Tasting Menus That Taste Good
Bloated, world-weary restaurant critics dislike tasting menus as a rule. They tend to be overwrought, overpriced, and time-consuming, and rarely reflect the true quality of a restaurant’s day-to-day cooking. Not so anymore. In this nouveau-comfort-food era, ambitious chefs are leaving simpler recipes to their regular menus, or even abandoning them, and pouring their creative energies into omakase-style tasting dinners. To experience the leading edge of this mini culinary boom, take the A train across the river to César Ramirez’s quirky eighteen-seat Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, set among the gloomy office blocks of Downtown Brooklyn. The service and attitude at this effete little Michelin-approved establishment can be brusque, and until a liquor license is secured, you have to bring your own bottle of wine. But there is no house corkage fee, and $135 buys a twenty-course extravaganza filled with unexpected Manhattan-style delicacies like frizzled blowfish tails touched with saffron, rose-colored lobster claws paired ingeniously with bits of grapefruit, and little thimblefuls of smoked brandade that the chef buries, in high gourmet style, under drifts of smoky truffles flown in from Italy.
Over at Mario Batali’s newly remodeled, aggressively opulent fine-dining palace Del Posto, the meal that has Italian-food fanatics rhapsodizing is the $125 seven-course tasting menu, which includes a daintily arranged selection of antipasti served tableside; a small, pleasingly dense block of Mark Ladner’s legendary 100-layer lasagne; and strips of pink veal tenderloin placed on polenta. But for a more intimate tasting feast, Ms. Platt and I prefer to repair to Anita Lo’s great West Village restaurant, Annisa. The tiny jewel-box room on Barrow Street burned down two years ago but reopened last spring with a calming new feng shui–approved look and an entirely reworked menu. For a relatively modest $95, you can enjoy a seven-course Asian-fusion feast, which includes escargot sunk in bacon cream, segments of poached lobster and buttery sablefish marinated in miso, and an elegant ricotta-laced strawberry mille-feuille.
You’ll get a similarly cozy, carefully constructed meal at the little hole-in-the-wall West Village restaurant Recette, where Jesse Schenker and his band of tattooed cooks offer two nightly tasting options (five courses for $75, seven for $100). Both are filled with inventive “urban contemporary” versions of ancient French classics like crunchy sweetbreads drizzled with brown butter, squares of arctic char dabbed with beet sorbet, and, for dessert, featherlight beignets stuffed with deposits of cassis-spiked raspberry jam. But the most inspired prix-fixe experiment in town these days is the one being served in the grand vaulted dining room at Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park, where the cutting-edge gourmet wizard Daniel Humm has transformed his entire menu into an inventive Rubik’s Cube of tasting delights. Instead of one standard omakase dinner, Humm offers a choice of several market-driven ingredients (prawns, scallops, lobster, etc.), which you can order in endless unexpected combinations. My recent four-course lunch included a delicate crab roulade wrapped in avocado, lobster knuckles sweetened with figs, and little blocks of pork (belly and loin poured with a guanciale-infused jus) so artfully constructed that I was moved to do what many of the contemporary connoisseurs in the room were doing. I took out my iPhone and snapped a picture of it.