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How to sample a tasting menu

Anoothi Vishal | December 20, 2005

A lot of people (privately) think 'degustation' sounds mildly disgusting. But now that the fashionable sets in Delhi and Mumbai are rolling the word with considerable ease, it is time that you and I, as the evening is spread out against the sky (with apologies to Eliot), take the discussion forward.

The French term is a synonym for savouring; indeed, the literal meaning is 'taking a small amount into the mouth.' So the common perception that here is a multi-tiered course-by-course meal served up in tiny plates is not wrong at all, whatever Suvir Saran says.

The New York chef, who offers a 'tasting menu' at his Delhi restaurant, Veda, was at pains to establish some time ago that degustation may not necessarily involve bite-sized portions -- it could even come football-plate sized. I can't see the point.

Anyway, to get back to the point and genealogy, introduced in Europe, the tasting menu was apparently the epitome of bohemian indulgence till it made it to hoity-toity tables across the Atlantic and became a statement of fine-dining.

Irreverent souls these days dub it 'fleecing' menu, especially since it can be quite a moneyspinner for restaurants making use of smaller cuts and 'extras' that would otherwise go waste, a fact that has been pointed out by writer Shobha Narayan in her excellent article for Gourmet magazine.

Narayan speaks to chefs and customers alike; artistic creators seeking to express their vision on a plate and the (gullible?) souls who pay for it eventually, sums that they'd otherwise blanch at forking out for a la carte meals.

All this reading has made me suitably cynical as I get ready to sample the 'symphony' -- a 16-course tasting menu; actually four courses with four dishes each -- created by new chef Saby at Olive, New Delhi.

The restaurant is as charming as ever, candles and bonfire casting a glamorous glow. A glass of Sula sauvignon blanc later, I feel considerably mellower. But I swear that has nothing to do with the fact that I am going to be raving now: The meal is fabulous.

Each morsel offers a distinct flavour, texture, colour. Saby is a genius, at least tonight, his main course of orange-tomato-vodka glazed chicken on sauteed spinach, inspired.

None of the dishes are on the regular menu -- that is what makes a tasting menu different from degustation, says Saby, who has worked in Australia and seen much of Jap-French aesthetics at work.

While the concept started off as degustation, where restaurants offered a sampling of their regular menu in smaller portions, the current rage is a tasting menu, ideally an expression of the chef's talent and vision as separate from the restaurant's a la carte fare.

To rustle this up would put additional pressure on the kitchen, but then this is why a guest would consider paying so much for a meal -- Rs 1,495 plus taxes here.

Whether or not you agree with Saby's finer classifications, his is exactly what a tasting menu should be.

So the chef gets to dictate what you eat. But he can be a benevolent dictator. You are allowed to make reasonable requests, add or subtract to a recipe and indicate if you don't eat a particular meat. You can also choose how much you eat.

The portions look deceptively small and, by the time you get through, you could have stuffed yourself silly, but just in case you want seconds, don't hesitate to ask.

An ideal tasting menu should have an element of surprise to break the monotony of the courses; Saby offers sorbets -- blue curacao and lime, green apple and mint -- as much for this as to cleanse guest palates before introducing dramatic new flavours. And to offer breathing space.

Now that's something khao-piyo-khisko Delhi diners need amply.

Five-hour, 19-course marathons at restaurants such as the French Laundary in Napa Valley are legendary, but to chain guests to their seats for even two-and-a-half hours is difficult.

If you are one of those who can't help but take a cigarette break, try not to do so while a course is underway. Since none of the food is precooked and helpings for each guest must arrive at the same time, one guest playing truant can throw the kitchen into chaos.

Narayan recounts an incident at Daniel. Two patrons get up to use the restroom. In the kitchen, the chef has just put the black sea bass to cook. The dish needs precisely two minutes on high heat.

As soon as the manager sees the guests get up, he gives the stop signal. But it is too late. The fish is cooking, the chef harried. 'Are they ladies?' he asks. The logic being that a lady takes longer. They aren't. The meal is saved.

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Number of User Comments: 1

Sub: degustation

all the names mentioned are unknown to me. but i thought it would not be out of place mention meals served traditionally in karnataka brahmins'homes ...

Posted by prasad


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