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Nibbled to Death

ONE of the most inviting openings to a restaurant meal I’ve ever heard came when I had closed the menu at Bouley and a server asked, “What shall we cook for you this evening?” The question managed to suggest that my choices would bring the kitchen intense pleasure, and that the pleasure would be returned to me many times over.


Compare this with the words of another server this year at an unnamed restaurant that offered tasting menus of several lengths. When I said I would tackle the whole megillah, a 12-course $245 spectacular, this was the response: “O.K., I’ll go get that started for you.”


If the server at Bouley had made me a partner in an imminent adventure, this one turned me into a cog in an invisible machine. The machine would operate for a fixed length of time, and my function would be to eat anything it produced until the gears stopped turning and I was allowed to leave.


Not all tasting menus get off to such an awkward start. Even so, when I face a marathon of dishes chosen by the restaurant, I often feel the same trapped, helpless sensation.



In the hands of a chef who grasps the challenges and possibilities of the form, a tasting menu can yield a succession of delights that a shorter meal could never contain.


At other times, though, the consumer of such a meal may feel as much like a victim as a guest. The reservation is hard won, the night is exhausting, the food is cold, the interruptions are frequent. The courses blur, the palate flags and the check stings.


I’m getting used to that sting. Across the country, expensive tasting-menu-only restaurants are spreading like an epidemic.


This year in New York, two such places were born, Atera and Blanca, while two other restaurants, Eleven Madison Park and WD-50, dropped their à la carte menus in favor of all-or-nothing tastings.

今年在纽约诞生了两个这样的餐厅——Atera和Blanca;还有两家餐厅——Eleven Madison Park和WD-50——摒弃了单点菜单,转而采用“要么不点,要么全点”的精选菜单。

Many of these restaurants are hits, with long waiting lists for their limited number of seatings. They have been hailed by critics (including this one) and by Restaurant Magazine’s suspect-but-influential ranking of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The Michelin Guide to New York, published last week, piled on, awarding three such restaurants three stars, pinning two stars on two more, and giving one star to two others.

很多这样的餐厅都是热门餐厅,座位有限,等待的客人有一长串。这些餐厅都是被美食评论家(包括在下)以及《餐厅杂志》(Restaurant Magazine)那份虽然值得怀疑但是影响力很大的“全球50个最佳餐厅”,给捧起来的。上周出版的《米其林指南》(Michelin Guide)纽约分册对这些餐厅也是大加赞扬,给了3家这样的餐厅3星,两家2星,还有两家1星。

A high-end anomaly a few years ago, three- or four-hour menus now look like the future of fine dining. Before corner delis begin parceling sandwiches into 18-course pastrami tastings, it’s worth asking if this is the future we want.


I am not talking here about Japanese kaiseki or omakase menus. Both are old traditions with underlying structures that chefs and diners understand. The kind of tasting menu I mean is a younger, more free-form invention, championed at destination restaurants like the French Laundry, Per Se, Noma and Alinea. Being so new, the genre has no rules and few limits.

我这里所说的不是日本的怀石料理或者无菜单料理。这两种料理有着悠久的传统,厨师和用餐者对其深层结构心照不宣。而我所说的厨师精选菜单是一种更年轻的、形式更自由的发明,得到了一些值得专程前往的餐厅的支持,比如French Laundry,Per Se,Noma和Alinea。这种形式还很新,没有什么规则和限制。

This is a challenge no chef should saunter into casually. A restaurant whose sole product is an expensive, lengthy, take-it-or-leave-it meal sets a dauntingly high bar for itself. And a few of them vault right over it with a grace and agility that are truly thrilling.


At Benu in San Francisco, Corey Lee’s menus are breathtaking explorations of the potential for treating Asian flavors with a modern American sensibility, and the look and flavor of each fresh course are surprising. In a quieter voice, Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Calif., puts together menus that gently unfold as meditations on the season and the region.

