I really like a good tasting menu but at the moment the trend for them in London (and New York for that matter) is starting to get a little annoying as more restaurants are pushing them as your main dining option or offering you no choice at all. For example, some fairly new restaurants like HKK, Bo London and Story all limit your options to one of their tasting menus at dinner(although I see that Bo has now stared to offer a 3 courser) as well as plenty of others such as Story. Some London stalwarts, such as the Ledbury, now limit you to a tasting menu on the weekend (see my review here) which is an irritating practice. Although I think that Marcus Wareing has now reversed this policy in the Berkeley.
Tasting menus are great way of exploring what a chef can do and in a lot cases actually may offer value as compared to slightly cheaper 3 courses (with extras) a la carte. However, I have several problems with them…
Firstly, I think that even if they are balanced correctly, which is an impressive feat in itself, they are very filling. This is okay once in a while but to be able to indulge in them more than once a week is pretty good going.
They also limit my dining partners. My Mother, for example, loves food and restaurants but does not think she has the stomach capacity for a tasting menu, and, more importantly, she is a relatively fussy eater. Now I understand the argument that it is good to try things one would not usually order, in fact I have had one or two great surprises with dishes I thought I may not like; however, some people just want to eat things that they know they will love. I have also had a few moments where I basically had to force some of a dish down and that is not a pleasant experience.
Another problem I find with certain restaurants, that specialise in tasting menus, is the ‘one and done’ problem. This is where you go to a restaurant, have the elaborate menu, but even if you loved it you will probably never return. This tends to be for two reasons: one, a lot of these places only change their menu slightly over time. At the moment the Fat Ducks menu contains at least three quarters of the dishes that I ate there 5 years ago. This is a problem if a restaurant wants repeat trade (not needed in TFD’s case) but I understand that many people want to eat those famous dishes so that’s why they are still on the menu. In general I find that unless a restaurant changes a tasting menu significantly either over time or seasonally I generally am in no hurry to go back. The second simply is that if it is long concept type menu (Story, the Fat Duck, etc.) you may not want to do it again.
I think that all these factors mean that a new establishment should be careful in taking the decision to offer tasting menus only. Unless the restaurant is prepared to invest heavily in marketing so that its hype will ensure it is a massive success then restaurants may find that they lose out on potential repeat customers with this strategy. Personally I find it hard to frequent these places regularly.
…let’s face it I love food so I am naturally a bit greedy and thus sometimes I want more than 3 courses (or actually to be more specific, I want more than two savoury courses)! This is one of the reasons that I love sharing food (Asian/ small plates etc.) because you get to try a lot more. A few other restaurants that allow for more courses but with choice include Murano, which offers up to five courses that they re-size depending on the number you order. Gauthier, which again offers up to five courses on its a la carte menu with a choice of three in each category. Maze under Atheron was one of my favourite restaurants, with its ‘choose you own tasting menu’ format so it’s a massive pity it is no longer as good as it used to be. Also a menu format which is not offered enough in London is the starter, fish, meat and dessert format, which is pretty popular in mainland Europe. This is possible at Alain Ducasse but I would love to see it more widely available across the city.