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General Discussion 55

Tasting Menus, Small Plates, and Just How Fast Are YOUR Taste Buds?

Caroline1 | Nov 16, 201311:50 PM

I live in fear of a loved one inviting me to dinner at an upscale elite restaurant that specializes in "Tasting Menus." Oh, don't get me wrong. I do enjoy looking at the pictures. The small finely crafted less-than-one-good-mouthful cube of a medium rare prime steak artfully arranged on a HUGE plate along with a carefully spooned comma of jus or maybe a wide painted path of sauce adorning the plate with a single leaf of parsley, and maybe a cube of some sort of gel or veggie puree to artistically balance the cube of beef that the tasting menu erroneously describes as "Prime Rib au Jus." You get the idea, and if you haven't actually dined at such an establishment, I'm sure you must have seen the pictures. They seem to be omnipresent. But they DO raise serious questions for me!

Is there enough of any one thing on the plate for me to fully experience its flavors? The human tongue -- mine and yours -- has "regions" where specific tastes are sensed more acutely than others. There's a very interesting article on all of the physical factors that go into our experience of taste: It bears heavily on what I'm talking about here.

As background to whether or not there's enough food on the plate in a really high end, fancy schmancy tasting menu presentation to REALLY taste it, I ask whether you've ever gotten involved in a serious wine tasting exercise, a la wine-tasting-spit-in-a-bucket-don't-swallow-the-wine kind of occasion? It's really quite an expansive flavor experiencing ritual that involves all of the senses that eating solid foods does, with the specific exception of chewing, which in the case of solid foods is critical to releasing flavor compounds of many foods as they are bruised to release things such as the flavor oils of fresh mint, and similar experiences.

In the wine tasting ritual, first the wine is examined against the light, often swirled in the glass to check whether the liquid "has legs." The richness of the color is a visual experience that stimulates the anticipation of wine in the mouth. Then the aroma is taken in. The "nose" of the wine is examined with our own nose. We sniff the wine and some "super experts" even suck in the aroma through their teeth to see how much of the "texture" of the wine is volatile. The wine may actually be swished around in the mouth like some sort of mouth wash, then air taken in through the teeth to further charge the flavor experience....

When we eat solid food, all of the taste receptors we use in wine tasting are used in eating: the first thing we experience as the food is set in front of us is the aroma, especially with hot food. As we bring a forkful to our mouth, unless we're holding our breath, the aroma experience is heightened by assaulting both taste and smell receptors. ANNNNNDDDD.... we can taste the food better with a sufficient amount to fill our oral cavity enough to allow the flavors to settle onto all of the flavor receptors in our mouths, and to enjoy the increased flavors and release of flavor compounds that come with mastication.

So my GREAT fear of tasting menus, such as the example I open with above, is whether enough of the food expounded in the menu is sufficient in actual presentation to fulfill the expected tasting experience? A critical part of any tasting experience is the sense of satiaty that may not necessarily require eating a large enough amount to feel "full," but the quality of satiaty that food flavor can bring to us based on satisfying experiences of the past, which more or less breaks down into "memory association." That's the sort of thing that happens when we taste a friends fresh baked peanut butter cookie and are flashed back to a happy childhood experience when Mom gave us one of hers fresh from the oven. Associations can be a delightful part of a taste experience WHEN we have enough of something to taste!

Sooooooo.... In view of all of these factors that go into my and your ability to taste and enjoy a dish, not the least of which is a large enough mouthful to experience the full flavor and mouth feel and texture of the food, I have serious fears of whether those micro-portions on macro-plates can cut it for me!

But I also understand the economics of such Tasting Menu establishments. They are seemingly ALWAYS in the highest possible rent districts. They are (almost) always decorated well and expensively, and in order to make ends meet, they must pack in as much seating as possible without requiring customers to sit on each other's laps, AND if you can use ONE rib eye steak to feed ten people instead of one person, hey, maybe you can stay open another week!

And so I have come to the conclusion that there is a very heavy "Emperor's New Clothes" and "Conspicuous Consumption" and "keeping up with the Joneses" factor at play here. Not that I don't enjoy many of the joys of molecular gastronomy. My Souse Vide water oven now holds a critical spot in my cooking techniques. I just prefer to do it at home where I can be sure there is sufficient quantity for my taste buds to get hold of the flavor and enjoy it instead of having to read the menu and think hard about what I'm supposed to be tasting.

Sometimes I have to wonder what would happen if these tasting menu gurus all fell down a rabbit hole and met up with Alice: Would they all fly away into nothingness if she pronounced them all "Just a deck of cards?"

Oh. And just for the record, I do NOT consider "omakase" at a sushi bar, whether high-end stupidly expensive "California style" with an abundance of Philadelphia Cream Cheese or an old fashioned traditional nigiri type "street food" sushi to fall into this category simply because you are always served traditional full sized "mouthful" pieces of sushi. And also, my definition of "omakase" requires that you know the sushi chef and he knows you, and that you sit at the sushi bar and he whips up nigiri sushi bite by bite just for you. An assortment of sushi presented on one plate is not "omakase." That is simply "take out" on a plate instead of in a bag! Alright, I'm a nit-picky old broad, even if I do say so myself. '-)

Anyway, what do you think? Emperor's New Clothes, or good value for the money? Keeping up with the Joneses, or just good food? And how many of you can actually taste "fast enough" to get the full flavor experience from a paint-brush swipe of sauce across your plate?

Curious minds (especially this one) want to know! '-)

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