by Patricia Nicholson
From “small plate” menus to tapas-style shared dishes, many restaurants are expanding the traditional appetizer-entrée-dessert approach to dining. One of the most popular ways to showcase a chef’s talent and imagination is to offer a tasting menu.
Tasting menus have become more common in recent years, and come in various formats. They usually offer more courses and smaller servings than the regular dinner menu. The classic is a six to 10 course menu of specially prepared smaller dishes that let a chef use both creativity and fresh ingredients. But it can also be smaller portions of regular menu items. This gives customers an opportunity to expand their food horizons without committing to a single entrée, or to sample several different menu items. At the Fortune Cookie in Toronto, diners can sample from the 39-item, all-you-can-eat prix-fixe tasting menu.
There are even restaurants that work exclusively on the tasting menu principal. At Jamie Kennedy’s Wine Bar in Toronto, the menu changes daily (or even hourly, depending on ingredients), and patrons order several small items to build their own custom snack or full meal, or to share with companions.
In Vancouver, Harry Kambolis’s restaurants – the Raincity Grill and C Restaurant – are known for their tasting menus. Raincity Grill is dedicated to using fresh, local ingredients, and its tasting menus are based on what owner Kambolis calls “current ingredients.”
“We might do game or squash as we get into fall and winter, and then in the summer we do things like berries,” Kambolis says. “What we would do is design an item in each dish that uses that ingredient.”
Raincity’s tasting menu is usually six courses, while C’s featured seafood menu usually has nine courses. The tasting menu is a fixed price meal, but that price varies with the menu, Kambolis says. The C menu hovers between $85 and $95, while Raincity’s varies from $45 up to almost $70.
“The Raincity menu has quite a wide range because there’s a big difference between doing a game menu with elk and venison and pheasant, and doing a squash menu, which would be more focused on vegetables,” Kambolis explains.
Kambolis says the tasting menus showcase the food as well as the restaurant.
“They’re coming in and they want to have a real, full dining experience, and experience the vision of the chef and the true vision of the restaurant and what’s going on there. Those are the people that we design it for,” he says. He adds that it may not be the best choice for a business lunch.
Tasting menus also allow more creativity with presentation. Kambolis says smaller portions lend themselves to more playful or more intricate presentations. Also, the meal, and its various components, can be paced differently. Instead of having to plate the entrée with vegetables and a starch, each of those items can be a separate course.
At La Caille in Calgary, there is a twist to the $79.95 tasting menu: the guests do not know what they will be eating for each course until it is served.
“It’s a surprise menu, so you have to be very open-minded, because this gives the chef a chance to create his recipe ideas,” says General Manager Darlene Cross. “It’s a great introduction to new and exciting things, and it’s a whole new dining experience for the customer. It has been a great success for us.”
The dining experience usually includes meeting the chef, who often serves one of the six courses himself.
Cross adds that the “surprise” aspect shouldn’t mean that customers get a meal they don’t like. She tells customers in advance that the menu is designed for adventurous diners. She also asks guests on arrival, or when they book a table, if they have any food allergies, or if there are any foods they prefer not to eat.
“Some people don’t like to be too far out there with their menu ideas, and other like to stay in a comfort zone, be it beef dishes or seafood dishes or things like that,” Cross says. The chef will even create different menus for two or more guests with different preferences. “That way we’re ensuring that we’re not coming out with a course that this guest may not like at all, or could not eat.”
In addition to giving chef David Young a chance to stretch his skills on a six-course meal, the tasting menu can also serve as a venue for trying out new dishes that may be added to main menu later.
Diva at the Met, in Vancouver’s Metropolitan Hotel, recently introduced a tasting menu that is intended to change every two to three weeks to take advantage of fresh ingredients and what suppliers are offering. General Manager Robert Herman is very pleased with the results.
“We wanted our chefs to have a fresh canvas, and to be able to play not just with two or three specials every night ,but to go ahead and create a tasting menu that was six courses that they could change every two weeks and really take advantage of more local fresh bounty,” Herman says. Especially with spring, and its fabulous west coast produce, on the way. “We’re not always able to utilize all of that on our regular dinner menu.”
Diva at the Met had hoped that 10% to 15% of its customers would order the tasting menu. But three weeks after the launch, 35% to 40% of guests were asking for the new offering. Herman says that says a lot about what customers are looking for.
“People aren’t coming in and having two quick courses and leaving,” he says. “They’re deciding to stay for two hours and to enjoy their meal. People are willing to be open-minded about trying new items, and they seem to really enjoy it. We’ve had lots of positive feedback.”
He adds that tasting menus may work better at “destination restaurants,” where people go for special occasions and expect to spend more time on the experience.
Herman says Diva is committed to keeping the price for its changing menu at $75 for six courses. While a fixed price can be challenging, Herman says there are way to work around it, such as playing with portion sizes.
“We’ve done tasting menus in the past, and we always find a way,” he says. “A chef can be creative on the accounting side as well.” u