It's a Tuesday night at Sage in Braddon and my colleague Jil Hogan and I are being encouraged to write on the (paper) table cloth and leave (constructive) criticism on it. We don't know what sort of meal we're going to get and owner Michael Harrington wants us to rate all the dishes out of 10.
This is Sage's annual taste and test season. From Tuesday to Thursday for the next four weeks, Michael and Peter Harrington and their team of chefs are getting diners to help them decide what goes on the final new season menu. Diners get five courses (with matched wines or non-alcoholic drinks) and are asked to rate each dish and write down their thoughts and comments. It's kind of a win-win situation. The chefs get to try out new ideas and dishes while foodies get to lay down their opinions.
Michael Harrington says Sage's chefs love the chance to get creative and the taste and test season brings out the competitive streak among them. "Everyone wants their dish to be the most popular," he says. Those that prove to be a hit with diners get to stay on the new season's menu, while those that don't score so well get refined and tweaked or drop off the board to be replaced by new dishes.
At the table, the first course is served up - prawn with avocado in a lemongrass and galangal broth. The prawn is tender and the wasabi and avocado mousse is suitably creamy, though the broth could possibly do with more spice and kick - it's like a very mild tom yum soup. Across the dining room, everyone is tasting their meals and scribbling notes in pencil on their paper table toppers, which are printed with blank score cards and have plenty of room for comments. They're also encouraged to post their thoughts on social media.
The Harringtons aren't the only Australian restaurateurs to do a taste test menu. In Melbourne, top chef Ben Shewry and his team at Attica have "chef's table" sessions on Tuesday - five courses in which they test out new recipes and dishes on diners. A similar thing occurs at Press Club, run by George Calombaris' Made Establishment, which has a state-of-the-art test kitchen called Projects. Head chef Luke Croston holds regular experimental dinners in which eight people get to be guinea pigs for test dishes.
But Shewry and Croston both get the benefit of specialised and very expensive private test kitchens. Good Food recently took a look at the Press Club Projects kitchen which features all the latest molecular gear, including a $26,000 piece of kit that turns food into a fine, flavoured mist. Shewry spent $100,000 on a test kitchen where he and his chefs can work on dishes in peace. He told Good Food that the kitchen was already paying dividends in new dishes. "It's been amazing actually how much it's changed the way that we go about creating stuff. It's become very focused," he said.
"Since we've had this kitchen there's been more change. We've changed five dishes here in the space of four weeks, which is pretty much unheard of for us because we've never been able to come up with dishes and refine things in that short a space of time, so that's a great justification for spending $100,000 on building a kitchen like this."
And in the highest echelons of cooking, the world's best chefs have devoted many years and plenty of money to fancy test kitchens. Heston Blumenthal brought the laboratory kitchen to prominence when he took viewers into his lair in his TV series. Momofuku wunderkind David Chang has a top secret test kitchen and laboratory in Williamsburg where he encourages his chefs to "go for the big f--- up" and once suffered a pressure cooker explosion that sent beans flying like shrapnel. The biggest name of all - Ferran Adria - would close El Bulli for six months to work on his art.
That's not something you can do running a restaurant in Canberra. And so, in lieu of a test kitchen, Sage gets its customers to have their say. Jil and I - and the rest of the dining room at Sage - eat our way through four more mystery courses. There's a gnocchi on a wobbly bed of parmesan custard topped with a flake of fried kale and surrounded by shimeju mushrooms, full of umami flavours and perhaps a little too unctuous on the palate. A dessert involving gorgonzola doughnuts and pear sorbet gets a thumbs up.
We write notes but don't score until the end of the meal, when we can weigh the relative merits of each dish against the others. Then we unceremoniously doodle over the rest of the table topper (sorry, Sage, but there's something about the pencil and the white paper). Afterwards, we get a chance to observe our fellow diners. Taste and Test is clearly a popular date night dinner - the room is filled with couples getting acquainted over prawn and galangal broth and sharing thoughts about parmesan custard. There are also big tables of friends out for a fun group activity. For all the encouragement to post pictures and tag their meals (a good marketing strategy after all), there's surprisingly little iPhone photography and tweeting happening - everyone's just paying close attention to their food.
Natasha Rudra and Jil Hogan were guests of Sage. The Taste and Test dinners are on now until October 9. See sagerestaurant.net.au for more.