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Tasting menus gain popularity among diners, chefs

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

(Photo:Marigold Kitchen)

America’s foodies have educated themselves about different cuisines and exotic ingredients through travel, food TV shows, social sharing sites and even old-fashioned word-of-mouth, and the most adventurous among them are fueling the rising popularity of chefs’ tasting menus. Paradoxically, the more they know, the more many want to be surprised and delighted rather than dictate each course.

Chefs Andrew Kochan and Tim Lanza bought Philadelphia’s Marigold Kitchen this year from founder Rob Halpern, who spent five years building a following for the eatery’s tasting menu. The partners are carrying on the tradition Halpern started, along with Chef Keith Krajewski and General Manager Christopher Albert.

“We’re doing the same thing as the previous owner, it’s something bold and unique, but we have tweaked it in our own way,” said Lanza.

Marigold Kitchen offers a 14-course tasting menu for $90 per person, with seasonal offerings that change at least four and as many as six times a year, Lanza said. Last-minute changes are always a possibility if ingredients run short, he said. but careful ordering typically keeps the menu on track, with very little going to waste. It’s a sizable tab that looks relatively modest compared to tasting menus at restaurants including French Laundry in California and New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, where the per-person price tops $200.

Some restaurants, including Rioja and Panzano in Denver, offer a chef’s tasting menu alongside the traditional menu. “There seem to be a lot of fine dining places offering tasting menus and tasting menus paired with wines for a fixed price,” said restaurant consultant John Imbergamo, who represents both of the Denver eateries.

But Marigold Kitchen is one of the high-end eateries that offer only the chef’s tasting menu, a trend Newsweek’s Bruce Palling called “the biggest change in fine dining in recent years,” in an article last month.

“Chefs love it when the guest puts the meal in the chef’s hands. They can offer more of the menu and even go ‘off menu’ to accommodate special requests. Tasting menus provide the kind of meal that chefs like to explore,” Imbergamo said.

Guests love it for the same reason, said Lanza. “It allows them not to have to think, they can just come in and sit down and enjoy,” a meal that often lasts for more than two hours, he said.

The quartet of twentysomethings at Marigold Kitchen are in the process of putting together the winter menu this week, brainstorming ideas and recipes based on the season’s best ingredients, coming up with new recipes and putting their own stamp on old standards. This time around, the fall ravioli will be filled with a pureed roasted pumpkin combined with a gel that turns it into a liquid. “It’s like a sauce within the ravioli,” he said.

Certain fish are also good for the winter menu, along with hearty meats such as lamb and venison, which work well with Mediterranean flavors, he said.

In his Newsweek piece, Palling raised the concern that the tasting menu takes away the customer’s choice. At Marigold Kitchen that doesn’t seem to be a concern, even when the group includes guests with special requirements. Customers with food allergies, gluten-free eaters and vegetarians — but not vegans — can enjoy tasting menus tailored to their special needs, Lanza said, especially when those needs are made clear when reservations are made.

When people call to make a reservation, they’ll speak with the general manager, who asks about allergies and food aversions. Then, the chefs will tweak the menus to make sure everyone gets a full 14 courses.

“If we have that information ahead of time, we can sit down and create a menu that accommodates those people, so when they sit down, we have menu that’s right for that person,” Lanza said. “Sometimes people are very difficult to accommodate, but for the most part, for the adventurous foodie, it’s a great way to explore.”

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