Just Too Much

Is the Tasting Menu A Test of Endurance Or a Diner's Delight? The Post's Food Critic Makes His Case.

CityZen chef Eric Ziebold describes his special Valentine's Day menu, with specialty dishes designed for two. Video by Joe Yonan/The Washington Post Edited by: Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The first bite of food hits the table at 6:15 p.m.

"Breakfast radish with tarragon yogurt," a server says in introducing the doll-size hors d'oeuvre at Komi in Dupont Circle. The pronouncement is delivered with the kind of hush and reverence one encounters in ancient temples and New Age spas.

"Our crudo," the waiter announces a few minutes after the plate that held the itty-bitty radish has been whisked away. Slivers of three different raw fish, each with its own accent, are set before a friend and me.

That pristine treat is followed by an artfully bent spoon cupping a scallop and hearts of palm with lobster bottarga; a Lilliputian parfait of cauliflower panna cotta, house-smoked salmon roe and sea urchin espuma, or foam; and a "one-bite Caesar salad" that comes with instructions to eat it whole. The crouton is not much bigger than a thimble, and biting into it releases a squirt of pureed romaine trailed by the flavors of anchovy and Parmesan. Fun!

Except that the joy ride doesn't stop. The stream of nibbles, what the menu calls "mezzethakia," keeps flowing. For 90 minutes, I'm held hostage as the servers drop off a tiny cone filled with lamb tartare and topped with shaved black truffle; grilled octopus set on a bed of lentils with a fan of avocado; a slender bar of foie gras accessorized with cranberry "tapenade," a button of brioche and designer sea salt; and a trio of house-made crackers. The food is mostly luscious, but the intricacies get lost in the blur. Across the table, my normally enthusiastic dining companion looks shellshocked. It's not waterboarding, but let's be frank: Torture comes in many guises.

"When is it over?" he wonders aloud. I remind him it could be worse: We could have ordered the $104 menu, which promises almost 20 tastes, rather than the $84 banquet, which serves up a mere dozen or so.

By 7:50 p.m., we're both full -- and our appetizers, among the few things we actually get to choose tonight, have yet to arrive. "I should have brought a sleeping bag," my friend says. Before the evening is over, about three hours after it began, in addition to all those pre-appetizers, we will face a main course, a pre-dessert of Greek yogurt, an actual dessert (apple-date tart with blue cheese gelato) and a post-dessert of tiny chickpea cookies and olive oil-laced caramels. With the check comes a grapefruit-flavored lollipop, which I stick in my coat pocket. Who knows? Someday I might get hungry again.

* * *

This much is certain: I'm no fan of tasting menus. They tend to be too much food and require too much of a time commitment. (They usually seem to take a good three hours per sitting; I'm a diner, not a treaty negotiator.) Because almost every dish is selected by the chef and everyone at the table is required to sign on to the program -- restaurants don't like staggering meals for patrons sitting together -- tasting menus rob customers of their sense of control.

I'm not alone in my distaste for endless eating. "I want to sit down to a meal and order, or have the chef pick two or three things that are wonderful," says my friend Mark Furstenberg, a Washington baker. Tasting menus are "nothing except an ego flight for the chefs and a symbol of excess in our times." Furstenberg is writing a book, tentatively called "The Cranky Cook," and plans to devote a few chapters to the subject.

What one man sees as a gorgefest, another man views as hospitality. When Johnny Monis launched Komi in 2003, the suave Mediterranean retreat garnered abundant accolades early on for its talented chef. Last year, Monis abandoned his a la carte menu in favor of a tasting format. Now, dining at Komi is a chance for patrons not to have to make too many decisions, says Monis, 28. "The experience is not about getting in and out. We want to be the entertainment for that evening."

If you haven't encountered a tasting menu lately, you haven't been eating out. They're as ubiquitous as charcuterie plates and pizza joints. Tasting menus can be explored for a lot ($120 for a 30-course marathon at Minibar in Penn Quarter) or a little ($30 for three courses at Tavira in Chevy Chase), and they come in a world of flavors. Rasika in Penn Quarter delivers four- or six-course Indian feasts for $45 to $55 or $60 to $75 (the lower prices are for vegetarian menus); Tosca downtown takes you on a four- or six-course Italian tour for $70 or $95, respectively; Le Paradou in Penn Quarter conjures France with six or nine courses priced at $135 or $165.

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