Tasting menu lessons from McCrady’s

Red snapper at McCrady's. (Brad Nettles/Staff) 7/16/14

Reviews of New York City restaurants aren’t typically relevant to diners in the Lowcountry, but Eater’s Ryan Sutton this week with his four-star write-up of Semilla sparked a discussion that knows no geographical bounds: Should restaurant patrons expect satiety from a tasting menu?

I was especially interested in the question because I recently had the chance to eat at Torino, a tiny prix-fixe restaurant in metro Detroit that’s being hailed as a culinary risk taker. Unfortunately, what I’ll remember most about the meal is the Buddy’s pizza my husband and I split after the ninth course was cleared away.

What bothered me most about the experience wasn’t the dainty portions, or even the price tag attached to them ($85 a person, plus an option $45 for wine pairings.) If value correlated exactly with calories, I could have stayed home and fixed a $1.79 plate of rice and beans. But then I would have missed out on all of the ideas and artistry that are supposed to pervade a tasting menu. Yet at Torino, all of that good stuff was wasted anyhow, because I was more focused on which restaurants would still be open when our ordeal ended at 11 p.m.

McCrady’s, which briefly experimented with a tasting menu-only format, has become very adept at serving up food that people didn’t choose. All of the complaints typically leveled against tasting menus could probably be mustered in the McCrady’s dining room, but the exercise feels empty, because the restaurant gets the genre right. (And for patrons who think otherwise, the a la carte menu has returned.) Here’s what I wish Torino – and other tasting menu destinations sending their customers home hungry – would borrow from the McCrady’s model:

I didn’t make the reservation for my most recent dinner at McCrady’s, so I don’t know exactly how diners are prepped for the tasting menu. But our server did a fairly good job of sketching out the way the meal would proceed.

There isn’t some kind of kitchen oath that requires chefs to tend to customer appetites. It’s totally fine if a chef decides to prioritize showcasing gorgeous ingredients and inspiring techniques over growling bellies. But the customer ought to know what lies ahead, especially since when tasting menus aren’t overly austere, they tend toward the obscenely gluttonous. I’m not going to eat anything before showing up at a restaurant if there’s a chance I’ll be plied with endless riffs on pork belly and foie gras. That compounds the problem when it turns out the menu is just a few bites stretched over hours, accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol.

So why not be candid with customers? Tell me when I book a table that the chef recommends having a substantial snack before arriving. Steer me to a nearby restaurant you endorse. It’s customary to enjoy an appetizer before the theater: When dinner is a performance, why not do the same?

It’s not giving too much away to reveal how much food is involved in a tasting menu. For example, it’s standard practice for movie houses to list the running times of films. While knowing a movie is 109 minutes long doesn’t hint at its quality, it means I can schedule my evening in such a way that I can give the movie my full attention. I’d love to plan my eating the same way.

When I asked for bread at Torino, the server didn’t tell me “no”: He told me “no, no, no, no, no.” Clearly, each “no” meant something: 1. “No, it’s not consistent with our chef’s vision.” 2. “No, you’re an unsophisticated rube who doesn’t understand what we’re trying to do.” 3. “No, we’re not in the baking business.” 4. “No, this meal is meant to disrupt your expectations.” And 5. “No, and if I have to answer that question one more time, I’m moving out of the Midwest.”

Bread belongs on the table. Not only is it deeply symbolic of hospitality, it has a cultural claim to accompanying food wherever it goes. I can’t think of a single cuisine that lacks a supporting starch, whether it’s rice, grits or fufu. So come up with a fantastic filler that complements the tasting meal. Or source the bread from a local bakery worth championing. It makes no difference. But diners deserve the opportunity to break bread, even if they have to pay extra for it.

At McCrady’s, committing to the tasting menu doesn’t mean the a la carte menu is off-limits (I know: The idea that diners could be barred from spending money is nutty. But the tasting menu world gets topsy-turvy.) When my friend and I ordered the tasting menu at McCrady’s, we also asked for the $16 Edwards’ country ham plate with Jimmy Red corn crackers and popcorn mayonnaise to accompany our cocktails. It’s hard to get grumpy about the slow pace or small size of courses when there’s superlative pork fat on the table.

Restaurants need to take cues from other art venues. Galleries provide large-print guides for farsighted patrons. Opera houses distribute assistive listening devices for hard-of-hearing music lovers. Symphonies distribute cough drops to quiet ticket holders suffering from colds.

The reality is the body is sometimes a barrier to art appreciation: Restaurants shouldn’t aggravate the problem for captive customers. As Del Posto’s executive chef Mark Ladner this month wrote in an essay for Lucky Peach, “Fine dining is about trying to anticipate needs and exceed expectations.” That’s true whether the restaurant is serving hulking rib eye steaks or a few spring peas on a plate.