Are Tasting Menus the Future of Fine Dining in the Carolinas?

Craving curated experiences

At Zero Restaurant the tasting menu format lets Chef Vinson Petrillo turn out big flavors from a tiny kitchen
At Zero Restaurant the tasting menu format lets Chef Vinson Petrillo turn out big flavors from a tiny kitchen (Jonathan Boncek)

By Robert F. Moss

After almost two years away from fine dining tables, I had the chance to sample several multi-course tasting menus here in the Carolinas recently. The first was at the end of the summer, when I visited Zero Restaurant + Bar in Charleston for my inaugural restaurant review for The Southeastern Dispatch. I found it a refreshing change of pace and a thoroughly delightful experience.

But don’t tell the restaurant critics up in New York and Boston that I said that. The tasting menu has been on the outs with that crowd for years.

The Backlash

The backlash started about a decade ago, at the peak of the chef-as-auteur era. For years the media had been lauding the swaggering genius of rock-star chefs who threw foie gras and caviar around with reckless abandon. What were once five- or six-course displays of culinary finesse stretched into ten then twelve then twenty courses, consuming the diner’s entire evening with gustatory excess.

Eventually the critics got full. In 2012, in a column entitled “Nibbled to Death,” Pete Wells of the New York Times bemoaned the excesses of the format. In the hands of the best chefs, he allowed, such menus could produce masterpieces of skill and harmony, but increasingly he saw himself as “a cog in an invisible machine” that “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.”

A few months later, Corby Kummer lodged a similar complaint in Vanity Fair, labeling endless multi-course extravaganzas “tedious” and their creators as “a new army of fresh-faced Stalins” determined “to spread tyranny across the land.” Other commentators piled on, decrying the “endurance race for my stomach” and the “macho demonstration by mostly male chefs” designed to “beat the diner into submission.”

The chef’s tasting menu has been on the decline ever since, and it looked like the pandemic might put an end to it altogether.

In Chicago, when John and Karen Shields of Smyth had to close their dining room, they fashioned a smoker out of their restaurant’s fireplace and a rolling kitchen rack and started selling smoked brisket and ribs as “Johnny Good Times Smoked Meats.” Akiko Moorman and her husband, Chef Phillip Foss, pivoted to barbecue, too, recasting El Ideas, their small tasting menu-driven restaurant, as Boxcar Barbecue, cooking chicken, ribs, and beef on an old smoker that had been gathering dust in the kitchen.

Here in Charleston, after tinkering with its formula repeatedly, the Neighborhood Dining Group threw in the towel in April 2020 and permanently shuttered McCrady’s 18-seat tasting room. The intimate setting and highly choreographed meals, the group’s president concluded, would “no longer be viable in this changed business environment.”

But rumors of the tasting menu’s demise proved premature. In Chicago, Smyth jettisoned barbecue and resumed its tasting menu format as soon it could reopen its dining room in March, and so did El Ideas. Last month Martin Spivak chronicled the return of the big-ticket tasting menu to Manhattan in his “Global Gourmet” column. Restaurants like Per Se ($355 for nine courses, $850 for the “Evolution Menu”) and Masa ($650) were back, and with eye-popping prices to boot.

Sprock is not thrilled by the revival. “It seems obvious that the pandemic has exacerbated the income gap between rich and poor,” he writes, “and those who can afford to do so are reaching new heights of conspicuous consumption.”

Adam Platt struck a similar note in a recent New York Magazine column that asks, “Who Wants Caviar at a Time Like This?” He leads with an anecdote about his inability to find anyone to accompany him to try the new $335 vegan tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park (and he was offering to pick up the tab.) “Now, with people struggling all over the city,” he concludes, “and fashionable tastes veering — as they have been for years — toward three-star tacos, burgers, and bowls of ramen, a fancy multicourse menu feels like the opposite of sophistication to a new generation of diners.”

Playing Against Form

Taken to the extreme, the chef’s tasting menu can indeed be an exercise in elitist conspicuous consumption (q.v. the $850 Evolution Menu at Per Se). But it doesn’t by its nature have to be. To some degree, its reputation has never recovered from the backlash that came during the peak days of cheffy excess.

Consider this anecdote from Platt’s New York Magazine piece:

“All these places try to tell a story,” an astute young Brooklyn gourmet told me the other day. “But in the end, they’re all the same. They serve the same caviar or oysters to start, the same butter-poached-lobster course and then beef or duck to finish — we’ve seen it all before . . .”

Perhaps that’s the case in Manhattan, but that hasn’t been my experience with tasting menus in the Carolinas in recent months. As I shared in my review of Zero Restaurant, I found its offering to be refreshingly playful, light, and full of surprises. The same was true when I last dined at Zero’s sister restaurant, Wild Common, which also has a tasting menu-only format.

