Degustation: delight or deal-breaker?
Jacques Reymond degustation
Jacques Reymond with all the dishes in his degustation menu. Photo: Justin McManus
Melbourne's premier restaurant Vue de Monde has no shortage of takers for its $250-per-person, 14-course "gastronomes menu" but a growing trend towards extravagant, degustation-only dining globally has drawn the ire of some food critics who have collectively belched and said, "Enough!"
This month, Vanity Fair's Corby Kummer singled out for scrutiny New York's Eleven Madison Park, where diners now have one choice: part with $US195 and plough through 15 courses not of their choosing. Last year New York Times food writer Pete Wells kicked off the debate, pointing out that "Not every novel should be War and Peace".
Australian food hero Stephanie Alexander agrees. While she is reluctant to be pulled into the debate, on Twitter she urged restaurateurs to read Kummer's piece "and think". For Alexander, four courses at a restaurant is usually plenty. "You don't have to force feed diners for them to have a good time," she says.
There have been times when Alexander says she has left a beautiful degustation feeling that there was simply too much food, with whole courses and ingredients forgotten because the meal dragged on for too long. "I find I am much more appreciative of four or five beautiful things than a rapid succession of 10 or 12," she says. "I do think the tendency of the multi-course meal can get out of control.
"While I understand, from a chef's point of view, that they want to put their best foot forward, I think sometimes it can be counterproductive because you eat too much, too quickly, without enough time to even reflect on what's been put in front of you. I don't know if I need to feel like I have eaten a lot in order to fully appreciate a chef's skills."
In his article Kummer claims that at its worst degustation is akin to torture with customers like "quivering hostages" to a chef's ego. He blamed Spanish chef Ferran Adria for ushering in the trend. Adria's El Bulli, which closed in 2011, famously dazzled diners with an average of 35 snack-sized courses; just enough to showcase the chef's culinary genius.
The provocative article exploded on social media, with many who agree retweeting the piece with an approving precede. Others wrote that Kummer's sentiments were ignorant and out-of-date. "The author appears to be philistine who doesn't understand food," one person wrote.
Here, degustation is increasingly favoured by top restaurants: Attica and the Royal Mail Hotel do not offer diners a traditional a la carte menu. Those wishing to sample Ben Shewry's magic must fork out a minimum of $125 (five-course menu) or $175 (eight courses).
So are tasting-only menus the best way to experience what chefs have to offer, or is degustation, as one person put it, "like waterboarding with food"?
Local exponents naturally defended themselves against accusations of tyranny this week. Industry veteran Jacques Reymond, who claims to have introduced the term "degustation" to Melbourne in the 1980s, today offers diners a choice between tasting-only (four or nine courses) at his Prahran restaurant, or a separate a la carte menu. But he believes degustation is the better option.
"It is the opportunity for the chef to really show his personality through his cuisine and the customer finds it is more interesting, more challenging than just choosing two or three courses," he says.
The Age Good Food Guide editor Janne Apelgren said it was no accident that degustation menus were a feature of our top restaurants. "Degustation is where you see the most cutting-edge and ingenious cooking because it gives chefs the space to experiment."
But comparing a lengthy degustation to traditional menus was like "comparing a three-minute hit song and a symphony", said Apelgren.
Apelgren recently tried a 27-course degustation at Spain's Mugaritz restaurant. Among the more surprising elements was a macaron made from sugar and blood. "Of course, it's not for everyone."
Apelgren points to Northcote's Estelle Bar & Kitchen and Fitzroy's Moon Under Water as examples of degustation dining that can be much gentler to both the senses and the hip-pocket. Estelle offers a five, seven or nine-course ($110) tasting menu. Chef and co-owner Ryan Flaherty did time in the El Bulli kitchen, but Estelle was more inspired by a small bar he worked at in San Sebastian. "We had no interest in being the sort of place people come to once every two years."
"It's every chef's dream to do a degustation-only menu," explained Flaherty. "You get the diner's attention from the moment they sit down and you take them on a journey; they're not just there to be fed."
Interestingly, Flaherty sees many customers bringing their parents in. "For our parents' generation it's getting them out of their comfort zone. They don't like to hand over their money without knowing what they are going to get."
The most courses Flaherty ever saw dished-up to a patron at El Bulli was "about 50" and he hoped Melbourne diners would be open to something similar in the future. Jacques Reymond was not so enthusiastic. "A dish cannot be too small, it must have substance. You must be able to appreciate the textures and flavours of each one ... I do not like to have 30 dishes; a tiny, tiny thing served to me on a spoon."
A TASTE OF THE TOP END
Vue de Monde, Melbourne Gastronomes menu, 14 courses, $250
(Also has a four-course a la carte option, $150)
Attica, Ripponlea (Melbourne)
Five-course tasting menu $125, eight courses $175
The Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld, western Victoria
10-course tasting menu, $180 (or $150 vegetarian)
Jacques Reymond, Prahran
Four-courses ($135) or 10 courses ($190)
El Bulli, Roses, Spain (closed in 2011)
Tasting menu averaged 35 small courses for 250 euro (equivalent to $A420 at restaurant's peak in 2009)
Noma, Copenhagen, Denmark
Tasting menu typically up to 20 small dishes, 1500DKR ($A250)
The Fat Duck, Bray, England
14-course tasting menu, £195 ($A298)
Per Se, New York City, US
Tasting menu of nine-to-11 courses, $295 ($A280)
Note: Prices are food only.