Tasting menus: critics hate them and chefs love them. But for the diner, it can be a mixed bag. Often impossibly long, arduous affairs, tasting menus can make the diner feel as if they are a prisoner to the chef’s ego, and paying a high price for the privilege.
With the added Michelin fussiness, tasting menus may have been perceived as the pinnacle of fine dining, but with fine dining itself dying out, where does that leave the loved, hated and much-debated tasting menu?
Perceptions, and expectations, have shifted. Chefs seem to have shed their egos and become infatuated with the foodie buzz-word of the moment – sharing. Linked to London’s now prevalent sharing-plate culture – Spanish, Indian, French and, of course, Middle Eastern, (see our recent piece: Favourite Forks: London’s Food Scene is Having a Middle-Eastern Moment) this sharing of food, of ideas, of stories, seems to have hit home. Cue London’s rebirth of the tasting menu.
Take Koya, one of Soho’s most-loved eateries, and their contemporary interpretation of the tasting menu. On a monthly basis, five guests can join The BackBench and accompany head chef Junya Yamasaki on a culinary adventure ‘beyond the blackboard’.
Fork Talk attended last month’s BackBench, on a sticky-hot June Monday. Ushered to the bar space directly in front of the kitchen, Junya shared nine courses of super-seasonal Japanese fare, all created in his signature adventurous style.
The astonishingly clean and creative flavours coming from the likes of his cherry tomatoes with shiso dashi (tomatoes picked that day) and chilled sea trout suringashi with wild pea shoots perfectly summarised not just the mood of the season but of this particularly hot day.
In his rather centred, Zen way and soft timbre, Junya explained the seasonal, historical and emotional stories behind each dish – the chilled cucumber and sesame udon an old monks’ vegan recipe, the wild flowers and spinach served with the boar belly foraged himself from East-London pastures.
But Koya is not the only one to embrace London’s rebirth of the tasting menu. James Knappett’s Kitchen Table tucked away in the back of Bubbledogs typically serves 12-14 courses to 19 guests per evening, with the guests seated around the chef, ‘to make them feel like we’re cooking for them at home’. The Clove Club, Lyle’s, The Typing Room, Rotorino, Dabbous and Pollen Street Social all have modern, imaginative tasting menus, and Stevie Parle’s Dock Kitchen in Ladbroke Grove has a regular, themed sharing menu for whole tables to enjoy together.
Changing every three weeks, Dock Kitchen’s sharing menus are based around a book, a place, an idea, or whatever grabs their fancy. From now until July 25th, the sharing menu is very on-trend Lebanese cooking – bursting with fresh summer flavours from their moutabal and fattoush, mackerel in vine leaves, fried aubergine with tatatoor and za’atar and grilled squid with tomato and coriander.
We turn up on a Monday, when their sharing menu is condensed and costs about half the price – they even throw in a glass of (good) house wine too – so it feels far from scrimping. Authentic, inspired and dripping with real spice and exotic flavour, the grilled quail and lamb chops with tahini, sumac, chilli and lemon is an unfussy feat, and the broad-bean and borlotti pilaf is one of the best rice dishes I have ever tasted.
‘I just love Lebanese food… I love the grilled food they do, things like moutabel, really punchy hummus – the Lebanese always make it with a lot more lemon. I love the use of sumac and pomegranate molasses. They’re some of my favourite ingredients to use, so it was quite a straightforward, easy thing for me to write, because it was the food I love,’ says Eliot Thomas, Stevie Parle’s sous chef at Dock Kitchen, one of the main people responsible for crafting the sharing menus.
Next will be Sardinian, and Polynesian will come after that, and there has been a Chinatown menu, as well as a truffle and an olive-oil one, too. The well-travelled kitchen often visits their place of inspiration, so have a personal connection to the food. Eliot’s familial roots are Polynesian, so the upcoming menu with plenty of coconuts and fresh fish sounds like a must-try.
In this rebirth of the tasting menu, what keeps harking back to me is how honest and with meaning these menus seem to be. In an eating age when authenticity matters more than most other things, here’s hoping these new tasting menus that push discovery instead of showiness and personality instead of pretension, are here to stay.