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  Nibbled to Death


  ONE of the most inviting openings to a restaurant meal I’ve ever heard came when I had closed the menu at Bouley and a server asked,“What shall we cook for you this evening?”The question managed to suggest that my choices would bring the kitchen intense pleasure,and that the pleasure would be returned to me many times over.


  Compare this with the words of another server this year at an unnamed restaurant that offered tasting menus of several lengths.When I said I would tackle the whole megillah,a 12-course$245 spectacular,this was the response:“O.K.,I’ll go get that started for you.”


  If the server at Bouley had made me a partner in an imminent adventure,this one turned me into a cog in an invisible machine.The machine would operate for a fixed length of time,and my function would be to eat anything it produced until the gears stopped turning and I was allowed to leave.


  Not all tasting menus get off to such an awkward start.Even so,when I face a marathon of dishes chosen by the restaurant,I often feel the same trapped,helpless sensation.



  In the hands of a chef who grasps the challenges and possibilities of the form,a tasting menu can yield a succession of delights that a shorter meal could never contain.


  At other times,though,the consumer of such a meal may feel as much like a victim as a guest.The reservation is hard won,the night is exhausting,the food is cold,the interruptions are frequent.The courses blur,the palate flags and the check stings.


  I’m getting used to that sting.Across the country,expensive tasting-menu-only restaurants are spreading like an epidemic.


  This year in New York,two such places were born,Atera and Blanca,while two other restaurants,Eleven Madison Park and WD-50,dropped theiràla carte menus in favor of all-or-nothing tastings.

  今年在紐約誕生了兩個這樣的餐廳——Atera和Blanca;還有兩家餐廳——Eleven Madison Park和WD-50——摒棄了單點菜單,轉而采用“要么不點,要么全點”的精選菜單。

  Many of these restaurants are hits,with long waiting lists for their limited number of seatings.They have been hailed by critics(including this one)and by Restaurant Magazine’s suspect-but-influential ranking of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.The Michelin Guide to New York,published last week,piled on,awarding three such restaurants three stars,pinning two stars on two more,and giving one star to two others.

  很多這樣的餐廳都是熱門餐廳,座位有限,等待的客人有一長串。這些餐廳都是被美食評論家(包括在下)以及《餐廳雜志》(Restaurant Magazine)那份雖然值得懷疑但是影響力很大的“全球50個最佳餐廳”,給捧起來的。上周出版的《米其林指南》(Michelin Guide)紐約分冊對這些餐廳也是大加贊揚,給了3家這樣的餐廳3星,兩家2星,還有兩家1星。

  A high-end anomaly a few years ago,three-or four-hour menus now look like the future of fine dining.Before corner delis begin parceling sandwiches into 18-course pastrami tastings,it’s worth asking if this is the future we want.


  I am not talking here about Japanese kaiseki or omakase menus.Both are old traditions with underlying structures that chefs and diners understand.The kind of tasting menu I mean is a younger,more free-form invention,championed at destination restaurants like the French Laundry,Per Se,Noma and Alinea.Being so new,the genre has no rules and few limits.

  我這里所說的不是日本的懷石料理或者無菜單料理。這兩種料理有著悠久的傳統,廚師和用餐者對其深層結構心照不宣。而我所說的廚師精選菜單是一種更年輕的、形式更自由的發明,得到了一些值得專程前往的餐廳的支持,比如French Laundry,Per Se,Noma和Alinea。這種形式還很新,沒有什么規則和限制。

  This is a challenge no chef should saunter into casually.A restaurant whose sole product is an expensive,lengthy,take-it-or-leave-it meal sets a dauntingly high bar for itself.And a few of them vault right over it with a grace and agility that are truly thrilling.


  At Benu in San Francisco,Corey Lee’s menus are breathtaking explorations of the potential for treating Asian flavors with a modern American sensibility,and the look and flavor of each fresh course are surprising.In a quieter voice,Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood in St.Helena,Calif.,puts together menus that gently unfold as meditations on the season and the region.

