Friday, September 02, 2005 | Clarification: Diners at George’s at the Cove can enjoy a tasting menu every evening.

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about tasting menus. Not only do diners not understand them, but chefs seem not to as well. What used to be a creative opportunity for a chef and diner alike has turned into a restaurant marketing tool.

I first came across tasting menus in Europe. The first time I dined at a fine restaurant in Paris, I noticed that the menu had a page with a specially printed eight-course menu. And, each course came with a paired wine. I was thrilled. Now I could taste many tantalizing dishes from the chef instead of just one or two. The waiter told me that this was the chef’s way of exposing diners to many dishes, and it also gave the chef an opportunity to be a bit adventurous. (This is also a way for a restaurant kitchen to use small amounts of leftover product in interesting ways.) These menus later became known as a Menus Degustation, or menus with many small tasting courses.

This type of dining was a more difficult sell in the United States. Americans were not used to the tiny portions associated with tasting menus, or some felt they simply couldn’t eat that much. But as food became more interesting to the general public, chefs became more daring. They wanted to play a bit in the kitchen and a tasting menu was the perfect tool. I’ve had many memorable tasting menus in this country. One of my favorites was at Gramercy Tavern in New York. Another was at Daniel Tru in Chicago, which offers a vegetarian tasting menu that, to me, was more interesting than the one with meat, fish and poultry. Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller have been known for years for their elaborate tasting menus.

So what about San Diego? How are we matching up? Unfortunately, many restaurants market a three-course menu, which includes an appetizer, main course and dessert as a tasting menu. The restaurant puts a promotional price on the three courses and calls it a tasting menu. Unfortunately for the diner, these may be economically prudent, but they are anything but adventure from the kitchen. A true tasting menu brings the talent of the chef alive. Very few restaurants can keep a tasting menu available at all times simply because the restaurant doesn’t sell enough of them. Chef de cuisine Jesse Paul at Star of the Sea does an extraordinary tasting menu as does Gavin Kaysen at El Bizcocho at the Rancho Bernardo Inn and Mike Stebner at Region. Many other chefs in town will do a tasting menu on request: Trey Foshee at George’s at the Cove, Jason Knibb at Nine-Ten, Paul McCabe at L’Auberge Del Mar, Riko Bartolome at Asia-Vous and Bernard Guillas at The Marine Room. These are chefs who like to take their cooking one step beyond the restaurant menu; not only are they stretching themselves, but they are stretching the diner’s palate.

Those of us who like a bit of adventure in our dining need to take more chances in restaurants that offer tasting menus. If you have a favorite chef in town, don’t be afraid to ask the chef to simply prepare your dinner. You are dining at the chef’s table, and for those of us who love food in all its many forms, who could ask for more.

Pamela J. Wischkaemper is a local food consultant and is the founder of San Diego Gastronomically Correct, a group that goes on the road twice a year to promote the San Diego restaurant industry. The only criterion for membership is having cooked at the James Beard House in New York. Nineteen chefs in San Diego are members.

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