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|The orchestrated menu
SOME CHEFS CONDUCT A DINING EXPERIENCE AS THOUGH IT WERE A SYMPHONY
Maybe get really relaxed and let the chef do the deciding, too.
What a relief. And what a way to celebrate, whether it's the holiday season, a special birthday or just the end of a long week. More and more quality restaurants are offering the option of specially designed, fixed-price dinners featuring anywhere from three to nine courses that aim to please not just the weary but the curious and the savvy, too.
Termed variously as prix fixe, degustation or tasting menus, these meals can, at their best, challenge the maker and delight the diner. That's because the best tasting menus have a certain logic and a rhythm - chefs call it an arc or crescendo - that turns a meal into an affair to remember.
Chef Bruce Naftaly, who helped pioneer the concept locally at Le Gourmand in Ballard, says people were suspicious when he started offering three-course menus with a set price 15 years ago. The format is classic French, but was, back then, largely unfamiliar around here. Diners were used to pick-and-choose ordering, Naftaly says, and weren't nearly as experienced or adventuresome as they are now.
Now, though his menu still doesn't officially offer a full tasting option, about 10 percent of his customers will simply say, "Surprise me." He asks about allergies and what people don't like, suggests a price, and then gets cooking. Improvising from the 10 entrees he typically has on the menu, Naftaly constructs seven- or nine-course meals with a "cornerstone in the middle and three or four things on either end." Naftaly strives for a sense of pace, starting slowly with an appetizer, then maybe something from the sea, the land . . . varying the intensities of flavor, texture and temperature along the way. The goal is to create an entire experience, he says.
At Andaluca, chef Wayne Johnson says he initiated a tasting menu last February after noticing that a lot of his guests were coming in and saying, "Why don't you just have the chef put something together for us?"
"Usually they didn't worry about price," he says. "They just wanted a good experience." These days, as many as 15 percent of his guests are going for the $45 tasting menu - three shareables, a salad, three entrees and two desserts selected from the main Mediterranean menu. At first, some diners were confused, thinking they had to pick just one of the entrees or desserts. When they realized otherwise, they'd say, "Oh! We get all that?!"
But while the perception of value is good, what's more important, in Johnson's view, is to see people relax and enjoy their party. "Once you make the decision, then we do the driving for you, and you're just there, talking and eating and having a good time, rather than being interrupted."
Believing people stand a better chance of having a great dining experience with lots of small things rather than a lot of one big thing, Chef Thierry Rautureau of Rover's now serves tasting menus only. His luscious Vegetarian and Degustation menus offer five courses, the Grand Degustation, eight, for$65,$75 and $110. While that may sound like a lot of money, Rautureau says menus like his are loaded with luxury ingredients such as imported game and caviar, and typically require much more time to prepare. They're also more challenging for the chef.
"It forces you to think more about what you're doing," he says. "You go through a crescendo of thinking as you would if you were eating the meal. How would you feel about eating this before that, for instance, the fish before the meat and so on . . . There's a progression that you pay attention to. How does the meal fit together, how does it feel, does it make sense?"
Everybody has his own idea of what the progression should be, Rautureau says. He's fond of starting with champagne because "celebration dining has a meaning and a purpose." So if you start with bubbles, you think about what goes well with them - "obviously not red meat and red wine sauce" but something more delicate, with a complementary texture; something like caviar. Then, "slowly but surely, you go up and up and up in flavor," moving from something cold to something warm, perhaps from a soup to a light fish like turbot, then to a heartier one like sturgeon or monkfish in a red wine sauce. Then you have a clearing, an intermezzo such as his signature sorbet, before moving on to maybe a light meat, then perhaps a bivalve such as scallops followed by something richer, like lobster. A medley of desserts comes next, with a finale of chocolate.
Because he believes it's just as important to go through the same kind of pace with the wine, Rautureau opens up the choices by offering more than 75 half-bottles and numerous wines by the glass. That will likely be more expensive than simply ordering a bottle of wine to last through the meal, but he knows most of his customers "are not trying to live on a budget; it's more important to them" to have the total experience.
Ditto for Kerry Sear's crowd at Cascadia, where guests can choose from four seven-course tasting menus, each with a different theme: From the Market, The Season, Decidedly Northwest or Wild & Gathered, at $60, $75, $85 and $90. Guests can order any dish a la carte, but if one person chooses a tasting menu, everyone in the party must order one. That's because timing gets much more complicated when you're trying to orchestrate seven servings, instead of two or three, for each person.
Sear found that out the hard way when he first opened a little more than a year ago, offering six tasting menus. With elegant entrees like roast honey-glazed duck breast with brandied pears and cracked-corn risotto, and first courses like skillet-roast crab cake and smoked spot prawns with pickled chanterelle mushrooms and elderberry syrup, there was just too much going on. "The kitchen was going crazy," Sear says.
With things under better control, Sear has started offering four-course theater menus between 5 and 6:15 p.m. Pulled from offerings on the larger tasting menus, the four smaller dinners range in price from $35 to $55.
By far the most elaborate meals in the thematic genre are the nine-course dinners served Friday, Saturday and Sunday only at the Herbfarm restaurant. With just one seating of no more than 58 diners a night, executive chef Jerry Traunfeld says, he can focus all his energies on creating a singular experience (at $139 per person, $159 on Saturdays). Confessing "I like to do things myself," Traunfeld says the menu gives him a lot of control. "I know what each person is going to have, and I can be in the kitchen overseeing what's going on." At the same time, serving the same thing to all his guests means he often has "to do a lot of running" to make sure he has enough of the highly seasonal, specialty and sometimes hard-to-get things his menus highlight.
To manage, Traunfeld always decides on a red-wine course at least a week in advance. With that start, he lays out the rest of the meal week by week. He keeps a lot of themes ambiguous, leaving him the latitude to adjust daily for those seasonal and specialty ingredients. While herbs are part of virtually every course, Traunfeld tries to stay true to the season. Though he can get fresh basil in winter, he chooses chervil, tarragon and thyme instead.
He has a cadre of foragers and purveyors who supply everything from wild mushrooms to handcrafted cheeses, and restaurant "wine goddess" Christine Mayo helps select five or six proper pairings for key dishes. "A Mycologist's Dream" menu served this past October, for instance, included herb-smoked wild sturgeon with cauliflower mushrooms and apple-saffron-lovage sauce, paired with a 1997 Argyle Chardonnay Reserve.
Dinner is a 4 1/2- to 5-hour affair, played out on ornately set tables. A recent "American Harvest" meal began with young abalone and fresh-wasabi-dressed beets and ended with a festival of harvest flavors that included caramelized salt-roasted sekel pear with pumpkin-seed praline. "A Selection of Small Treats," such as a lavender and black pansy lollipop, comes as a whimsical encore.
Traunfeld cautions that while good chefs are careful to develop each dish and consider how one relates to the rest, some may merely be throwing things together at the last minute. Sometimes the wait staff may push a tasting menu just to make it easy on themselves.
As a diner, he studies the menu to look for the interesting things, which may or may not be on the special menu. "You have to evaluate whether the chef is putting together what he wants to highlight . . . or whether it's just trying to be trendy." It's nice to be creative, but watch out for the merely spontaneous. "Dishes have to be refined," he says. "You can't just put something on the menu and expect it to work the first night."
Still, when a chef gets it right, when you're savoring that last selection of small treats, the pleasure is complete. Holiday or not, that's worth celebrating.
|Cover Story||Planet Northwest||Plant Life||Northwest Living||Taste|