Menu dégustation: tasting menus then and now
Was the original Western “tasting menu” inspired by fear rather than love of food?
Some food historians argue that the reason the ancient Greeks served many different dishes during certain celebrations was that they believed each god had a favorite food—and no one wanted to offend any of the legendarily vengeful celestials. Upper class Romans, on the other hand, appear simply to have liked excess in eating as much as they liked excess in everything else.
These same historians also trace the Western tasting menu to sources such as inns along the road from Newmarket to London in medieval England, in which “travelers were offered a tasting of the best of the house as a lighter repast, instead of a full, heavy meal late in the evening.” (“Historical Origins of the Western Tasting Menu,” eG Forums, the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters)
Fast forward to American history, and George Washington’s inauguration dinner rates a mention (16 courses), alongside Richard Nixon’s celebratory dinner in China (26 courses).
Which brings up the separate Eastern traditions, thousands of years old, including Japanese izakaya dining, originating in sake bars that offer a wide variety of small-dish menu items. These are ordered individually and slowly over multiple courses, rather than all at once, and are accompanied by sake.
Of course there is also the Spanish tradition of tapas, which also features small plates.
But a true Western tasting menu— menu dégustation in French—is curated by the chef and served in a particular order, with no options. Tasting menus have existed in American restaurants for decades, especially in ultra-fancy French ones.
Most experts, however, credit highly influential chef Paul Bocuse, who served elaborate nouvelle cuisine tasting menus in his Michelin-starred restaurants, as inspiring a modern craze for them, beginning (where else?) in the Excessive Eighties and continuing through the Nineties in places such as Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Napa. At one point, The French Laundry offered tasting menus that featured more than 40 courses.
So, of course, there was culinary backlash. CNN quoted East Bay food icon Alice Waters in 2018 saying, “I always feel like if there are small portions, it’s too much and too long.” Her Chez Panisse is instead famous for its prix fixe (“fixed price”) menus, also curated by the chef, but much shorter. (More on prix fixe later.) The current state of tasting menu affairs? East Bay Express asked some local chefs:
Michael Woods, Oko at Tribune
Michael Woods moved his Caribbean/Pan-African/Creole cuisine into Oakland’s Tribune building last October, but tasting menus have been part of his concept from the early pop-up stage. “I needed a platform for my creativity,” he said, explaining that his vision is an affordable tasting menu that dips into many cultures, from plantain cups that are an “homage to Afro-Dominican cuisine,” to fries made with West African yolo.
“When I imagine what a full dining experience should look like, I think you need to keep the diner guessing,” he said. And the menu needs to keep the digestive system in mind. “You don’t want to start out too heavy. Light and pretty at the beginning,” he said. “Maybe a ceviche, super fresh, showcasing the ingredients.” Then the menu needs to include breaks, or palate-cleansing courses, “a reset, so you can tell another story.” A true tasting menu experience is likely to take at least an hour-and-a-half, he said.
The chef will be aware of which flavors they are introducing at each moment, how much starch, how much acidity. “It’s like playing a game of tennis,” he said. But the menu doesn’t need to be 40 items long. Woods thinks a great tasting menu can be paired to seven or eight courses.
His experience shows that Millennials, in particular, are looking “not just for sustenance, but for an experience. It’s the chef’s job to create that. It’s not how many things you can put on a plate,” he said. People also want to be able to ask the chef about the food and the ideas behind it. “There’s no limit to what food can accomplish,” Woods added.
Oko at Tribune will offer a number of tasting menus for spring. On March 25-26, diners can sample the “Poor Man’s Feast,” described by Woods as “peasant food.” In late April, “Milk & Honey” will showcase foods and recipes from the Roaring Twenties, “some of the decadent, rich foods from African American culture of the times,” Woods said. On the last weekend in May, the outdoor “Out of the Woods” will be a seated dinner with smoked foods, and all things woodsy.
Visit the restaurant’s website for more information: tribuneoakland.com.
Andrew Greene/Duncan Kwitkor, Abstract Table
Currently, the pair of chefs who burst onto the East Bay culinary scene with a pop-up at Oakland’s now defunct Gastropig, then moved to two locations in Berkeley, are still creating as Abstract Table, but for private dinners only—for now, anyway.
Greene and Kwitkor both had fathers who worked in the wine industry, so they were exposed to classical French cooking early, they said in a joint interview. Greene related a memory of going to a high-end French restaurant with his dad at age 10 or 11 and enjoying a “12- or 13-course French tasting menu.”
But neither originally envisioned a career in food. They met at art school, and their food has always been a bit of a “poke in the eye to the elitism of the [fine dining] industry,” said Kwitkor.
Greene cited the Abstract Table “fine dining on paper” menu, in which everything was served on paper plates the chefs made themselves. They don’t want to “lose the childlike energy towards food and art.”
