Taking on Tasting Menus

If you’re going to go over-the-top, is a mere three courses truly enough? Why settle for business class when first class dangles within reach, handed out alongside the regular menu as an oft-disregarded enticement, a heavenly brass ring so often dismissed in the earthly service of a la carte? Tasting menus offer a true sense of occasion and can make a good meal extra-special. True, there’s the logistical consideration – typically, everyone at the table needs to order it to sync the service. And, of course, there’s the price, which can make one’s palms sweat; tack on the wine pairing and the bill turns on its afterburners. Still, a tasting menu offers a glimpse into the heart, mind and skill of the chef behind it. No other sequence of plates will reveal a chef’s essential nature in quite the same way. I tried tasting menus at two of New Orleans’ top tier restaurants, Stella! and Le Foret. I chose these because their menus largely eschew regional cuisine, which can pigeonhole chefs. With a multi-course barrage such as a tasting menu, the wider the scope, the richer the experience.

Stella! does things that no other restaurant in New Orleans does. Describing his style as classic meets modern, Chef Scott Boswell employs cutting-edge kitchen science in his pursuit of the next new thing. “Technology gives us the ability to do a lot of neat things,” Boswell says. “I like to play with it, to figure out how to use it in the service of the food.” His efforts are informed by cerebral technique and enhanced by unusual ingredients, and even the smallest of his plates typically presents a complex arrangement of influences, colors and styles.

The seven courses, preceded by a pair of amuse-bouche and bookended with a plate of assorted truffles, march out of the kitchen with surgical precision. (“It is a hard menu to produce,” Boswell says, “but the fact that a lot of people order it makes it a bit easier to put out”) A refreshing amuse of pressed watermelon sashimi is followed by a more familiar iteration of the form: thin slices of scallops with baby radish salad, pickled cucumbers and pulverized ice flavored with yuzu, a Japanese citrus. Nasturtium “air,” a light foam scented with the flower, gilds the dish. The next course takes an abrupt seasonal turn, diving down into the fall earthiness of Roasted Autumn Squash soup with applewood bacon, sweetened with chocolate and cinnamon nutmeg-seasoned crème fraiche. The menu proceeds through Lobster-scented halibut, sous-vide Kabayaki-glazed beef tenderloin and a pair of desert plates, the first of which plays on a cheese course.

Throughout it all, what impresses is Boswell’s control over the ingredients and his ingenious, often intentionally abrupt, pairings with components that wouldn’t be expected to work together. What is often missed in his wizardry is that the high-tech techniques are in service of the relatively mundane, as in the steak course. “That is the beautiful thing about control,” Boswell says. “We’ll still season the steak with salt and pepper and sear it in butter, but then we drop it in liquid nitrogen to stop the cooking and then Cryovac it. We then hold it in the thermal circulator and when it comes time to serve, we fire it again to give it a nice crust. This technique lets us prep in advance and gives us wall-to-wall perfect rare steaks.”

Because as oblique as some of Boswell’s creations can be, accessibility and taste are components that must be present for everything to come together. “I do throw a little ‘crazy’ in there, but you have to have comfort, too. And we’ll always have that on our menu. Probably our biggest à la carte seller is the steak, because for the person coming in who might not ‘get’ some of the other stuff they always have that as an option. And the hook there, of course, is that it isn’t really an ordinary steak.”

If Stella! is distinguished by its high-flying esotery, Le Foret is distinguished by its tight focus and clearer, more direct themes that tend to highlight individual ingredients rather than having them play off each other. In musical terms, it would be like comparing Baroque to Romantic.

For Chef Jimmy Corwell, the tasting menu is a forum for presenting ideas that don’t quite fit the appetizer or entrée form. “This could include the avant-garde, but also dishes that are a little more aggressive,” he says. “Also, it’s a good place for ingredients such as truffles, foie gras and caviar, things that are meant to be ‘special occasion’ items.”

Corwell’s menu starts light. with a trio of Beau Soleil Oysters in a perky champagne mignonette, followed by a morsel of seared foie gras whose richness is underscored by a Madeira emulsion and assemblage of seasonal garnishes including beet, apple and walnut. A serving of earthy trumpet and oyster mushrooms comes wrapped in rich, flaky pastry dough and served over cognac cream sauce. The centerpiece is a tender cut of delicate lamb tenderloin scented with fresh oregano and fig mustarda; but my favorite dish was the Hong Kong Lobster Dumpling, into whose wrapper was folded lobster coral. Served in gingery, chili-soy broth with shitake mushrooms, it was one to remember. And for Corwell, this dish is a case in point. “We are a French-style restaurant, so this dish is somewhat anomalous and wouldn’t necessarily fit on the appetizer menu, but it fits on the tasting menu for exactly that reason.”

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