Now, It's Designer Meals

Would you like the chef to cook for you? Once, ordering a restaurant meal was a straightforward transaction, requiring only a simple balancing of greed against calories and price. That, though, was before American chefs became almost as famous as fashion designers. Today, the same people who aspire to wear designer clothes want to eat designer meals as well. For them, restaurants have created the "tasting menu," a customized selection of small dishes, inspired by that day's market bounty and prepared personally by the chef, rather than a journeyman cook who turns out the same dishes every night. When the chef offers to cook for you, he is challenging you to match your appetite to his ingenuity, your expense account to his gall in setting a prix fixe. The correct response is not to nudge your wife and say, "No, wise guy, we'll just have these sandwiches we brought." It is, "Of course, and what part of Nantucket Bay do tonight's scallops come from, exactly?"

For years tasting menus were confined to a tiny upper crust of classical French restaurants. At 8-year-old Aqua in San Francisco's financial district, executive chef Michael Mina says the popularity of tasting menus tracks the economy; around the time the Dow crossed 6000 he added one at lunch for "people who want to impress the people they're with." The compendious Zagat guide to New York restaurants began keeping track of tasting menus only in 1996, when it listed fewer than 30 of them; the 1999 version lists more than 80, at prices ranging from $27 per person to $120. Almost every restaurant genre except the steakhouse is represented, although the concept seems particularly suited to the emerging national high-end cuisine, sometimes called "French-American": the hand-harvested diver scallops puddled up in sauce; the sauteed foie gras in port-wine reduction; the breast of quail perched daintily on braised greens. By offering from five to a dozen or more courses, tasting menus overcome the most common objection to this style of cooking, which is that $26 is a lot of money for an entree you could hide under a playing card.

So powerful is this concept that some restaurants now offer tasting menus exclusively. The brilliant chef Charlie Trotter, in creating the Chicago restaurant that bears his name, decided to proceed by asking himself each day, "What do I want to eat tonight?" and then trusting that the answer will appeal to his customers. He does four tasting menus each night, including a vegetarian version (sample dish: Duet of Terrines: Cauliflower & Broccoli and Endive & Salsify) and one for people who want to drink only red wines (sample dish: Grilled Japanese Hamachi With Roasted Chestnuts, Smoked Bacon & Porcini Mushroom Vinaigrette). An even more stupendously delectable 12-course, three-hour extravaganza is served only at a single table inside the kitchen, priced at $150 per person.

Running a kitchen this way is incomparably more complex than keeping up with even a very large a la carte menu. Each night's menus must be created afresh, and often re-created on the fly. You never know when someone's going to show up with a salsify allergy, or who had roasted saddle of Scottish hare with red-wine-boudin emulsion for lunch, requiring a sudden substitution. The tasting menu is meant to dazzle; Trotter claims he's had one customer return 265 times and he has never served him the same meal twice.

"It gives us the ability to show off," says Thomas Keller, chef of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, where most customers order his $95 nine-course chef's tasting menu. Arun's, an upscale Thai restaurant in Chicago, last year did away with printed menus entirely. The waiter asks what kinds of fish or meat you like, takes a reading on how much chile pepper you can tolerate without requiring medical attention and chef Arun Sampanthavivat customizes a meal of six appetizers, four entrees and two desserts, for $75. At New York's Le Cirque 2000, chef Sottha Khunn will sometimes, as a tour de force, offer a tasting meal of five or six courses, each comprising a different dish for each person at the table. (Sample course: baked potato with shaved black truffle; consomme with truffle ravioli; sea scallops and shrimp with truffle sauce.) So if you ever find yourself there, and the waiter asks if you'd like the chef to cook for you, under no circumstances nudge your husband and say, "No, thanks, just give it to us raw."