For some, ordering off of a menu is one of the primary pleasures of eating in a restaurant, a vivid contrast to the family meal where everyone eats the same food, like it or not. But for others, eating in restaurants represents a chance to experience a different culinary point of view. Tasting menus were invented for the latter group.
At their best, they offer a chef or a kitchen staff the chance to perform to the fullest, to orchestrate a meal from start to finish with only minimal influence from the diner.
A fair number of Pittsburgh's established restaurants offer tasting menus -- Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District; Nine on Nine, Downtown; and Isabela on Grandview on Mount Washington, to name just a few. But the practice has recently gained some momentum, as restaurants use them as vehicles for showing their skills and for offering impressive value. Recent samples of four such menus suggested that it is well worth letting the chef do the choosing, at least for one night.
Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar
Tasting Tuesdays at Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar in Shadyside is one of the best dining deals in the city. After mentioning any aversions and temperature preferences, diners place themselves in chef Chet Garland's hands, enjoying a surprise four-course menu for $30, with optional wine pairings for $20. Mr. Garland often serves two different menus to the same table, making this menu doubly impressive.
A version of mac and cheese made with orzo and brie was topped with a couple of slices of braised lamb shank and a fried egg, the center beautifully gooey. It should have been over the top, but a smart wine pairing -- a bright but not overly acidic Willamette Valley Pinot Gris -- tempered the richness just enough.
On the other side of the table, a classically executed risotto was garnished with caramelized fennel and black garlic, adding a complex sweetness to the creamy rice.
A flavorful winter salad combined arugula, carrot, grated butternut squash, toasted pumpkin seeds and thinly sliced radish. The ingredients are relatively ordinary, but the combination was inspired, especially when served with a glass of California sparkling wine Chandon Blanc de Noirs.
The food at Toast! was impressive, but the quality and creativity of the wine pairings made the meal exceptionally memorable.
A filet of salmon with crackly-crisp skin tasted all the more buttery against Talbot pinot noir with the aroma of peak-season raspberries. Tilefish with nutty farro and sweet roasted pineapple brought out the rich flavors of an off-dry Friulano Tocai. A bright, juicy Nero D'Avola from Sicily was a splendid match for a rosy pink local pork chop, small and fat, augmented by a sweet potato gratin, fennel roasted down to its essence and a mouth-puckering cranberry relish.
Toast! has offered a chef's choice tasting menu since it opened in winter of 2008, and I sampled it when I reviewed the restaurant. But, in the intervening years, Mr. Garland's dishes have retained their bold flavors and clever combinations while becoming more perfectly executed. The frequently changing wine list continues to be a strength, especially since it began to offer two-ounce tasting pours of most wines.
Tamari Restaurant and Lounge
At Tamari in Lawrenceville, the chef's tasting menu, which is offered Monday through Thursday by reservation only, costs $70 per person and is prepared entirely by executive chef Roger Li. It changes depending on the preferences of the guest, Mr. Li's inspiration and the organization of the kitchen that evening. I sampled a meal almost entirely from the sushi bar, distinguished by beautiful technique, delicious flavors and a wonderful lightness of touch.
Squid sashami was scored then lightly torched, resulting in the sweetest, most tender version I've ever tasted. It was paired with tempura fried tuna tail, a cut that Mr. Li explained had too much connective tissue to be served raw, but became incredibly juicy and flavorful when cooked.
A cylinder of scallop tartar flecked with fried leeks was served with a mound of trumpet mushroom chips, potato chip thin and crisp yet retaining a distinctive mushroom flavor.
Small rice balls wrapped in sliced shrimp, tuna and salmon looked like gorgeous edible marbles and tasted just as good.
Perhaps the very best course was an Osaka-style sushi roll made by pressing together rice and fillings into a rectangle. A layer of rice was topped with sweet chunks of king crab, then more rice, then topped with thinly sliced Scottish salmon sashimi, garnished with paper-thin slices of lemon. The zing of the lemon, augmented by the complex perfume of the rind, was a mouth-watering accent to the clean, clear flavors, potent against the smooth backdrop of the rice.
