Dine: Tasting menus on the rise in Pittsburgh

On a balmy Saturday night earlier this month, 50 people dressed up to feast in a Downtown parking lot that was spruced up with a communal table, linens and lights. Each diner paid $125 to attend Urban Supper, a seven-course tasting menu prepared by chefs Richard DeShantz of Meat & Potatoes and Keith Fuller of Root 174.

The event was staged by the blogging crew EatPGH: Sarah Sudar, Laura Zorch, Amanda McFadden and Julia Gongaware, in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. The group has written "The Food Lovers' Guide to Pittsburgh" and will release "Extraordinary Recipes From Pittsburgh Chefs' Tables" in December.

"It was the best dinner," said Ms. Sudar, a former fashion contributor to the Post-Gazette. "No one knew each other except for who they came with, and everyone made new friends."

The price was justified by some to celebrate special occasions, with a handful marking birthdays or anniversaries.

Tasting menus are a way for diners to sample a chef's repertoire, an experience that used to be an exclusive for industry types and regulars. Tasting menus allow diners to acquiesce to the chef, to say, "It's on you." As the food world has become more chef-focused, tasting menus have become de rigueur, a must to be considered a serious chef.

That customers are willing to spend this kind of money is relatively new for Pittsburgh. And chefs are creating the demand by adding tastings to weekly menus and staging tasting menu events that are usually more elaborate than those hosted at their restaurants.

In cities with more people earning gobs of money, residents' enthusiasm for tasting menus has leveled off. Earlier this year, New York Magazine ranked tasting menus by which ones were too lengthy, too expensive and featured too many courses. Dominating the list were restaurants with impossible-to-get reservations such as the 12-seat Blanca in Bushwick. The restaurant was among the most egregious in all three categories: clocking in at four hours for 20-something courses for $180.

But Pittsburgh has a different history. In keeping with the perception that the city is growing and becoming attractive to younger people with expendable income, tasting menus are used as barometers that show the city has arrived, whether or not it's true.

On the menu

Step in to Root 174 in Regent Square any night of the week and diners will find in small print at the bottom of the menu a notation for a five-course tasting for $55 and a six-course tasting for $67. It's new this year, the third year the restaurant has been open.

"I've been wanting to do a tasting menu since we opened, but I wanted to have a rhythm with my staff and the restaurant," said Mr. Fuller. "This is the year that we know what we can do."

Mr. Fuller likes a tasting menu because it allows him to be more creative and it's a way for a diner to get to know a chef's repertoire.

"It's a less expensive way to try a bunch of unique things," he said. Indeed, the price of two first courses and two main courses can exceed the cost of a tasting menu. "It also gives me the opportunity to send out a dish or two on the house because I know a table is invested in staying here and exploring how I cook."

At his restaurant, an entire table must order the tasting menu, which is standard at most eateries.

Mr. Fuller said he'd love to have a tasting menu-only restaurant, but he acknowledges that most diners are not willing to commit that much time or money.

At the 28-seat Notion in East Liberty, however, chef-owner David Racicot offers only tasting menus: four courses for $65 or six courses for $85. On Saturdays, he offers eight courses for $105. These are elegant dinners that feature exquisite service and compelling cuisine. It's a display of Mr. Racicot's cooking pedigree as chef de cuisine at Lautrec, the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort's destination restaurant in Fayette County. Under his watch, it earned five diamonds from AAA in 2007 and five stars from Mobil Travel Guide in 2009. That same year, he was a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef.

His special menus seem to be working. Since opening in East Liberty, Mr. Racicot has not diverged from the tasting-menu format. "I think Pittsburgh has a lot of room to move as a food city," he said. "No one is focusing on a tasting-menu-only model here. In other cities, there are lots of tasting-menu-only restaurants, and these are often viewed as the best restaurants. We should have our own that could feasibly compete."

He also said that, for people dining out often, the issue is not cost. "Especially for our $65 and $85 tasting menus, this is value compared to what you receive," he said. "What you're going to get at a restaurant that does tasting menus every day is far more consistent than one-time-only events."

For other chefs, this traditional tasting menu is too fancy. Take Kate Romane of E2 in Highland Park. Since she opened, she has offered a tasting menu that's decidedly less expensive than the city's average. It's partly because of the format, because it's reserved for parties of eight or more and is $35 a person, served family style.

Off the menu

Ms. Romane has also become one of the more active chefs in staging special events tasting menus. Each weekend at Churchview Farm in Baldwin Borough, she and Tara Rockacy feature chefs from around the city for a multicourse dinner for 35 diners that costs $85. A bucolic backdrop cinches sellouts nearly every time. So does limited seating.

Although some of these special events started as moderately priced, the expense has creeped up as restaurants stage more decadent dinners with more esoteric ingredients in unusual locations. Some team up with chefs from out of town.

The creep was first seen here last fall with dinners by Brandon Baltzley, author of "Nine Lives: From Chaos to Control" and the chef behind pop-up events via Crux. Mr. Baltzley will be opening TMIP Restaurant outside Chicago next year, a tasting-menu-only farm retreat.

Mr. Baltzley started his first dinner with Mr. Fuller in conjunction with a showing of the 2001 movie "Amelie," during which scenes from the movie inspired each of the nine courses. The cost, which included wine and cocktail pairings, was $180. The Crux series ended with The Last Supper, in conjunction with 11 chefs, which was significantly less expensive at $95 a person.

Although Mr. Baltzley's prices fell from the high of $180, tasting-menu events at restaurants and in novel locations were staged throughout the summer and will continue this fall. Case in point: On Oct. 13, Justin Severino at Cure in Lawrenceville will host a Whole Hog Butchering & Dinner with Chris LaVeque of El Salchichero in Santa Cruz, Calif. In November, Mr. Severino will stage a multicourse seafood tasting. Each meal will cost $125, including beverages.

The most notable special event tasting menu of the year was Kevin Sousa's Salt of the Earth dinner for Pittsburgh Magazine's 24th annual Best Restaurants party in June. "Golden tickets" were randomly distributed to 10 of the VIP guests who paid $250 to attend the Heinz Field event. They were "kidnapped" and driven, blindfolded, to the Andy Warhol Museum nearby.

The "Willy Wonka-style event," according to Post-Gazette colleague Tim McNulty, was a highly stylized seven-course dinner. A blaring soundtrack greeted guests when they arrived to a table so zealously decorated with flowers that diners could see only those directly next and opposite them. Salt staffers delivered each course silently, followed by a military-like exit from the room.

This pinnacle tasting menu will likely be one-upped. With an influx of new restaurants and an expanding restaurant scene, perhaps it will be sooner rather than later.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198, mmccart@post-gazette.com, Twitter @melissamccart.


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