With Tasting Menu, Order Smelling Salts

The tasting menu is a great way to sample a wide range of a chef’s dishes at many of the city’s top restaurants (and even in some less expensive but ambitious places). Add to that the option of wine pairings with each course, chosen by the sommelier and priced at an all-inclusive figure, and you have the makings of a culinary night to remember.

The other evening, I had the tasting menu at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, the New York branch of the renowned chef’s global franchise. Atelier means “studio” or “workshop,” so it’s supposed to be casual—sort of. You can come here in a Chanel suit or jeans. The restaurant sets out to achieve a different tone from such exalted temples of gastronomy as Per Se, Daniel or Jean Georges: There’s counter seating and an open kitchen serving small tasting plates along the lines of Japanese omakase and Spanish tapas.

If atelier signifies “workshop,” then this one is for Harry Winston. You might think Soho would be the right location for an atelier; instead, it’s in the Four Seasons Hotel. The sleek dining room has a ceiling two or three stories high, as well as blond wood paneling, four islands of black banquettes and red, lacquered vases filled with palm fronds. In the back, the open kitchen has a 20-seat counter and is manned by cooks in chic dark gray-black outfits and matching red-trimmed caps.

“I can’t figure out what or how much to order,” my companion commented as we looked at the menu of 22 “tasting” dishes (ranging from sea urchin in lobster gelée to frogs’ legs), 10 appetizers and seven main courses. We were having an early dinner before a concert at Carnegie Hall, so he suggested that we simplify matters by ordering the tasting menu with wine pairings. Our waitress assured us that we would be out with plenty of time to spare. I glanced at the tasting menu briefly, without bothering to put my glasses on.

A demitasse of an intense chestnut soup laced with chunks of roast chestnut kicked off the meal, followed by tuna tartare topped with a raw quail egg placed on a disk of red pepper confit. It was sparkling and jewel-like, painstakingly decorated with red and green strips of minutely sliced chives and Serrano ham placed around it like reeds. It must have taken hours to cut these. This came with a tasting of a lovely Chablis, Laurent Tribut 2005. A mousse of duck foie gras was topped with slices of black truffle and pieces of gold leaf. Did the gold leaf do anything for the taste? No. (I should have stashed it in my wallet for later.) With this, we drank a Sauternes, Château Rieussec 2002.

By now, we were tasting at a trot. Next: a sea scallop in a nutty seaweed butter in an orange shell. Barreling along came langoustine ravioli, hidden under a bird’s nest of finely cut black truffle and paired, interestingly, with a Gigondas, a robust, chewy red wine. At this point, we let the servers know that they could slacken the pace. No, we didn’t have to be out of there by 7:15!

An Alsatian Riesling went nicely with amadai, a white-fleshed Japanese fish in a subtle yuzu broth laced with lily bulbs. Kobe beef, melting with fat, was marvelous, accompanied by a red casserole of Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes—three parts potato to one part butter—and a Napa Valley claret. After a “pre-dessert”—a lemon mascarpone mousse in a shot glass—our waitress appeared with another bottle. “And now the pièce de résistance for the rice pudding,” she said, without a trace of irony, as she poured a Santa Julia from Argentina, a light late-harvest wine.

“The rice pudding is dangerously close to foam,” my companion said after a mouthful.

So, alas, was I. The bill had arrived, along with a copy of our tasting menu—eight courses, if you count the amuse bouche. Now I put my glasses on to make sure I’d read it correctly: $813.60. When I’d looked at the menu, I’d misread $190 as $100. Wine pairings added another $125 per person.

Next to this, Gordon Ramsay’s seven courses for $110 comes in as a bargain. Picholine serves seven courses for $110; Jean Georges does seven for $128. Restaurant Daniel gives you just six courses, for $155; Bouley also serves six courses, for $95. Le Bernardin’s eight-course menu is $180 ($320 with wine pairings). Gramercy Tavern’s seven-course menu is a comparative steal at $98.

Last month, Per Se announced that it would begin serving only a nine-course menu for dinner. The cost is $250 and includes a 20 percent gratuity. But after tax and tip are added for Robuchon’s tasting menu (which you can eat at the counter), the price works out to about the same.

Per Se makes no claim to casual dining, of course: It’s a shrine to haute cuisine. When I had a tasting menu, it took the same length of time as a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried. Four of us sat down at 6 p.m., and we staggered to our feet shortly after 11. I lost count of the courses—and there were many more than nine. Our tasting-menu dinner in the “atelier” (accelerated, obviously, because of the concert) lasted an hour and 20 minutes.

The next morning, still smarting from the expense of our meal at Robuchon, I looked up the prices online of the wines we’d tasted in our $125 pairings. The average retail price of those seven wines worked out to around $28 a bottle (wholesale, they’d cost a lot less). We’d each consumed roughly the equivalent of four-fifths of a bottle. It’s no secret that restaurants routinely mark up their wines around 300 percent. But this was some markup! When you order a tasting menu, you can see the expensive ingredients—such as foie gras, caviar and Kobe beef—that drive up the price. When it comes to wine pairings, you’re on your own.

After eating at Robuchon, the galloping gourmets set off down 57th Street for Carnegie Hall feeling like we’d just had Thanksgiving dinner. But it was a great meal, albeit as casual as a mink coat over jeans.

With Tasting Menu, Order Smelling Salts