"It's a summary of what a chef can offer." Alain Ducasse
"the bloated rock operas of the culinary realm," Jeff Gordinier - Esquire
Last night was our wedding anniversary dinner out. It wasn't actually our anniversary - that's next Tuesday, but our chosen favourite fine dining experience - Mercer's Restaurant, right here in Eltham, about which I have written before, is closed on Tuesdays, and so we opted for earlier rather than later which was getting too close to Christmas. And here is a word of advice to anyone contemplating marriage. Do not get married around Christmas time. Not if you want to celebrate anniversaries without stress. Restaurants get booked up well in advance at this time of the year. If your anniversary is just after Christmas then lots of them have closed down for the holidays. Plus it's just one end of year celebration too many and can lead to frayed tempers and bad experiences - not last night however.
At this moment in time Mercer's is only offering a dégustation menu, which is not normally our thing, so I was a little nervous about it, particularly on David's behalf because he is rather fussier than I. And indeed there were prawns on the menu but a quick telephone call to advise that prawns were not a desired item for one of us, fixed the problem and he was served a most wonderful carrot soup instead. Stephen Mercer, who did the rounds after the meal said that it was entirely made from just carrots and butter. Probably not quite right - there must have been some kind of liquid in there surely? Mind you he shouldn't have told David that because he decided this morning that this had really been too rich and made him feel slightly queasy.
As to the prawns - specifically - 'Malaysian dancing prawns on fried eggplant salad with a mild chilli glaze' - they were just divine. Tiny pieces of eggplant, really juicy and tasty prawns, and that curled biscuity thing? I believe it's Stephen Mercer's signature dish. And if you ever go there, do give it a go.
And that is what a dégustation menu is supposed to do - show off the skills of the chef.
This kind of menu seems to have begun back in the 60s and 70s in France with the new breed of celebrity chefs - Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse et al.
"The prevailing thought was that if they were the experts, why leave the choosing of the food to those less educated about it? It marked the beginnings of the cult of the chef, and the restaurant's movement from somewhere that you go to eat to somewhere you go for both an experience and an education." Mike Gibson - Foodism
Those earlier huge banquets of the middle ages on are not really the same thing as all the dishes were full-size if not oversized. The dégustation menu is supposed to consist of small, even tiny plates of perfection. A mere two or three bites of contrasting dishes that tell a story. Beginning light, progressing up to heavier darker things before winding down through cheese and dessert. And most often accompanied by wines chosen to bring out the best in both the wine and the food. A curated occasion, often accompanied by theatrical performance. I read somewhere that in one such restaurant the waiters had had movement training so that they could move gracefully through the restaurant at all times. And I have to say that our meal at Vue de Monde some years ago now, will remain in my memory forever because of the theatrics of the occasion - the escorted entrance through the wine cellar, the table setting with its elemental rock holders and containers, the view, and the at the table performances that punctuated the meal. And that wasn't actually a dégustation menu, although one was available. But even the à la carte selection that we had was punctuated by little extras and performances. And it cost a lot - well for us anyway. To my mind worth every penny (and more) although my somewhat stingier husband, who is also not so much into food as entertainment, probably didn't feel quite the same. He remembers it though.
Generally speaking, as I said, the dishes in a dégustation menu are tiny. Apparently humans suffer from palette fatigue - after two or three bites we have had enough of that taste and become bored. I'm really not sure about that. I remember a dish that we had at Lake House in Daylesford of beef cooked three, or maybe four ways. Each part was so small that often it was only just over one bite - not enough to fully enjoy it seemed to me. And not enough to even fully appreciate the taste. On a dégustation menu of tiny courses you may have up to around 20 courses. How would you remember each one I wonder? All that work for one bite does seem the ultimate in waste.
"The truth is that few chefs have enough good ideas to sustain that many plates and if you do get something good, it’s tiny and therefore gone far too quickly." Jay Rayner - The Guardian
Stephen and Ute Mercer I think have got it right. Their dégustation menu was six courses plus an appetiser - a few tiny mouthfuls of pumpkin soup with an almond mousse on top. Each of the dishes on the menu proper, like the prawns shown above was rather more than tiny but not quite a full size meal I suppose. The tomato salad, was small, and exquisite - a mousse, a sorbet (tiny), fresh tomatoes with feta, the duck risotto was small and served in a small glass with a spoon but the beef was a reasonable size, like the prawns. The cheese and pears were the normal size for a cheese course it seemed to me as was the dessert. As to the wines - the servings, for a tasting menu, were generous and I probably drank too much, though just not too too much. They were interesting too, and I shall perhaps write about a couple another time. Suffice to say that the French rosé was somehow, so French.
