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You don’t hear the term degustation menu much in this century. But the concept survives as the ‘tasting menu’. This is a meal of many small (well, smaller) courses where the chef shows off his signature dishes.
Gresham Fernandes, executive chef of the Impressario Group which owns the Smokehouse Delis and Social has studied the format till he feels that he knows it backwards. He gives us his five tips for judging a tasting menu:
• Does the meal conform to an identifiable style, be it local, seasonal or technique-based? No? That means that the chef himself doesn’t have a clue. Not a very promising sign.
• Is there an element of surprise? Is nostalgia inserted obliquely yet cleverly, for a hint of comfort food, particularly where you least expect it? Is there a playful element or one where, say, bacon is infused in a gelato or popcorn stages a sudden appearance?
• Is the placement of dishes in the sequence interesting, or at least, is the entire meal easy to eat? Too many filling courses at the beginning followed by endless servings that arrive one after the other relentlessly militates against the very concept of a degustation meal.
• Does fish follow fowl with a few vegetable courses in between, or is it a meat marathon from beginning to end?
• Lastly, warns Fernandes; is the high point of the meal in the middle? Ideally, it should arrive by course 5, after which every successive plate ought to be lighter and lighter.