在旧金山的Benu餐厅,大厨科里·李(Corey Lee)的精选菜是一种非常惊险的尝试,他用现代美国的口味偏好来料理亚洲美味;每一道新鲜的菜,从品相到口味,都让人惊喜。加州圣赫勒拿的Restaurant at Meadowood餐厅的大厨克里斯托弗·考斯特(Christopher Kostow)用轻柔的调子,设计了一套菜肴,它缓缓地呈现出来,宛如对季节和地区的沉思录。

César Ramirez of the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare has an almost supernatural gift for seafood cookery and noncookery, assembling meals that build from a salvo of sashimi-like bites to more complex hot dishes, made with ingredients of staggering quality. Technical mastery and a sensitivity to nature’s forms distinguish Matthew Lightner’s tastings at Atera in Manhattan.

Brooklyn Fare食品店的“大厨的餐桌”(Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare)餐厅的凯撒·拉米瑞兹(César Ramirez),在海鲜烹饪方面天赋异禀;他调配的一餐,从类似生鱼片的菜肴开始,过渡到更复杂的热菜,所用的原材料品质极好。曼哈顿Atera餐厅的大厨马修·莱特纳(Matthew Lightner)技艺精湛,对自然形式有灵敏的感知力,这让他的精选菜与众不同。

The tasting menu reaches what may be its most sophisticated American form at Alinea in Chicago, where Grant Achatz composes meals that are almost like symphonies in their skillful manipulation of complexity, volume, tempo and harmony.

芝加哥的Alinea餐厅的精选菜复杂而精致,可以说是美国菜式的巅峰之作,这里的大厨格兰特·阿查兹(Grant Achatz)创作出的菜肴就像是一首交响乐,巧妙地处理了复杂、音量、节拍及和声。

In other cases, though, much of the work of clearing that high bar falls to the heaving, struggling patron.


Making each course as different as possible from the last is not just a chance for chef to show off; it’s necessary to keep the diner’s attention. During an epic evening at Saison in San Francisco, I was often amazed by the way Joshua Skenes coaxed extra flavor from his ingredients through ancient means like dry-aging, curing, fermenting, smoking and grilling over fire. But some of the courses, more than 20 in all, were repetitive in ingredients or preparation, and others felt like padding. I walked out dazed when I could have been dazzled.

让每道菜尽可能跟上一道菜不同,不仅是大厨炫耀手艺的机会,也是出于始终吸引用餐者注意力的需要。在旧金山Saison餐厅那个漫长的晚上,大厨约书亚·斯基尼(Joshua Skenes)用一些古老的方法,比如风干、腌制、发酵、烟熏和火烤,让他的原料迸发出更多的味道,这令我赞叹不已。但是这20多道菜中有些菜在原料或制作方法上有些重复,还有些菜像是在凑数。我本可以在心满意足的熏熏然中离开餐厅,而实际上却是带着昏沉沉的感觉离开的。

Wylie Dufresne’s vision has been consistent from the day he opened WD-50 in 2003. But a recent tasting menu there was, perhaps, consistent to a fault. Almost every plate was composed the way Mr. Dufresne used to put together his appetizers and entrees when he still served them; nothing broke the pattern. Rather than using the tasting menu to tell a different story, WD-50 tells the same story more often. Mr. Dufresne is one of the least boring chefs in the country, and his plates never lack originality, but the shadow of monotony loomed over the meal by the end.

从威利·杜弗雷斯内(Wylie Dufresne)2003年开始经营WD-50餐厅以来,他的愿景未曾变过。但是最近的精选菜是一种失误。几乎每道菜都是用杜弗雷斯内先生之前搭配开胃菜和主菜的方式做出来的;没有哪道菜打破了那个模式。WD-50餐厅不是用精选菜讲述不同的故事,而是把同一个故事重复了很多遍。杜弗雷斯内先生是美国最不乏味的大厨之一,他的菜肴从不缺乏新意,但是单调的阴影始终笼罩着这餐饭,直至结束。

If a meal goes on for hours, even radical costume changes from course to course may not be enough. Daniel Humm has rounded up an amazing variety of ideas for his new $195 tastings at Eleven Madison Park. But I wasn’t sure why he was presenting so many at once. Some of the menu was based on classic New York dishes, but a lot wasn’t, and I struggled to find a single point of view.