Mercer's like many restaurants in Melbourne was in crisis at the beginning of the COVID lockdown, but the lovely Ute who runs the front of house, came up with the idea of the luxury dinner at home - which I have written about before. They were some of the first in Melbourne to come up with the concept - one which has been copied elsewhere, and resulted in Shane Delia's sort of clearing house for such things, called Providore (also written about before).
Some of the restaurants simply provided take-away, but Stephen and Ute made you do a little bit of work yourself, with the help of an instructional video, including how to plate it up and make it look beautiful. It was such a success that, due to demand, they are continuing on with it even though the restaurant is now open as usual. When Stephen talked to us after the meal he said that this particular service had saved them really and enabled them to keep staff and carry on trading. Otherwise they may well have had to close down.
As well as providing a stage for the talents of the chef, a dégustation menu also saves money and prevents wastage. When you have a set menu such as that you know exactly how many portions of a particular dish you are going to serve and can thus make all sorts of savings. Some see this as cynical and exploitative:
"By entirely removing choice from diners, [tasting menus] enable chefs to dazzle their guests with their skills, ideas, inspirations (and egos), but from a more cynical perspective, the bite-sized courses are an easy way for chefs to reduce waste and make a bit of money." Kahmira Gander - The Independent
But surely it's a good thing. I have often wondered how a restaurant can provide a longish menu with only a limited number of diners and therefore the potential for lots of leftover fresh fish for example. These days we are increasingly conscious of the wastage problem, and no matter how well a restaurant may be able to guess at how much fish, how much meat, how many strawberries, etc. they need, they will surely never get it completely right. Wastage is not only no good for the environment, it is also costly - money down the drain - or in the bin anyway. And if they err on the side of caution they may well run out of something and that is never a good look.
So from an environmental (and commercial) point of view perhaps a dégustation menu is a good thing. And it's also a good thing in that you get to try things that you might not have chosen otherwise - like the duck risotto - so scrumptious that I vowed there and then to have a go at duck some time soon.
"Tasting menus force you out of your comfort zone. You eat things you wouldn’t otherwise order and, ideally, love them. Rather than inducing ‘palate fatigue’, the best tasting menus are an exhilarating sequence of intense hit ’n’ run flavours. Is that not what all foodies crave? Moreover, those miniaturised dishes will have been painstakingly practised until the kitchen can deliver them with unerring consistency. If I’m dropping big bucks on a special occasion, that perfectionism is a definite positive." Tony Naylor - BBC Good Food
What do I think about it? Well as long as you check in advance what is on that menu, and as long as you have the option to let the restaurant know that you can't eat those prawns, I guess they are a fantastic thing - but for a special occasion because they are expensive. Mercer's is not the top end of price - you can spend hundreds of dollars on such meals , but it's not something you would do every week either. Particularly if you go for the wine dégustation that goes with it - and you should.
However, I would have thought that for restaurateurs there is another alternative for the everyday kind cafe. Just change your menu frequently - every day, every week ... but don't give people a choice. Maybe just keep the odd favourite dish or feature it every now and then. This happens a lot in France. No perhaps not a lot. Generally there is an alternative à la carte menu but that tends to be more expensive. And in France it is obligatory to have your menu displayed outside the restaurant, and so as a consumer you can wander the streets looking for the menu that suits both your tastes and your pocket. And some of those menus even give you perhaps an either/or choice for the main course. A bet each way in a sense, so probably not an awful lot of saving of money and materials on the part of the restaurant.
There are some places though - particularly hotels - where the menu changes each day and you just get what they are cooking that day. No choice at all. A tiny bit risky I suppose but once again you might find yourself eating something you thought you never would and actually enjoying it. I know that some of the best meals we have eaten in France have been this type.
From a chef's point of view I have often thought it must be incredibly boring churning out the same meals day in day out, year in year out. You may have a special of the day to break the tedium, but lots don't. Maybe Stephen and Ute Mercer are amongst those who have triumphed over adversity by thinking outside the box.