Do you opt for a tasting menu when you go to a restaurant or do you order from the À la carte section?
A tasting menu is a good bet when you are alone and are not sure what to order and want to try a variety of dishes. Come to think of it, the good old Indian thali is a sort of tasting menu too!
The flip side of a tasting menu is that it includes many courses, even if in small portions. This often confuses my palate at least. In fact, I have often felt very physically tired at the end of a multi-coursed tasting menu.
The advantage of going to a restaurant in a group is that you can choose a variety of dishes and taste them all. You can choose the dishes you want to eat, which is not always the case with tasting menus that often don’t have the more expensive dishes included. Or might not have meats that you like – there will usually be more chicken than pork in a tasting menu. From an economics point of view, you could concentrate your spend on one or two dishes of your choice, even if they are more expensive, rather than go for a tasting menu where there could be some hits and some misses. If you order À la carte, you are not forced to have a dessert if you don’t want to, unlike in a tasting menu.
The problem with À la carte, though, is how to figure out what to order. Especially if it is a menu you are not familiar with. You can either hope that you know someone who has eaten at the restaurant you have gone to. And it has to be someone whose tastes you can trust. Or you look up online and find critics or bloggers whose opinion you can depend on. Or look to social media and tweet or ask on Facebook for suggestions.
What helps is if a restaurant menu has detailed explanations of the food. There are some non-English speaking countries with high tourist inflows, where they put the picture of a dish in the menu. Articulate wait staff who can answer your questions are a help. You can only hope that they are honest and are not trying to push fish that has been sitting in the fridge for six months.
I had recently gone to Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra for lunch with Romy Hardeep Gill, who runs an Indian restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen, in Bristol, and was joined by a friend of hers.
Since there were three of us, I suggested we skip the tasting menus which the wait staff initially pushed.
Luckily, the menu descriptions were elaborate and the staff was articulate, and we landed some good picks. I had a headache when I reached, which the deliciously creamy tomato soup (made with Italian San Marzano tomatoes) with a potent chilli hit chased away. We tried the lamb chops cooked with kokum (popular in Goa), maple syrup and Indian spices, which was similar to the Bengali pach phoron mix. The lamb was cooked to a nice level of tenderness and the interplay of flavours was delightful. Romy wanted a traditional rice dish before she headed back to the UK and the masaledar biryani with lamb shanks hit the spot. And then we tried the gucchi mushrooms wrapped in bacon and were bowled over by the flavours that, as the cliché goes, exploded in our mouths. We skipped dessert, smiled indulgently at – and were not distracted by – the foams, ras malai globules and frozen mishti doi, and, most importantly, ate well.
A few days before the Masala Library meal, my wife treated me to a meal at the Zodiac Grill at the Taj Mahal Palace during a staycation there. Again, we skipped the tasting menu and ordered À la carte. We were aided in our order by a smiling Dominic, who has worked at Zodiac Grill since its inception. We were again very happy with our orders of the classic camembert dariole (strongly recommended by Dominic), creamed crab meat, Chilean sea bass with three different purees and the slow cooked duck (delightfully tender). We skipped dessert, though they got us some on the house. We spent as much on our meal as we would have on two tasting menus, but felt happy that we binged (the dinner cost as much as our staycation at the Taj Mahal Palace did) on dishes of our choice rather than on dishes chosen for us.
So be brave and go À la carte is my motto. What do you prefer?
Follow Kalyan Karmakar @ Finelychopped
Kalyan Karmakar authors the popular award winning blog, Finely Chopped and is an authority on the food of Mumbai. His extensive knowledge of the city's food scene has been featured in publications such as Femina, Mumbai Mirror and BCC Good Food. He was one of the founding critics of EazyDiner's Mumbai team.