  在舊金山的Benu餐廳,大廚科里·李(Corey Lee)的精選菜是一種非常驚險的嘗試,他用現代美國的口味偏好來料理亞洲美味;每一道新鮮的菜,從品相到口味,都讓人驚喜。加州圣赫勒拿的Restaurant at Meadowood餐廳的大廚克里斯托弗·考斯特(Christopher Kostow)用輕柔的調子,設計了一套菜肴,它緩緩地呈現出來,宛如對季節和地區的沉思錄。

  César Ramirez of the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare has an almost supernatural gift for seafood cookery and noncookery,assembling meals that build from a salvo of sashimi-like bites to more complex hot dishes,made with ingredients of staggering quality.Technical mastery and a sensitivity to nature’s forms distinguish Matthew Lightner’s tastings at Atera in Manhattan.

  Brooklyn Fare食品店的“大廚的餐桌”(Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare)餐廳的凱撒·拉米瑞茲(César Ramirez),在海鮮烹飪方面天賦異稟;他調配的一餐,從類似生魚片的菜肴開始,過渡到更復雜的熱菜,所用的原材料品質極好。曼哈頓Atera餐廳的大廚馬修·萊特納(Matthew Lightner)技藝精湛,對自然形式有靈敏的感知力,這讓他的精選菜與眾不同。

  The tasting menu reaches what may be its most sophisticated American form at Alinea in Chicago,where Grant Achatz composes meals that are almost like symphonies in their skillful manipulation of complexity,volume,tempo and harmony.

  芝加哥的Alinea餐廳的精選菜復雜而精致,可以說是美國菜式的巔峰之作,這里的大廚格蘭特·阿查茲(Grant Achatz)創作出的菜肴就像是一首交響樂,巧妙地處理了復雜、音量、節拍及和聲。

  In other cases,though,much of the work of clearing that high bar falls to the heaving,struggling patron.


  Making each course as different as possible from the last is not just a chance for chef to show off;it’s necessary to keep the diner’s attention.During an epic evening at Saison in San Francisco,I was often amazed by the way Joshua Skenes coaxed extra flavor from his ingredients through ancient means like dry-aging,curing,fermenting,smoking and grilling over fire.But some of the courses,more than 20 in all,were repetitive in ingredients or preparation,and others felt like padding.I walked out dazed when I could have been dazzled.

  讓每道菜盡可能跟上一道菜不同,不僅是大廚炫耀手藝的機會,也是出于始終吸引用餐者注意力的需要。在舊金山Saison餐廳那個漫長的晚上,大廚約書亞·斯基尼(Joshua Skenes)用一些古老的方法,比如風干、腌制、發酵、煙熏和火烤,讓他的原料迸發出更多的味道,這令我贊嘆不已。但是這20多道菜中有些菜在原料或制作方法上有些重復,還有些菜像是在湊數。我本可以在心滿意足的熏熏然中離開餐廳,而實際上卻是帶著昏沉沉的感覺離開的。

  Wylie Dufresne’s vision has been consistent from the day he opened WD-50 in 2003.But a recent tasting menu there was,perhaps,consistent to a fault.Almost every plate was composed the way Mr.Dufresne used to put together his appetizers and entrees when he still served them;nothing broke the pattern.Rather than using the tasting menu to tell a different story,WD-50 tells the same story more often.Mr.Dufresne is one of the least boring chefs in the country,and his plates never lack originality,but the shadow of monotony loomed over the meal by the end.

  從威利·杜弗雷斯內(Wylie Dufresne)2003年開始經營WD-50餐廳以來,他的愿景未曾變過。但是最近的精選菜是一種失誤。幾乎每道菜都是用杜弗雷斯內先生之前搭配開胃菜和主菜的方式做出來的;沒有哪道菜打破了那個模式。WD-50餐廳不是用精選菜講述不同的故事,而是把同一個故事重復了很多遍。杜弗雷斯內先生是美國最不乏味的大廚之一,他的菜肴從不缺乏新意,但是單調的陰影始終籠罩著這餐飯,直至結束。

  If a meal goes on for hours,even radical costume changes from course to course may not be enough.Daniel Humm has rounded up an amazing variety of ideas for his new$195 tastings at Eleven Madison Park.But I wasn’t sure why he was presenting so many at once.Some of the menu was based on classic New York dishes,but a lot wasn’t,and I struggled to find a single point of view.

