The day I discovered dinners of many courses was the day I became a gourmet. Although the closest we came to today’s chef’s tasting menus was with the table d’hote dinners in unreconstructed restaurants like Tujague’s and Maylie’s, there was something about the idea that locked me into that style of dining. Six or so small courses, each one touching a different part of one’s appetite, seemed to bring even ordinary food up to a higher level of dining.
The chef’s tasting menu or menu degustation came from France, where it has long been around. It caught on in this country in the middle 1980s, when New Orleans had the largest population of extremely ambitious restaurants in its history. It takes an advanced kitchen to serve a tasting dinner well. It can’t just be a bunch of regular menu items pulled together. A degustation should be composed primarily of ingredients that only show up once in awhile, cooked using recipes not often employed. It’s an adventure in dining, one that’s easier to undertake when you know that if you don’t like one of the courses, you have plenty more to before and after.
If a restaurant offers a tasting menu, it will almost always be the best possible choice. Although it’s usually a value compared with a la carte ordering of a comparable meal, it’s usually the most expensive dining strategy. The going price these days is between $75 and $125 per person. Paired wine with the courses kicks it up half again as high. But even if you go to the restaurant involved often, the experience is more memorable for being an infrequent indulgence.
For the greatest enjoyment, you have to let go the reins and let the chef completely take over. Be open to new foods and presentations. And don’t fight that rule that says the whole table has to get the tasting menu. Tasting menus are difficult for restaurants to cook and serve, and the load has to be spread out for it to work.
One interesting secret of tasting menus: almost any restaurant in the gourmet category will do one for you with a little advanced planning. (And sometimes even on the spur of the moment.)
Here are what I think are the city’s dozen best tasting menus at this moment. Prices given have a way of changing.
1. Square Root. Uptown 1: Garden District & Environs: 1800 Magazine St. 504-309-7800. Chef Phillip Lopez’s laboratory of cooking is unique among New Orleans restaurants in that the chef’s tasting menu is the entgire menu. No a la carte at all. The logic of that is the same as that of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band: if you play only one track of it, you miss the whole point of the work. The dinner here is $95 on weekdays, and $150 on weekends. Paired wines are available at extra cost. The dinner will be unforgettable, if a big overstaged here and there.
2. Commander’s Palace. Garden District: 1403 Washington Ave. 504-899-8221. This started as the dinner served to people at the chef’s table in the kitchen. Then everybody wanted it. The Chef’s Playground menu (that’s what they call it) is $75, and usually runs six courses long. It’s thoroughly exciting, and goes a long way in explaining why some of us think Commander’s is New Orleans’s best restaurant.
3. Restaurant August. CBD: 301 Tchoupitoulas. 504-299-9777. Restaurant August’s tasting menu has long been the the highest expression of the restaurant’s standards. In its most extreme form, Chef John Besh cooks in an apartment on the third floor, and it becomes almost a cooking class as well as a dinner. The six-course dinner has moved well past the $100 mark, but the wines are priced attractively. The dinner is devised a la minute with the day’s best ingredients. A recent addition to the menu is a vegetarian degustation, easily good enough for a carnivore to enjoy.
4. Windsor Court Grill Room. CBD: 300 Gravier. 504-522-1994. The degustation at the Grill Room is the longest-running such meal in New Orleans, going back to the hotel restaurant’s opening in 1984. It’s so attractive that I feel cheated when I don’t get it. Although the procession of chefs who have come and gone have kept the menu from settling down into a groove, the food itself has be reliably excellent, and worth the lofty price. Service is the one part of the program that hasn’t come together.
5. Le Foret. CBD: 129 Camp. 504-553-6738. The funny thing about the tasting menu at Le Foret is that I’ve never ordered it. Not because it didn’t sound good, but because the menu changes so frequently that I prefer to make up my own degustation. However, the nightly table d’hote is enticing and full of first-class (if not especially exotic) groceries.
6. Cafe Giovanni. French Quarter: 117 Decatur. 504-529-2154. Once you get past the fact that Chef Duke will serve you far too much food (don’t clean every plate), you will enjoy a startling breadth of flavors and cooking styles. The price starts at around $55 and rises, depending on the point in the meal you cry uncle. He’ll keep cooking as long as you keep eating (and paying).
7. Tujague’s. French Quarter: 823 Decatur. 504-525-8676. Serving what is perhaps the oldest tasting menu in America, Tujague’s came into being in 1856. For many decades it served a table d’hote dinner of Creole-French food to the businessmen working on the riverfront. That menu remains, if much evolved and a little attenuated. It begins with the excellent shrimp remoulade, followed by the soup of the day. The famous boiled beef brisket with horseradish sauce comes next, followed by the entree of the day. The dessert, and coffee served in a glass. But things have changed for the better during the past year. Although the above dinner is still available, the menu has grown in both variety and goodness. And they will be happy to construct a tasting menu with the new food.
8. Emeril’s. Warehouse District & Center City: 800 Tchoupitoulas. 504-528-9393. Emeril’s chef’s tasting menu is made up on the fly. All you need do is ask them to construct such a meal (particularly if you arrange this in advance), they will make it happen. Lately, however, they’ve installed a once-a-month (third Thursday) tasting menu with the added benefit of an attractive price, around $60. It’s served at the food bar, so you see the food being assembled, too.
9. Impastato’s. Metairie: 3400 16th St. 504-455-1545. The lowest price on a five-course meal in New Orleans is the dinner at Impastato’s. It follows the pattern you see when dining in a first-class restaurant in Italy. That begins with something cold–seafood or prosciutto are the most common. Then a small course of pasta, followed by a salad. Then an entree that could be almost anything. Dessert or cheese (or both) finished the evening. With a few modifications, that’s what you get for around $35 at Impastato’s. Regardless of the goodness of the entree, you may find the pasta dish best of all.
10. Dakota. Covington: 629 N US 190. 985-892-3712. The tasting menu blends the restaurant’s signature dishes with a few seasonal specials. It goes for around $75, and at that strikes me as a bargain. Adding the wines on for another $50 or so brings forth Ken Lacour’s latest finds, which will introduce you to some new wines. The best service on the North Shore complete an enticing prospect.
11. Vega Tapas Cafe. Old Metairie: 2051 Metairie Rd. 504-836-2007. As the restaurant’s name implies, its menu is almost entirely of small plates. Indulging in a dinner of four or more courses is easy both in terms of size and price. The menu changes regularly, and the variety of ingredients, seasonings, and cooking techniques is very broad.
12. Tony Angello’s. Lakeview: 6262 Fleur de Lis Dr. 504-488-0888. Tony Angello’s invented the chef’s feed-me dinner as we know it in New Orleans today. Several configurations are available, with more or fewer courses. But the main running of the food brings about a dozen ite,s to the table in three or four courses, made up of the best specials of the day mixed into the famous standards. It’s never brilliant, but somehow it’s hard to leave here unhappy.