That’s not to say they aren’t serious about the tasting menus they put together. “We respect the French terroir tradition,” said Kwitkor, even as they “deconstruct the food” they present in so many unexpected shapes, sizes and flavor combinations.
They have different skills: Greene likes to approach a menu through color, he said. Kwitkor described himself as “much more detail oriented.” He pointed out that in art school, Greene completed “hundreds of paintings, and they were all wonderful,” while he, on the other hand, “completed 10.”
“Which were also wonderful,” added Greene.
Both agreed with Woods that modern tasting menus are more restrained; “perhaps seven-to-10 courses is ideal,” said Greene. “I’ve had a 30-course tasting meal, and 30-40% of the courses were filler. Maybe five to seven courses is even better.”
Asked how a first-timer to tasting menus should approach them, “Start light,” advised Kwitkor. “Not super-expensive. Try food outside of the typical restaurant paradigm.”
“There’s no formula,” said Greene. “Be prepared to be adventurous. Don’t just look at what’s on TikTok.”
Other East Bay Tasting Menu/Prix Fixe Options
Oakland’s Saucy Oakland does tasting menus every day, with reservations made for the 6-Course Chef Tasting Experience through OpenTable. A sample menu provided by the restaurant includes “Hamachi Spoons,” made with yellowtail, ponzu, crunchy garlic and avocado puree; “Seared Scallop”; “Khao Poon,” with red curry broth, chicken and quail egg; “Seared Pork Belly” with ginger honey soy reduction; “Land and Sea” with miso sea bass and filet mignon; and seasonal bread pudding with Basque cheesecake.
Remember prix fixe from earlier? For those not familiar, these are multi-course meals, curated by the chef, which may or may not include options in each course, and available at the “fixed price.” While famous for its tasting menus that required up to three hours to complete, two-Michelin-star Commis in Oakland now more prominently features eight-course prix fixe meals.
Prix fixe is also available at North Oakland’s Pomet, offered to guests “seated in our private dining room,” according to the restaurant. “Our menus are curated by our kitchen team, and some items may change due to availability and seasonality.” A five-course sample menu included, among other options, Tomales Bay miyagi oysters with nitaka pear, charred broccolini, ugly mushroom-filled pasta, Steeple Creek short rib and Fifth Crow apple-almond tarte.
Melissa Axelrod of Oakland’s Mockingbird notes that the restaurant does prix fixe menus with several options for each course for parties of 10 and up with advance reservations at [email protected].
“The most common menus are three to four courses…the most popular seems to be three to four items in the first shared course, two in the pasta course, three in entrees and two for desserts,” she said. Mockingbird will shortly change its winter-based menu to one based on early spring items.
Current options from one menu include Burrata alla Panna Crostini (fried sage, crispy leeks, pomegranate, saba), Penne alla Cavolo Verza (braised sweet onion, savoy cabbage, tomato sauce, Calabrian chili, marjoram, fresh ricotta), Chicken Milanese (fried breadcrumb-crusted chicken cutlet, parmigiano reggiano, arugula, lemon) and bread pudding (Acme bread, vanilla nutmeg custard, salted caramel, whipped cream).
In Berkeley, Chez Panisse is offering short prix fixe menus in the restaurant only, not the cafe. One recent menu included California white sea bass tartare with Meyer lemon, ginger and fried capers; wild mushroom ravioli in brodo with Parmesan; Corvus Farm guinea hen roasted in the hearth, with potato-rutabaga purée, spring onions and spinach; and hazelnut sherbet and chocolate ice cream meringata.
Those interested in trying Japanese izakaya menus will find them at Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakarga. “Our chef creates sharable tapas-style izakaya fare that embodies the spirit of sousaku, a modern creative interpretation of Japanese cuisine, relevant in metropolitan Japan today,” according to restaurant materials. Prix fixe menus are available for special occasions.
Restaurant Weeks: Great Ops for Prix Fixe
Both Oakland and Berkeley are set to kick off their Restaurant Weeks—perfect opportunities for giving prix fixe menus a try.
Oakland’s “Feast Your Way Through the East Bay” runs March 16-26 this year, and more than 125 restaurants are participating. Most, if not all, will offer prix fixe dinner options, including Bardo Lounge & Supper Club, Left Bank Brasserie, Occitania, Odin Mezcalería, Parche, Vegan Mob and Wahpepah’s Kitchen. Go to
visitoakland.com/events/annual-events/restaurant-week to see who’s participating and what menus include.
“March Munch Madness” comes to Berkeley March 23-April 3, and will also be the ideal time to try out many of the prix fixe menus at places such as Comal (offering a prix fixe menu that includes Enselada Picada, fish tacos or mushroom quesadilla, and Chocolate Budin or flan), Zino Mediterranean Cuisine, Agrodulce, Gaumenkitzal, La Marcha Tapas Bar, the Berkeley Boathouse and many others. Diners can see what’s cooking at visitberkeley.com/food-drinks/restaurant-week.