.  Would you imagine it to look like the above?  The uni that the dish is topped with doesn’t appear in the description at all.  My husband’s entire appetizer description was: “cherry ripe” – bitter chocolate – coconut.  I’m not posting a picture because there are some things that should be left to the surprise of the diner.

Go in with an open mind.
A tasting menu is an opportunity for a chef to show off their culinary skills.  Not only are the dishes delicious, they are also works of art.  The chef would not choose an item for the tasting menu if he or she could not make it into something that tastes amazing.  Although there are a few foods that I am not a fan of, including raw fish, I will eat everything on a tasting menu.  As my husband notes, anything well prepared should be delicious.  While I would never cook foie gras or sweetbreads myself, I have eaten and enjoyed these items on various tasting menus.

Finally, sit back relax and have fun!
Tasting menus are an experience.  Expect to be dazzled by beautiful plates and surprised by new tastes and flavor combinations.

Do you have any restaurant tasting menu recommendations?