With just four courses—a selection of small “bites”, a “first”, an entree, and a dessert—Wild Common’s menu is slimmer than Zero’s, and its lower $75 fixed price is on par with a fine dining meal ordered a la carte. There’s no butter-poached lobster to be found, either.

Chef Orlando Pagán’s plates are downright delicate: a single seared scallop with sweet corn curry and blue crab rice, tiny har gaw dumplings filled with local shrimp and garnished with seabeans and ginger. Yes, there are oysters, served chilled with summer melon and ham. There may be duck—shredded in Korean-style barbecue sauce and tucked inside a steam bun—but the meal is likely to end with stuffed quail or a pan seared local fish.

And what on earth can we make of Bardo, where I dropped in on a Thursday night while visiting Charlotte a few weeks ago? With all those bankers and their expense accounts, one might think the Queen City would be ripe for flashy Evolution Menus served amid conspicuous luxury—flowing white tablecloths, elaborate chandeliers, ornate flower displays.

Not at Bardo. Hip hop pumps from speakers amid the exposed steel beams of the black-painted ceiling. Cinderblock walls are tagged with colorful graffiti, including the slogan “We’re Not Human” in stylized blue and white letters on the counter separating the open kitchen from the dining room.

With grafitti-tagged walls and a hip hop soundtrack Bardo doesn't exactly fit the conspicuous consumption mold
With grafitti-tagged walls and a hip hop soundtrack Bardo doesn't exactly fit the conspicuous consumption mold

No one is required to submit to a tyrannical beating from the chef, for there are options—five, seven, or twelve courses. I opted for seven, which seemed the judicious middle path. As I was polishing off the dessert course—an egg-shaped scoop of red bean ice cream surrounded by hunks of pillowy angel food and dollops of neufchâtel—I wished I had gone for all twelve. It wasn’t because I was still hungry. (I was full but not stuffed.) I just enjoyed the moment when each of the seven plates arrived so much that I didn’t want the adventure to end.

Bardo’s lineup is certainly not something we’ve all seen before. No caviar, no oysters, no lobster, not even duck. Vegetables and fruits play a prominent role on many plates, like sliced heart of palm adorned with greens, passionfruit, and delightfully fruity crumbs of freeze dried strawberry. Other dishes layer together intense umami flavors, like salt cod topped with shaved bonito. The closest we got to a beef course was a chunk of fried sweetbreads garnished with radish and a sweet sherry glaze.

This kind of thing is all very new to Charlotte. Bardo opened originally with an a la carte small plate format in 2018. When the pandemic forced the shuttering of its dining room followed by reopening at just 50% capacity, chef Mike Noll and managing partner Jayson Whiteside took the opportunity to step back and rethink their concept.

They closed down for a few weeks, and when Bardo reopened in October 2020, gone were the charred shishito peppers and bowls of grains topped with poached eggs and fried kale. But Noll and Whiteside were actually just going back to their original idea for the restaurant.

“My goal long term was always to make Bardo a tasting menu restaurant,” Noll says. “In 2018 it was really aggressive. No one [in Charlotte] was doing it.”

Faced with the new Covid-era reality— including an already small dining room made smaller by the six-foot table spacing requirement—he and Whiteside said, effectively, screw it. “Let’s reopen and do what we want to do,” Noll says. “Covid sucked, but it gave us that opportunity to reset, and we went full steam into the menu.”

Prior to the makeover, Bardo’s decor was more in line with the spartan aesthetic of farm-to-table restaurants—stained concrete floors, white subway tile framing the opening to the kitchen, bare wood tables with black-stained tops. The graffiti on the walls? That was added with the re-formatting last fall.

Let that sink in a moment. The owners shifted to a tasting menu format and figured the best way to set the proper tone was to cover the walls with spray-painted slogans and cartoons.

Going Small

As Bardo illustrates, the tasting menu format, despite its association with sprawling excess, can also be a means for dealing with constraints—to go small, if you will.

That certainly was the case with Zero Restaurant in Charleston. Chef Vinson Petrillo says that when he was hired in 2014 to take over the culinary operation at the Zero George Hotel, it was little more than “an amenity for the guests.”

In what was originally called Zero Café and Bar, Petrillo and his lone staff member served very utilitarian fare.“We made breakfast for the guests and had a snack menu and a bar menu,” he recalls. A year and a half in, he convinced the owners to expand the café into a restaurant, and one with a tasting menu format. He didn’t have many other options.

For starters, the kitchen was tiny. “It’s 145 square feet,” Petrillo says. “It’s too small for people to order random things.” They considered having a compact rotating menu like the one at Chez Nous, where chef Jill Mathias serves just two appetizers, two entrées, and two desserts that change each day. In the end, though, Petrillo landed on the tasting menu as the way to make the most of his limited resources.

