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What Exactly is a Tasting Menu or Degustación?

July 26, 2019

Sometimes, even to a few avid eaters, fine dining means exorbitantly priced minuscule servings on a plate. These dishes are lovely to look at, a thrill to taste, but to some it comes down to, “Paano naman ako mabubusog dito?”

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Tasting menus gained popularity in major dining cities such as New York and London in the early 2000s, but the concept has always been around in one form or another. Most know the tasting menu and follow its tradition according to its original French term, menu dégustation, or the Spanish degustación.

The tradition of degustación is in appreciative tasting of the food; it is a showcase of a chef’s skill and an experience of high culinary art.

There is (or should be) an art in putting together a tasting menu. The tradition of degustación is in appreciative tasting of the food; it is a showcase of a chef’s skill and an experience of high culinary art. It is not a set menu that offers just an appetizer, main course, and dessert. It can be a sample of the best the restaurant and chef has to offer, but even that is at the chef’s discretion. The chef directs the menu, deciding on a theme, progression, and what dishes or flavors will be highlighted on his degustación.

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Other variations of degustación are found in the Japanese omakase, which translates as “I’ll leave it to you”, where diners are served several dishes that are made specially by the chef.

Rob Pengson of The Goose Station describes the tasting menu as a magical and spiritual experience. “You put yourself on the plate and offer it to people,” he says.

Over email, Rob Pengson of The Goose Station describes the tasting menu as a magical and spiritual experience, “A tasting menu is something really special, first to the creator and second to the one having it. I believe it to be magical because I have the honor of being able to experience it from both sides of the fence.”

He continues, “A tasting menu has many moving parts…eight to ten courses with an average of eight to ten components per course and thats about eighty little moving parts to feed just one person. I enjoy making comfort food as much as the next chef, but a tasting menu is a spiritual thing for a cook. You put yourself on the plate and offer it to people.”

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For Chef Ian Padilla of La Girolle, he curates the tasting menu every two months around the best available ingredients during that season, “We wouldn’t be serving tomatoes in December, or braised beef in March,” he says.

Padilla observes that local attitudes to the tasting menu vary, from those who understand the spirit behind the tasting menu, to those who zero in on the four-figure price tag for “small” portions. “We tend to look at price and size first before quality and product, but the whole point to that [the tasting menu] is that we want them to salivate for the next course.” But he adds, “The mindset is improving.”

“It can be an amazing experience [but] it is definitely not for everyone.”

Pengson takes the customer’s perspective, “It can be an amazing experience [but] it is definitely not for everyone. It’s great to serve to those who understand, those who come in without preconceived biases, those who are realistic and are just there to “listen” so to speak.”

Evidence of changing attitudes towards the tasting menu are with newer restaurants who only offer tasting menus. Pengson is happy for restaurants of that kind who dare to try, but wonders if the concept will fly, “I think the local market is too small and that many of these places are in danger of not making it. While customers would say that’s the restaurateur’s problem, I say the gap in world of flavor is equally determined by what the market is not spending for.”

Consider that in 2012, British newspaper, The Independent, observed the same dining trend in its home country, and asked, “Are they what diners really want?” Two years later on this continent, one echoes the sentiment.

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Is the tasting menu worth the experience? What are your favorite tasting menus? Talk about it in the comments section below.

Mia Marci Mia Marci

Mia Marci likes sampling street food, even if she doesn't know what's in it. She's gotten sick to her stomach on occasion because of this hazardous curiosity, but even the strictest of doctors couldn't stop her. Mia also writes about video games, travel, and girly issues for other publications. She also teaches English and Creative Writing. In the little spare time she has left, she catches up on film and TV shows, while cuddling up to her dog and cat.

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6 responses to “What Exactly is a Tasting Menu or Degustación?”

  1. Carl Tomacruz says:

    Just a correction: the French spelling is “ménu degustation” while the Spanish spelling is “menu degustación”

  2. Angelica Gutierrez says:

    I absolutely love degustation menus! The flavor and quality is usually worth the high price. And the tiny serving portions are deceptive – in my experience, I’m usually struggling to finish my food by the 5th or 6th course out of 8-10 courses. With a degustation, you are SURE to get full and you get a whole new culinary experience to boot. The best degustation I ever had was at Tetsuya’s in Sydney. If you’re there and you have the budget, it’s something you can’t miss. I would love to read a Hungry Wanderer feature about Tetsuya’s. 🙂 http://www.tetsuyas.com/index.html

    However, I agree that restaurants that serve only degustation menus might not survive here. Apart from people looking at price and portion over quality and flavor, even those who appreciate degustation and have the spending power usually only indulge in it on special occasions. I’m not sure if special-occasion-diners will be enough for a restaurant to get by.

    • Pamela Cortez says:

      I love a good degustation- this usually has a highbrow or pretentious tag to it, but I think it is the opposite of that, and it’s definitely filling!! Yes, they’re usually found in more high-end restaurants, but a degustation is really the expression of a chef and shows one more than a normal menu would.

      I’ve never been to Tetsuya’s, but I have been to the Singaporean outpost Waku Ghin and it was scarily amazing. I don’t know if they have this dish in Tetsuya’s, but they had an uni, botan shrimp, and caviar dish in Waku Ghin that made me cry. Some of my favorites would be Momofuku Seibo in Sydney, and Andre in Singapore as well, but damn, most degustations I’ve had almost always give transcendent experiences. Even the one at Vask Gallery and Sensei here in Manila are of a high caliber!

      • Volts Sanchez says:

        I’ve tried the one at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Singapore. Whew. I came very, very close to not actually finishing it (because they comped an extra dessert and the bone marrow dish). Intense. I just wish I could do it again…

  3. Yuki says:

    it does depend on the context. as an only child of a single parent (a parent with lots of dietary restrictions to follow, too), i rarely get to eat at the more family-style or “asian”-style restaurants popular here (e.g. most chinese/filipino places), but that does allow me to go for dining experiences which imho are more attuned to individuals– such as degustation menus. ditto the ‘fullness’ comment, though getting full isn’t my goal when dining out anyway and i’d rather dine out somewhere really special once in a blue moon than continually spend on (what in my view might be) mediocre. of course, i acknowledge that this is not for everybody, either out of preference or out of the lack of opportunity, so this philosophy ain’t necessarily one I advocate. in any case, i say restaurants shouldn’t be put off from trying just because they don’t think it’ll be a ‘hit’; playing safe is cool, but there’s gotta be growth down the road and it sometimes starts with taking those risks.

  4. Volts Sanchez says:

    Don’t discount the power of tasting menus to fill you up. Perhaps it’s the complex combination of flavors, perhaps it’s just psychosomatic, but I’ve never been left hanging after one of such experiences.

    Thinking about it, maybe it’s more of “mouth satisfaction” than anything else, but I’ve really never felt “bitin” belly-wise.

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