The degustation dilemma: delight or deal-breaker?
Tasting menu only ... Mud crab, silky macadamia and camomile at Sixpenny. Photo: Jennifer Soo
While Sydney diners maintain a devotion to top-notch, multi-course tasting menus, an anti-degustation rebellion is brewing overseas.
Some international food critics and writers have thrown down their napkins and traded their forks for pitchforks, declaring it's time to take a stand against painfully expensive, hours-long, chef-dictated tasting menus.
"How did the diner get demoted from honoured guest whose wish was the waiter's command to quivering hostage in thrall to the chef's iron whim?" asks food writer Corby Kummer in the February issue of Vanity Fair.
Degustation is "the truest expression of a chef's craft" ... chef Mark Best from Marque. Photo: James Brickwood
His article – which sparked a storm of debate in culinary circles – takes aim at several of the world's top-rated restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, whose 15-course meal Kummer describes as "gimmicky" and "tedious".
At its most extreme, chef Ferran Adria famously stretched the tasting menu to 35 snack-sized courses at the now-closed El Bulli restaurant in Spain.
Kummer is not the first to speak out against the "totalitarian" chef and the "tyranny" of the tasting menu. New York Times food critic Pete Wells issued a warning shot in October last year, lamenting: "when I face a marathon of dishes chosen by the restaurant, I often feel the same trapped, helpless sensation".
15-course marathon ... Momofuku Seiobo in The Star casino, Pyrmont. Photo: Quentin Jones
Sydney restaurants don't venture into the realm of the 35-course meal. But places such as Tetsuya's, Marque, Sixpenny and Momofuku Seiobo do not offer restaurant diners a traditional a la carte menu.
Mark Best, of three-hat restaurant Marque in Surry Hills, concedes that taking choice away from the customer may seem ego-driven or dictatorial, but the aim is to enhance the diner's experience.
He points to the two-month wait at Marque for a Friday or Saturday night dinner booking, where the only option is eight courses for $160.
Wise to the world ... Colin Fassnidge, chef at Four in Hand Dining Room. Photo: Sahlan Hayes
"The best value and expression of the food is going to be in the one menu where you don't have to work to produce so many different things at the same time," Best says.
"I think it's every chef and restaurateur's aspiration to serve that type of menu. It's the truest expression of a chef's craft."
While Best concedes that customers have a valid opinion, he says fine dining is not simply a popularity contest.
“It’s the same with an artist or an actor or whatever. Whether every single person likes what they do is a moot point. For me, I think if 50 per cent hate it and 50 per cent love it then I'm doing something right. The moment I make something that appeals to everyone, then it's time to change it up. I've sold out.”
At three-hat restaurant Quay, an eight-course degustation is offered, as well as a four-course dinner menu with five choices per course. Owner John Fink says there's a pragmatic side to what may seem like the lofty pursuit of artistic expression.
"A tasting menu is cheaper – that is, more effective – to run because if you know how many customers you're going to have for the week … there's very little wastage," he says.
Cost is also a large part of the reason Australia isn’t likely to see the 30- or 40-course tasting menus of certain overseas restaurants, says Martin Benn, head chef and owner of three-hatted restaurant Sepia.
“We couldn’t do 40 courses; the wage cost alone would kill us. Some of those [American and European] kitchens have 40 chefs in there.”
Yet regardless of the number of courses a tasting menu offers, Benn says, diners do have a choice.
“It’s like going to the theatre. They're going for the show and if they don't like it, they can leave.”
Sydney Morning Herald restaurant critic Terry Durack knows on which side of the fence he sits.
“Apart from exceptional, celebratory circumstances, the long-winded, multi-course menu has had its day. It takes too long, it costs too much and, quite frankly, around about the fifth course, it gets boring and repetitive,” he says.
“If it’s dying, please invite me to the funeral. I want to dance on its grave.”
It may be telling that the would-be leaders of this nascent uprising are the most restaurant-weary. Joanna Savill, co-editor of the 2013 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, says the whole fuss over tasting menus is very much driven by some in the food-writing community.
"It's kind of that 'first world problem' thing, I think. It's a bit of a food critic and food writer complaint," she says, adding that for most people a degustation done well is an enchanting experience.
"And if it's your 25th wedding anniversary ... you might be disappointed to just have four courses."
But if most people in the world can only afford to visit these restaurants on the most special of occasions, the real shame, as Pete Wells points out, is “watching great restaurants that were already serving an elite audience taking themselves further out of reach”.
Which is the last thing Colin Fassnidge, chef and owner of the two-hat Four in Hand Dining Room - which offers a la carte dining, a five-course degustation and a more expensive chef's menu - wants for his restaurant.
"I've got a family. I've got two kids and I know what it costs to go out to eat. Chefs need to get a bit more wise to the world and realise … you're there to feed people," he says.
"You can be an artist and have no one sitting in your restaurant, but that doesn't mean you're a good artist.”
A TASTE OF THE TOP END
Momofuku Seiobo, The Star, Pyrmont
15-course dinner, $175 and 8-course lunch, $100
Also has an a la carte bar menu
10 courses, $210
Quay, The Rocks
Eight courses, $220
Also has a four-course menu (with four or five choices per course) for $165 at dinner and $145 at lunch; and a 3 course lunch menu for $125
Marque, Surry Hills
Eight courses, $160
Also offers a three-course fixed menu for Friday lunch, $45
Eight courses, $160
Also has a la carte and a $130 four-course menu (with two choices per course), Tuesday-Friday
Four in Hand Dining Room, Paddington
Five courses, $95
Chef’s menu, $125
Also has a la carte
Large tasting menu, $135 and small tasting menu, $115
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.