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  如果一餐飯持續好幾個小時,那么即使每道菜在外觀上有很大的區別,也還是不夠。Eleven Madison Park餐廳的大廚丹尼爾·哈姆(Daniel Humm)在他新推出的195美元精選菜中融入的元素真是多得驚人。但是我不確定他為什么要一次推出這么多種類。有些是基于經典的紐約菜,但還有很多不是,我費盡腦筋也沒理出一條思路。

  The shapelessness of certain tasting menus might be blamed in part on a broken feedback loop.A restaurant that sells appetizers,main courses and entrees quickly learns which ones customers like.But one-bite dishes rarely come back to the kitchen untouched,so the chef has little chance to learn what customers think.Asking“How was everything?”of somebody who has just consumed 27 items isn’t likely to produce constructive criticism.


  These restaurants can deviate from old-fashioned notions of hospitality in other ways.The ideal of serving a hot meal has been increasingly a lost cause,given how quickly a morsel the size of a cat’s tongue will cool.


  The strangest of all the anti-hospitality gestures,though,is the delayed-bread power play.For centuries,good hosts have placed bread on the table.Blanca,Momofuku Ko and other restaurants do the same thing,and their bread is often superb,but the meal is about half over before it appears.When I’ve asked about this,I’ve been told that the chef didn’t want diners to fill up on bread.When did it become a restaurant’s job to keep its customers from feeling full?

  不過,其中最違反待客之道的,還當屬“延遲上面包”這個做法。幾個世紀以來,好客的主人們都是把面包擺在桌子上的。Blanca,Momofuku Ko和其他幾家餐廳也是這么做的,而且他們的面包一般都很美味,但是菜吃了一半多之后,面包才現身。我問起這件事的時候,他們告訴我大廚不想讓用餐者被面包填飽了肚子。從何時起,不讓顧客吃飽變成了餐館的責任?

  It’s rather unaccommodating when those customers are giving up unusual amounts of time,control and,of course,money.Dining at the upper tiers will never be cheap,but tasting menus have made some of the country’s greatest restaurants into luxury goods.A meal at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is now$225;it was$135 at the beginning of 2011.It’s true that Mr.Ramirez buys more expensive ingredients than he once did,but it’s also true that in the same period,accolades for the restaurant piled up while the number of seats remained constant at 18.

  顧客延長了用餐時間、放棄了對菜肴的選擇,當然也花了一大筆錢,這些都非常不人性化。在上等餐廳吃飯從來都不便宜,但是廚師精選菜已經讓美國的一些最棒的餐廳變成了最奢侈的餐廳。在Brooklyn Fare食品店的“大廚的餐桌”用餐,現在要花225美元;2011年初的時候是135美元。沒錯,拉米瑞茲先生購買了更多昂貴的原材料,但是還有一個原因是,在此期間,這家餐廳獲得的贊揚越來越多,而座位卻還是18個。

  A small restaurant serving a set menu to just a few customers each night can transcend the normal laws of restaurant economics.Everybody knows how much a plate of chicken should cost in a fancy New York restaurant,but what is the value of 30 courses you haven’t seen yet?You’re not buying 30 courses,of course.You’re buying a ticket to a show that is probably going to sell out,which leaves the restaurant free to charge scalper’s prices if it likes.


  It’s my job to urge readers to try the best,so I can’t feel good about watching great restaurants that were already serving an elite audience taking themselves further out of reach.(Several tasting-menu restaurants serve lower-priced options in their lounges;WD-50 also offers a shorter,cheaper tasting of its greatest hits over the years.)


  And the elite who now fill these dining rooms are a particular kind of diner,the big-game hunters out to bag as many trophy restaurants as they can.Another kind of eater,the lusty,hungry ones who keep a mental map of the most delicious things to eat around town,may be left outside.


  That’s one reason these dining rooms can feel less lively.A monoculture of earnest foodies has replaced the old biodiversity in which senior partners taking out the sales team from Atlanta would sit next to couples on blind dates.You can’t eat a meal like this with a passing acquaintance since you’ll be together for hours,but you can’t go with somebody you really want to talk to,either,since there’s little time between courses for sustained conversation.


  Once in a while,I’ve had tasting menus so extraordinary that none of these things seemed to matter.But the format presents formidable hurdles for customers and restaurants,enough to cause us to stop and wonder how many more meals like this we need.Not every novel should be“War and Peace.”Sometimes,enough really is enough.




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