The power of the tasting menu

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For those unfamiliar with a particular restaurant or chef, tasting menus offer a unique opportunity to sample the best the eatery has to offer. It’s not unusual to see tasting menus of up to 12 dishes or more, each displaying a work of art produced by chefs who are passionate about their craft. They provide consumers with an explosion of flavours and textures, food presented in contemporary and stylish ways and above all, the chance to try something completely different.

Rather than the traditional starter, main and dessert format, diners are invited to try a selection of exceptional dishes. This method also allows chefs the creative freedom to be bold with new flavours, and, depending on their popularity, the dishes could even shape a new menu for the restaurant. Everything about the tasting menu sounds inviting. But recently, some of the UK’s top chefs have announced they are leaving tasting menus in the dust.

Are chefs turning their back on tasting menus?

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Despite their many benefits, tasting menus are being abandoned by many of contemporary UK chefs. Aiden Bryne, chief director of 20 Stories restaurant in Manchester told The Telegraph (ahead of its launch) that tasting menus were not suitable for his customers’ ‘busy modern lives’. “20 Stories will offer good wholesome dishes, in a traditional starter, main course, dessert format,” said Aiden. “In recent years, we have seen an increase in the demand for a la carte dining, so we wanted to respond to what guests are clearly looking for.

“Manchester is an increasingly foodie city, and we want 20 Stories to be accessible to all guests. Our busy modern lives and sometimes restricted budgets mean that lengthy tasting menus aren’t always an option.”

His firm words aside, Aiden agreed that there must still be a place for tasting menus, and that 20 Stories will offer a 14-cover dining room with city views, which will offer guests a tasting menu. Daniel Clifford, chef at the two-Michelin starred Midsummer House in Cambridge, also spoke out against the tasting menu, admitting that removing this option from his menu was his “biggest gamble”. “I believe customers now want a choice and not to be dictated to by a tasting menu,” said Daniel. “When I eat out I don’t want to be dictated to; my time as a dictator is no more. I think diners want change, they want choice and they don’t want to be preached to anymore.”

To me, tasting menus have never been about ‘preaching’ to consumers. Diners enjoy being surprised, and these menus have long excited customers who put their taste buds in the hands of professionals to deliver a delicious, bold series of dishes.

Reinventing the tasting menu

Although some chefs are turning their backs on the tasting menu, other restaurants are taking it upon themselves to reinvent the concept. In the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Dalston in London, Untitled has breathed new life into tasting menus. Its menu is made up of small Japanese-influenced sharing plates that form a list you pick and choose from. However it’s ‘whole menu’ option offers 10 small plates at just £52.50 for two people. This reasonably-priced tasting menu has not gone unnoticed. A review in The Londonist describes the experience: “The menu changes regularly, with monthly supper clubs acting as executive chef Rob Roy Cameron’s testing ground for new ideas.

“But highlights from our visit are both strange, compelling texture-flavour mash-ups, shiso pear – draped with something cobwebby that turns out to be seaweed dried into lacy strands – and lamb-stuffed brioche, topped with a gingery, gelatinous disc embedded with micro-sage. And there are solid crowd-pleasers along with the more surprising combinations.”

It is clear that tasting menus still have so much to offer, and in the capital, Michelin-starred restaurants sit alongside new and exciting concept eateries like Untitled, which are reinventing this menu option.

New Petit four based on our sweetbread sliders . Raspberry and chocolate macaroons

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The Man Behind the Curtain also offers a unique tasting menu, with its ‘Permanent Collection’ of dishes featuring wagyu beef with olive juice, foie gras doughnuts, hand-massaged octopus and crispy dahl, served with yoghurt. Each plate is aesthetically spectacular, and there’s not a whiff of stuffiness in the air. But if you are looking for a more traditional tasting menu, you can’t go wrong with The Ledbury. Considered to be one of the finest restaurants in London, The Ledbury’s tasting menu features Chantilly of oyster, tartare of sea bream and frozen English wasabi, candied beetroot baked in clay, caviar salt and smoked eel and belted Galloway beef, aubergine dusted with black tea and olives.

With exciting new restaurants like Untitled appearing on the scene offering refreshing and affordable tasting menus, I struggle to believe that this dining concept is ‘over’, as some chefs believe. The power of the tasting menu is undeniable – chefs are free to create, and diners step into a world of exquisite tastes and textures, and can potentially be part of a chef’s journey to building a new and exciting menu.