It was clear that Mr. Li was crafting some of these dishes a la minute, not just executing items he'd made over and over, which gave the meal a wonderful sense of spontaneity.
The tasting menu option was introduced at Typhoon after chef, Michael "Buzz" Olshansky, took over the kitchen, and, as at Tamari and Toast, the diner must be prepared to be surprised.
The meal, which moved from raw fish to cooked, then on to meat before concluding with a noodle dish and then dessert, was remarkably elaborate, inventive and lengthy. In fact, it was so lengthy that I wasn't at all surprised when the owner later admitted to spotting me.
This meal was certainly inflected with a desire to impress, but at the very least it amply demonstrated what Mr. Olshansky is capable of accomplishing. At $35, several courses fewer would still have been a very good deal.
Atlantic fluke sashimi was topped with a piece of Thai basil and a drizzle of wasabi-avocado sauce, the flavorful herb lingering after the crisp, oceanic taste of the fluke.
Cooked fish was, if anything, more interesting than raw dishes. A three-flavor sauce redolent of onions, garlic and sweet chile brought out the sweetness in meaty cobia, tinged with smoke from the grill. Hiramasa (a type of yellowtail) collar, also grilled, was served with a rice ball filled with deliciously sour pickled plum and a gingery dipping sauce. Our server brought us small forks, to dig out the most flavorful slivers of fish beneath the fin.
The choice of proteins -- duck and lamb, rather than chicken, pork or beef -- immediately made the meal more interesting. Seared duck breast was served with sauteed red and green peppers and a drizzle of black soy, while a lamb chop sat on a bed of massaman curry with a pile of crispy shoestring fries drizzled with mayonnaise and sprinkled with dried, powdered seaweed.
Dessert was a clever play on a classic, crème brulee flecked with vanilla bean and red Thai pepper. The subtle heat (a bit more would have been even better) nicely emphasized the custard's sweetness.
Extemporaneous menus that run for an unspecified number of courses are exciting, but they can also feel overwhelming and discordant.
Excellent pacing helped at both Tamari and Typhoon, but sometimes it's nice to know what you're getting in advance. At Spoon in East Liberty, our server fluently and enthusiastically described that evening's five-course tasting menu, made up of smaller portions of dishes from the menu.
Spoon's was the most traditional tasting menu of the bunch, beginning with an amuse bouche, a demitasse of white and black bean soup, and offering a tour of some of the chef's favorite dishes. Luxurious preparations and ingredients made this tasting menu feel particularly special.
The first course, a gorgonzola blue cheese souffle, is a specialty of the house, one of a few items that has held over between seasons, although it's accompaniments have changed. At the moment, the airy yet substantial custard is paired with a boldly flavored, brightly colored salad of roasted pickled beets, orange and red grapefruit, fennel and peppery arugula dressed in a honey-white balsamic vinaigrette. Tangy and robust, the salad would have been impressive even without the souffle.
A sort of deconstructed chowder was a refined take on a classic winter comfort food. A filet of wild striped bass, roasted fingerling potatoes and crisp green beans were moistened by a clam chowder sauce garnished with a generous spoonful of American Paddlefoot caviar. A flan flavored with gently cooked leeks rounded out this pretty, sophisticated plate.
The savory courses concluded with one of the best duck preparations I've had in recent memory. A decadent trio of duck included a perfectly roasted breast with crisp skin and tender meat, a small, rich cake of duck confit and a generous chunk of seared foie gras. Sauteed green cabbage, carrot and turnip -- perhaps the most ordinary of winter vegetables -- were the perfect foil to all this richness, while the cranberry and port sauce lent a touch of sweetness and acidity.
Putting together a great a la carte menu is already challenging, and a tasting menu requires even more effort. But if executed well, it can reap tremendous rewards. The tasting menus at these four restaurants impressed and entertained, yet another sign of the culinary talent that continues to flourish in Pittsburgh.