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Reinventing the Tasting Menu

Pumpkin dumplings

At his celebrated Asian brasserie DaiLo, chef Nick Liu began a recent tasting menu with plump lime leaves stuffed with lemongrass and coconut caramel.

Tamari-glazed beef carpaccio, smoked miso-poached oysters and pumpkin dumplings dusted in black truffle, their insides as rich and succulent as Japanese wagyu, follow shortly thereafter.

The meal is the definition of gastronomic decadence. And yet Liu’s menu takes no more than an hour to complete—and costs just $65 per person.

“We’ve done our best to keep the price point affordable because doing the tasting menu is the best way to experience DaiLo,” says Liu.

At PiDGin in Vancouver, chef Wesley Young’s menu degustation echoes a similar down-to-earth ethos. The eclectic meal features a mélange of Japanese, Korean and French influences, often resulting in unexpected delicacies like potato udon noodles spiked with fiery spicy cod roe and nori butter. Its eight courses run just $55.

Not so long ago, tasting menus meant something different. At their best, they allowed great chefs to state their case over as many as 15 meticulously prepared courses, transfixing diners with inspired wine pairings along the way. But at their more frequent worst, the drawn-out proceedings saw meals dragging on for hours beyond their welcome—with chefs charging hundreds of dollars for the privilege of showing off at your expense. They fell out of vogue for good reason.

Now, a terrific new generation of chefs, like Liu in Toronto and Young in Vancouver, are reinventing the tasting menu in a curtailed, accelerated and affordable new format. In the process, they are rediscovering the pleasures of the form, treating diners to all the best that a restaurant has to offer—without taxing their patience or their wallets.

“We want our guests to come in and not worry about rushing through the courses or figuring out what to order,” says Young. “We want people to visit us and have a great meal any night of the week.”

“With our tasting menu, “ Liu adds, “our whole aim is to not rip people off .” To which we can only add, “Hear, hear!” — Claudia McNeilly