Across the country, tasting menus – chef driven multi-course menus at a set price -- are becoming more and more common. Cities like New York noticed an increase nearly two years ago, but more recently the Midwest is joining the party.
L’Etoile in Madison recently made the move to replace their entire traditional menu with two options for consumers – a three-course option for $65 and a seven-course tasting menu for $125. Corresponding four- and six-glass wine pairings are also available at two price points, $35 and $65.
And, while we don’t have a "tasting menu only" restaurant here in Milwaukee, there are numerous places for diners to participate in the experience, including Sanford, c.1880, Ardent and most recently Bacchus.
And serious diners have every reason to be excited about the ever-growing options.
When well executed, a tasting menu can provide an unprecedented dining experience during which a restaurant showcases the best of what they do in a singular experience. In these cases, the diner departs from the dinner both satisfied and awe-struck, with the desire to return and experience more of the kitchen’s prowess.
Nicolas Wirth, executive chef at Bacchus, which recently implemented a tasting menu option, says his aim is to provide diners with a care-free dining experience.
"People make decisions all day long, and this is one less decision they have to make at the end of a long day," he says. "Instead, they can come in and just relax, knowing that we’re going to give them a really great experience."
The Bacchus tasting menu, which includes six courses plus an amuse bouche, intermezzo and any number of surprise offerings, is priced between $75 and $85 on a given night, with wine pairings for $30-40 more.
"It’s a surprise menu," he explains, "With some menu items constructed similarly to regular offerings and others highlighting more unique, special items. We don’t print the menu, though we’ll reveal the courses to guests if they are interested. The idea is that there’s a little bit of adventure to the experience."
The typical summer tasting menu at Bacchus begins with a chilled soup shooter – maybe gazpacho or chilled ginger strawberry soup – a mini flavor explosion that gets the palate moving and ready for house-cured salmon rillete with herbed brioche.
As the menu progresses, diners might see dishes like sautéed scallops with potato chorizo hash and smoked pork belly or brisket with warm three-bean salad and pickled watermelon rind.
An intermezzo, like orange ginger sorbet, provides a welcome interlude and cleanses the palate before a course of prime ribeye with fingerling potatoes and roasted shallots served with a red wine demiglace. And a dessert course, created by pastry chef Allie Howard, could include passionfruit mango curd served alongside coconut financier with coconut sorbet and strawberries.
Pairings, pulled together by Bacchus sommelier, Katie Espinosa, include selections chosen particularly for their affinity for a given course – and are often a feature in an of themselves.
"For people who like to dine," she says. "These are the ‘can’t miss’ items, and we’re pairing them with really spectacular wines, some of which aren’t typically available."
And, in addition to the food and wine, guests also have the opportunity to gain insight into what goes into each course. In fact, Chef Wirth says that – if diners have the time and inclination – he welcomes the opportunity to visit the table to talk about menu items and glean feedback from guests.
Bacchus also allows individual diners to order the tasting menu, even if the remainder of the table decides to order from the regular menu.
"One of the unique things we’re doing here is allowing individuals who are part of a larger party order the tasting menu, even if others don’t. Typically the issue is making service run smoothly, so we work closely with our servers to increase the communication with the kitchen."
For example, servers may recommend that courses be delivered in a modified fashion for the customer who orders the tasting menu, or make recommendations for other diners that allow better coordination of the courses.
Meanwhile, at c.1880, Chef Thomas Hauck offers diners choices from a five-course tasting menu, plus amuse bouche and pre-dessert, for $75, with the option of included wine pairings for $110.
The menu, which features a range of items off of the regular menu, is a great way for new diners to experience more of the regular menu than they might otherwise – and at a highly affordable price.
"I think that a tasting menu for two people, especially when it's their first time here, is a great way to experience the restaurant simply because of the amount of food that they get to try," Hauck says. "Since we give them a choice between two different options on four of the courses, if they both choose a different option between the two of them they can have three quarters of the menu."
And Chef Hauck says the menu is deliberately designed to offer up a unique dining experience.
"The season drives what we do with the things that we have available," says Chef Hauck. "Then you want a certain rhythm to go with it -- ebb and flow -- you want to start off strong and ride through and have certain parts that harmonize with the others. Imagine like a symphony, each part on its own is very good, but taken together, they become so much more."
One of the myths about tasting menus is that they take twice as long as a normal dinner. But, Wirth says that’s simply not the case.
"Our tasting menu is available every day, both in the bar or dining room," he notes. "And diners typically are seated for an hour and a half or two hours. If they prefer to be more leisurely, we can definitely accommodate. But, it doesn’t have to be an all night affair."
And, although some tasting menus are pre-set, many restaurants offer the consumer an opportunity to customize the offerings.
At Bacchus, a simple call ahead will allow the chef to design a menu that accommodates just about any sort of dietary restriction or preference.
"If they know ahead," Espinosa notes, "The chefs might pick up a particular ingredient at the farmer’s market. And it gives them time to thoughtfully revamp the menu to include really creative dishes."
Likewise, at Ardent, which offers an eight-course tasting menu, plus amuse bouche, mignardise and a take-home gift for $85 ($40 more for beverage pairings), the menu is adaptable if consumers give ample notice.
"Our approach is very personalized," says Carlisle. "We can ask questions about what they like and don’t like. If they say they want the tartare, we’ll put the tartare on their menu. We can also do vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free if they tell us ahead when they make their reservation."
Ultimately, chefs seem to agree that tasting menus provide the best possible consumer experience.
"A tasting menu benefits the customer more than anyone else," says Carlisle. "When I know my exact overhead and I know how many people I’m serving, I’m able to predict things accurately and I can bring in the best and freshest products available."
"We can use products that are unique, seasonal or in limited supply. And we have the creative flexibility to really put out some of the best dishes we can."
For those who love wine, tasting menus also provide an upgraded experience.
"We can open bottles that aren’t ordinarily available by the glass," Espinosa notes. "We’re able to feature unique wines and a variety of limited edition bottles."
And unique offerings are, to great extent, what tasting menus are all about.
"The a la carte menu at Ardent is filled with staples," says Carlisle. "But the adventurous dishes are going on the tasting menu. I may only get a bit of a product and then we make it until it sells out. Same with the wine list. We may bring in more rare bottles that we want – and there may only be three bottles available. So, we’ll add that to the pairings on the tasting menu."
Fortunately, restaurants are seeing an increased number of diners opting for the tasting menu.
"In general, we’re seeing a more educated clientele," Wirth says. "They know what good food is, and they’re willing to take the leap and entrust me with giving them a great experience. And that’s great to see. It’s a really great way to try things you might never have ordered, but that you end up really enjoying."
Wirth says they’re also seeing an increasing number of guests visiting from northern Illinois, since tasting menus in Milwaukee are significantly less expensive and "just as good" as those found in Chicago.
So, will we see tasting menus popping up everywhere? Probably not.
"It doesn’t work for every restaurant," explains Carlisle. "It has to fit your mold … flow with what you’re doing. And it has to fit with your clientele. Larger restaurants who are pushing out hundreds and hundreds of plates every night can’t always pull it off."
At Ardent, on the other hand, Carlisle says the tasting menu option is ideal, since the restaurant is so intimate, and he’d love to make the conversion to tasting menu only.
"Will it happen? I don’t know," he says. "But it’s a good fit for what we do. After all, I’m right there, cooking in front of them. Nothing is hiding. We have a dialog. And either myself or Chef Patin are serving and walking you through the dishes. That brings comfort and reassurance. Other places have to play off of the menu and give a little bit of a safety net."
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.