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24 July 2014

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Restau-RANT: are tasting menus just chefs' vanity?

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restau-RANT_tasting menus - Restau-RANT.jpgWhat’s your ultimate nightmare? For food writer Tanya Gold, it doesn’t get any worse than the restaurant tasting menu – a minefield of foam, slime and exploding brains.

It is the natural state of late capitalism that goods should become ever more absurd, to impress jaded consumers as if we were a pack of insatiable velociraptors. This trend is most pronounced in fashion (adult Babygros, couture for dogs), cosmetic surgery (vaginoplasty and other procedures too gross to name) and food (anything that can be wrought into foam or slime). Why, some restaurants think, should customers choose them, when there is street food to be had for pennies?

The wise restaurateur knows the answer, and offers the simplest fare, perfectly cooked in well-lit dining rooms. This is why Cut, The Delaunay, Burger & Lobster and Hawksmoor are busy in these austere times. The foolish restaurateur ponders the question and gets the answer wrong.

Their solution is my personal nightmare, the tasting menu: a love letter from a chef in his palace of cracked narcissism, served up as 10 courses of overwrought food. You find them in restaurants that have, or would like to have, Michelin stars.

The tasting menu is for people who want to be surprised by food, rather than nourished. They eat the likes of dolphin with pineapple and boast about it: ‘The dolphin with pineapple was amazing! You must have some! Oh, you can’t afford it?’

In itself, the tasting menu is not inherently bad – if people want to boast about eating dolphin with pineapple because it makes them feel edgy, then why not? The problem is that because I’m a restaurant critic, I’m given tasting menus by stealth, when I do not want them. And whether the food is edible or inedible – some are just miniatures of normal dishes, which is okay – depends entirely on whether or not the chef is mad.

Recently, for instance, I was offered salmon flavoured with beetroot. Now, salmon is a fine fish and beetroot is a respectable, if not high-kicking, fetish-boot-wearing, vegetable. Separately, let them live; together – well, yuck. The fish was bright pink; it looked like Barbie’s brain on the slab after a nuclear explosion had shattered her pink dream home. And, because it was from the tasting menu, I had to either eat it – ‘I love the beetroot fish!’ – or conceal it somewhere. I wondered if it should go into my handbag, to spare the chef’s feelings. I then considered hiding it in the loo, like some sort of food-themed thriller, where you reach for the gun behind the cistern and find a lump of fish instead.

The rest of the meal was awful, because the chef had put way too much energy into the presentation of Barbie’s fishy brain.

If you pour all your energies into trying to make vegetables do things they shouldn’t do, there’s every chance you’ll overcook your meat – and he did. He also reduced his sauce so much I felt as though I was eating an entire animal in a thimble, which made me feel cruel – who wants to suck on a stock cube made of Bambi? And as the dishes kept coming, I thought this food is not for me, it’s for him – and I hate him for it. Pea foam? Why? What for?

And the tasting menu is a global evil. In Italy recently, in a very expensive salon in Venice, I was given a taste of spaghetti carbonara. Now, obviously carbonara should be cooked with butter – and maybe just a little olive oil – and then left alone. Not here. Here it was made with olive oil, and lots of it; and because the chef was too busy clapping his re-imagination of carbonara, he forgot to cook the spaghetti properly, and the dish tasted of wood. Not sexy wood, plywood. Result: posh restaurant with tasting menu 0, Coffee Cup café in Hampstead, which knows how to cook both spaghetti and carbonara, 1. I suggest that Venetians come to London for their spaghetti; or, if they’re staying local, maybe they should dine at the excellent Muro Venezia Frari, which produced a tomato sauce so rich and sweet, with pasta so steaming and delicate under its gentle mountain of Parmesan, I nearly wept.

After the dodgy carbonara and before some over-cooked pork, came fish and chips, unasked; coffee and chocolate were to follow. This kitchen was not feeding its customers, but eating its own vanity and spewing it all over us. No matter how deep we are into hyper-capitalism, we must remember: food just needs to be left alone.

GOLD’S TOP FIVE TASTE TERRORS

• weird things done to fish, particularly using vegetables
• anything savoury in an ice cream, including bacon
• purées; food is supposed to have texture, unless you are a baby
• peas in any form. I hate peas
• amuse-bouches: tiny canapé snobbery

Tanya Gold is the restaurant critic for The Spectator.

This feature was published in the summer 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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