如果一餐饭持续好几个小时,那么即使每道菜在外观上有很大的区别,也还是不够。Eleven Madison Park餐厅的大厨丹尼尔·哈姆(Daniel Humm)在他新推出的195美元精选菜中融入的元素真是多得惊人。但是我不确定他为什么要一次推出这么多种类。有些是基于经典的纽约菜,但还有很多不是,我费尽脑筋也没理出一条思路。

The shapelessness of certain tasting menus might be blamed in part on a broken feedback loop. A restaurant that sells appetizers, main courses and entrees quickly learns which ones customers like. But one-bite dishes rarely come back to the kitchen untouched, so the chef has little chance to learn what customers think. Asking “How was everything?” of somebody who has just consumed 27 items isn’t likely to produce constructive criticism.


These restaurants can deviate from old-fashioned notions of hospitality in other ways. The ideal of serving a hot meal has been increasingly a lost cause, given how quickly a morsel the size of a cat’s tongue will cool.


The strangest of all the anti-hospitality gestures, though, is the delayed-bread power play. For centuries, good hosts have placed bread on the table. Blanca, Momofuku Ko and other restaurants do the same thing, and their bread is often superb, but the meal is about half over before it appears. When I’ve asked about this, I’ve been told that the chef didn’t want diners to fill up on bread. When did it become a restaurant’s job to keep its customers from feeling full?

不过,其中最违反待客之道的,还当属“延迟上面包”这个做法。几个世纪以来,好客的主人们都是把面包摆在桌子上的。Blanca,Momofuku Ko和其他几家餐厅也是这么做的,而且他们的面包一般都很美味,但是菜吃了一半多之后,面包才现身。我问起这件事的时候,他们告诉我大厨不想让用餐者被面包填饱了肚子。从何时起,不让顾客吃饱变成了餐馆的责任?

It’s rather unaccommodating when those customers are giving up unusual amounts of time, control and, of course, money. Dining at the upper tiers will never be cheap, but tasting menus have made some of the country’s greatest restaurants into luxury goods. A meal at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is now $225; it was $135 at the beginning of 2011. It’s true that Mr. Ramirez buys more expensive ingredients than he once did, but it’s also true that in the same period, accolades for the restaurant piled up while the number of seats remained constant at 18.

顾客延长了用餐时间、放弃了对菜肴的选择,当然也花了一大笔钱,这些都非常不人性化。在上等餐厅吃饭从来都不便宜,但是厨师精选菜已经让美国的一些最棒的餐厅变成了最奢侈的餐厅。在Brooklyn Fare食品店的“大厨的餐桌”用餐,现在要花225美元;2011年初的时候是135美元。没错,拉米瑞兹先生购买了更多昂贵的原材料,但是还有一个原因是,在此期间,这家餐厅获得的赞扬越来越多,而座位却还是18个。

A small restaurant serving a set menu to just a few customers each night can transcend the normal laws of restaurant economics. Everybody knows how much a plate of chicken should cost in a fancy New York restaurant, but what is the value of 30 courses you haven’t seen yet? You’re not buying 30 courses, of course. You’re buying a ticket to a show that is probably going to sell out, which leaves the restaurant free to charge scalper’s prices if it likes.


It’s my job to urge readers to try the best, so I can’t feel good about watching great restaurants that were already serving an elite audience taking themselves further out of reach. (Several tasting-menu restaurants serve lower-priced options in their lounges; WD-50 also offers a shorter, cheaper tasting of its greatest hits over the years.)


And the elite who now fill these dining rooms are a particular kind of diner, the big-game hunters out to bag as many trophy restaurants as they can. Another kind of eater, the lusty, hungry ones who keep a mental map of the most delicious things to eat around town, may be left outside.


That’s one reason these dining rooms can feel less lively. A monoculture of earnest foodies has replaced the old biodiversity in which senior partners taking out the sales team from Atlanta would sit next to couples on blind dates. You can’t eat a meal like this with a passing acquaintance since you’ll be together for hours, but you can’t go with somebody you really want to talk to, either, since there’s little time between courses for sustained conversation.


Once in a while, I’ve had tasting menus so extraordinary that none of these things seemed to matter. But the format presents formidable hurdles for customers and restaurants, enough to cause us to stop and wonder how many more meals like this we need. Not every novel should be “War and Peace.” Sometimes, enough really is enough.

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