When Alma opened in June 2012, it served as a beacon for the possibilities of the new food movement. Debuting with little fanfare on the quiet, scuzzy end of Broadway, it was a restaurant where you could taste the promise of one of the city's brightest young chefs, without a huge drain on your time or wallet. The bare-bones feel of the place and the absence of a liquor license made for a dining experience akin to taking part in chef Ari Taymor and general manager/co-owner Ashleigh Parsons' delightful and imperfect experiment.
When a reservation is incredibly hard to come by
Two years later, much has changed about Alma, even as little has changed. The space still feels bare-bones, although a liquor license allows for an odd and playful wine program. The biggest difference, however, is undoubtedly the drain on money and time: Alma now serves only a $95, 10-course tasting menu.
Alma is not alone — in Los Angeles especially, but increasingly across the country, restaurants are either switching to tasting menus, putting a greater focus on a tasting-menu option (while offering à la carte items as well), or opening as tasting-menu operations from day one. The format that used to be the calling card of only the fanciest of restaurants is becoming ubiquitous, even at places where the waiter calls you “dude” and there isn't a white tablecloth in sight.
Much has been written about tasting menus in recent years, perhaps most notoriously by Corby Kummer in a 4,800-word article for Vanity Fair last year titled “Tyranny — It's What's for Dinner.”
Alma's Taymor responded to criticism of the format recently, writing in Esquire, “Perhaps you've even had to sit through 12 courses of gels, emulsions and mushy sous vide meat. Four-minute dish descriptions listing all 30 ingredients in your salad. You've written off tasting menus as tyrannical. The creators of them as torture masters, bending you over their knee until you've given in to their genius. I have a confession. I'm one of them.” Ultimately, Taymor offered little in defense of the genre other than to say that his brand of cooking is as inspired by nostalgia and tradition as anyone else's.
It was almost certainly two different traits — ambition and popularity — that were the catalyst for Alma's switch. From the get-go, the chef offered prix fixe menus one night a week, or if the customer booked in advance. There's no doubt that Taymor sees this as the best and highest expression of his vision.
But it wasn't until Bon Appetit named Alma the best new restaurant in the country that Taymor and Parsons were able to ask every diner to succumb to the experience. With the extreme popularity begat by the accolade (as well as Food and Wine's recent selection of Taymor as a Rising Star chef), the restaurant has far more leeway to dictate how much diners will pay for their meals. When a reservation is incredibly hard to come by, a $95 tasting menu isn't such a tough sell.
For restaurants that can pull it off, it's a smart move financially: The guarantee of nearly $100 per person takes much of the guessing game out of the economics of such an inherently precarious operation. That's certainly the reasoning behind the prix-fixe, $75 ticketing system at Trois Mec, a restaurant so small that owners Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo claim that a guaranteed amount from each customer is the only way they can make things pencil out. Curtis Stone has followed suit at Maude, his new tasting menu–only restaurant, which is almost identical in size to Trois Mec. Neither Alma nor Maude asks you to prepurchase a ticket, but your credit card number is required upon booking a table and they'll charge it a hefty fee if you don't show up.
These three restaurants all have the luxury of extreme popularity, and there's no doubt tasting menus make economic sense under those circumstances. But what of a restaurant like Red Medicine, where chef Jordan Kahn is increasingly focused on presenting tasting menus (though he still offers à la carte dishes as an option)? Or Orsa & Winston, the third restaurant from Josef Centeno, the chef behind the wildly popular Bar Amá and Bäco Mercat? Centeno could have done anything with his third space but opted for a tasting menu–only format.
At Orsa & Winston, Centeno is returning to a form in which he has been dabbling his whole career. In 2005, at a restaurant named Opus, he offered tasting menus at $10 per course: The base price started at $30, and he would create menus up to 25 courses. After that, he opened a short-lived, tasting menu–only restaurant in Silver Lake, Volver, in the spot now inhabited by L&E. His work at Orsa & Winston revives those ambitions.
“I decided on tasting menus because it just felt right in the space — because it was the right size — and so long coming,” Centeno says. “It was my formative training and what I had been trying to get back to for so long. I simply missed cooking at that level and with the highest level ingredients. Tasting menus allow you to use ingredients in small amounts that I would not ever be able to serve at Bäco Mercat or Bar Amá because the cost would be too high for the customer, and the backlash not worth it, in à la carte form.”
Ironically, I think I would have enjoyed my meals at Orsa & Winston better if I were able to order less food, if the experience had been less dictated. It's a point many others have made, particularly Kummer in Vanity Fair, about the discomfort of being overfed.
I tend to think food writers may be the least qualified to comment on this, ironically. Eating out never feels like a rare treat to us. For others, a special occasion may call for once-a-year excess, and then perhaps the overindulgence of a tasting menu is exactly right.
But occasion and location matter. The recently closed Allumette in Echo Park, which felt much more like a neighborhood spot than a special-occasion destination, moved to a tasting-menu format in its final months. At the time, the admittedly ambitious young chef Miles Thompson told me, “We tried a couple of formats that we developed to give our guests more choices, but ultimately we found that our guests really trusted us to create an experience for them and that by honing down the menu into four or five courses, they not only had a more well-rounded experience but they were also trying some dishes that maybe they wouldn't have otherwise ordered and leaving really excited about trying something new.” It also may have been an attempt to try something new to boost flagging sales. Ultimately, it didn't work.
Does it work at Alma? Taymor has always been a chef who seems unable to distinguish his fantastic dishes from his flops, and the tasting-menu format makes that all the more clear. Gaps in service (huge lag times between courses, incongruous wine pairings, etc.) bring home the fact that this is a very young restaurant with large hurdles to overcome before arriving in the same league as other $400-per-meal players around town.
Taymor is an immensely talented chef, and Alma has always been a wild experiment in redefining the restaurant experience. But apart from the obvious financial bonus, the tasting-menu format isn't showcasing the operation's best attributes.
And some chefs are becoming aware that too much can be … too much. In my early visits to Trois Mec, I loved almost everything I ate but felt overfed at the end of the meal. These days, Lefebvre has refined the experience so that it feels much more balanced, allowing the high points at the end of the meal to shine just as brightly as the earliest bites. Curtis Stone has a quieter style but similar sensibility at Maude, somehow managing to make nine-plus courses seem like a manageable amount of food. Subtlety, and a reliance on many ebullient components, is key.
There's a relief in giving over the reins to a professional, in allowing a chef to tell you a precisely constructed story, complete with flourishes and subplots you might never have explored of your own volition. But it's vastly more complicated than simply putting one course in front of the other — like chapters of a book, the story needs to hang together, the pacing needs to hold your attention and each episode ought to leave you hungry for the next.
Difficult? Yes. Worthwhile? In the hands of the right chef, with the right support staff, absolutely.