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Features

Tasting menus: the new rage in restaurants

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It was a few summers ago, when I was at Pan Asian the South East Asian specialty restaurant at ITC Grand Chola in Chennai, that I first had my experience of what a tasting menu was all about. When I told the chef that I would like small portions, he dished out over 10 courses of all the specialty dishes that gave me a great insight into the food served at the restaurant. And if you thought 10 courses was way too high, well, think again. The chef has dished out a whopping 25 courses to food connoisseurs, but then again, these are small portions so the number of courses hardly matters.

The concept

So what are tasting menus all about? Simply put, a tasting menu is all about experimenting with new flavours and dishes and is a collection of several dishes in small portions, served by a restaurant as a single meal. More popularly known as a ‘dégustation menu’ globally, a tasting menu is designed to serve anywhere between five to over 20 courses per person (each dish is considered as a course), depending on the cuisine served by the restaurant. Chef Ashish Singh, Nueva – All Day Dining and Neighbourhood Bar, Delhi, says, “The tasting menu is a brief culinary journey of the fare on offer; the perfect way to taste the entire menu.”

Tilting the scale

Tasting Menus have found myriad uses and can help restaurants understand guest preferences too. InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram, for instance, had initiated a tasting menu in August 2018. “When we invited customers to sample the new tasting menu, they were a bit apprehensive. However, when we told them that their choices would help us build a new menu, the guests were excited and gave us valuable feedback,” says Anand Nair, general manager.

Likewise, there is also a seasonal element that can add a zing to tasting menus. Chef Ajay Anand, Director of Culinary at Pullman New Delhi Aerocity, avers, “At Pluck, we are doing a dégustation menu with the farm-to-fork concept and the menu keeps changing with the incorporation of seasonal produce, healthy grains and unique ingredients. We change the menu every season as per availability of produce.” Incidentally, tasting menus are also tied to festivals like the recent Chinese New Year. The tasting menus at The Hong Kong Club, Andaz Delhi, celebrate Cantonese flavours. “The chef-crafted menus that offer diners a complete meal, including appetisers, dim sum, soup, mains and dessert, with an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. A unique feature of these menus is that they can be shared between two persons, because we feel few experiences lend themselves to conversation as well as sharing a good meal does,” says Deepak Chaudhary, director of Restaurant Operations.

Custom cues

Evolved diners today are looking for a unique dining experience, which is fuelling the trend of tasting menus. At Trèsind, Mumbai, dinner service is a pure Chef’s Tasting experience. “One of the ideas behind the well-curated tasting menu at Trèsind is that it presents the signature dishes of the restaurant. It enables guests to make a quick, no-fuss decision and lets the team guide them through the dining experience thereon,” says Bhupender Nath, founder and managing director, Passion F&B, Dubai, which owns a flagship of Trèsind in Mumbai.

The concept of a chef’s tasting, outside the confines of a star hotel, is comparatively new in India and not something that diners are well exposed to. However, with a number of fine-dining restaurants showcasing their respective tasting menus, things are looking up. “The price definitely remains a deciding factor for consumers. However, I believe that with smart planning and execution, more and more restaurants can implement this effectively, while allowing more guests to experience it across cuisines,” says Chef Saurabh Udinia, Masala Library and Farzi Café.

The challenges

Tasting menus are usually intimidating for most guests, who are not familiar with the concept. This The Bombay Canteen, offers what they call the Canteen Experience menu, wherein guests leave it up to the chef to decide what to eat, based on their dietary restrictions and preferences. “Our Canteen Experience menu is served in the form of shared plates, with the servers guiding them through the meal, with interesting anecdotes about the dishes and their inspiration. There’s also a nice little surprise at the end, where the guests get to take away a part of the restaurant with them as they leave,” says Thomas Zacharias, chef partner, The Bombay Canteen.

Chef Hussain Shahzad, O Pedro, adds, “We look at keeping it less intimidating and more communal, which helps us create a dialogue with our guests around the meal.” Another aspect is that the extensive choice may confuse guests. Chef Michael Swamy explains, “The drawback is that if it is too extensive, then people lose out on the mélange of flavours. Secondly, a tasting menu, is tougher as the staff has to handle things. The normal and regular diners lose out as well. At times, flavours go for a toss.” However, when done right, tasting menus can offer a ringside view of the food and that certainly augurs well for it.

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