Chef Vinson Petrillo of Zero Restaurant in Charleston
Chef Vinson Petrillo of Zero Restaurant in Charleston (Jonathan Boncek)

Petrillo points to another benefit of the format that is particularly relevant right now, as restaurants across the spectrum struggle with ever-rising food costs. “Everything is reservation-based,” Petrillo says, “so we know exactly what we need to order, and we just order what we need. That lets us control the waste as opposed to having 14 things on the menu and not knowing [what will sell.]”

A tasting menu might be fixed on any particular night, but the format itself is very dynamic. “You have to change the menu,” says Mike Noll of Bardo. “You can’t keep the same 12 dishes. What we do is put something on and work on it until we feel like it’s where we need to be. Its essentially when we get bored with it or new things come into season.”

It’s the same at Zero. “I don’t change every part every week,” Petrillo says. “I might keep something on for two weeks or three weeks.” But, once it’s gone, a dish rarely comes back to the line up. “We don’t believe in moving backwards.”

That dynamism makes the format very appealing to restaurants’ kitchen staff. “My chefs were super psyched that we went to the tasting menu,” Noll says. “It’s definitely way more disciplined, way more thought-out and methodical about prepping and execution. The good thing about the tasting menu is that it’s a constant creative process of keeping things relevant and fun and up to date.”

That doesn’t mean that all the stars are aligned for tasting menus at the moment. The same staffing woes that are plaguing restaurants of all genres make it tough to execute a tasting menu right now, both in the back of the house and the front. A higher level of execution and skill is required in the kitchen, especially when dishes change daily. The same is true out on the floor, where servers play a more involved role in the presentation and have to guide diners through complex preparations and the nuances of wine pairings.

For years one of the most luxurious tasting menus in Charleston has been chef Michelle Weaver’s at Charleston Grill, where guests could choose four, six or eight courses accompanied by three tiers of wine pairings from perhaps the city’s best stocked cellar. But the multi-course tasting options disappeared from the printed menu this year.

“Currently we are doing tasting menus by request,” Weaver says. “Due to the staffing situation it gives me a little more control of how many we are doing at any given time.” They typically limit the tasting menu to between two and four people, and each is created specifically for those guests.

And that brings us to what may be the biggest barrier to the tasting menu’s going mainstream. Diners these days are increasingly unwilling to yield control, and the tasting menu is the opposite of having it your way.

The myriad allergies, dietary restrictions, and philosophical aversions that diners bring to the table make it impossible to craft a single slate of dishes that can accommodate everyone, though the chefs do try. The servers at Bardo dutifully ask each table at the outset, “Do you have any allergies or dietary restrictions we need to accommodate?”

It’s particularly acute in Bardo’s case, because diners don’t see the actual menu until after the meal. Up front, all they get is a slim card with the number of courses they can choose, for surprise is integral to the experience.

At Bardo guests only see the menu after the meal
At Bardo guests only see the menu after the meal

“They don’t know what they are getting,” Noll says. “A lot of guests are taken aback by that, but at the end of the meal they usually come around.”

At Charleston Grill, requiring diners to arrange the tasting menu in advance allows Weaver to take a different approach. “Each menu is curated for the guests depending on dietary restrictions, allergies, likes and dislikes,” she says. “So each set of menus are different.“

It’s more difficult at restaurants like Zero that aren’t set up for a la carte dining. “I spend most of my days making menus for people with restrictions,” Petrillo says, and it isn’t always easy to make substitutions. “We are also so small that we don’t have things like tofu lying around.”

When they know of dietary restrictions in advance, the Zero team will often go shopping for ingredients specifically to accommodate those guests. “So we have to change twelve things,” Petrillo says. “Sometimes it’s fun, but within these last few months . . . it’s not fun.”

The format might not be right for everyone, but chefs are working to win more diners over to the experience. In the end, it all comes down to trust. Far from being “fresh-faced Stalins,” cooks in the Carolinas are looking to bond with diners, not dominate them.

At Bardo, the original lineup of small plates helped groom the regular customers for the shift to the new format. “The thing with our restaurant,” Noll says, “is we do have a really good cult following, so people trusted us. It’s not like we went swinging for the fences with the tasting menu right off the bat.”

Petrillo agrees. “You have to have a little bit of trust when you sit down,” he says. “We don’t make things weird to be weird. Everything has to be delicious . . . we want every plate that you have to be delicious and to have a balance to it.”

The Wave of the Future?

At first blush, the argument that fancy multi-course menus are out of step with the current moment seems compelling. Indeed, who would want caviar at a time like this?

But if you take that idea to its logical end, does any sort of fine dining make sense going forward? Does eating out at all make sense, with the economics pushing inevitably toward the $20 cheeseburger? Why not just pack a nice home-cooked picnic and eat it with friends in the park?

Assuming you’re not convinced that an occasional big night out is wasteful and cruel, which seems more in step with the times: dropping a bundle on a 24-ounce dry aged cowboy ribeye with grilled asparagus in the heart of winter? Or putting yourself in the hands of talented, creative chefs for a series of small, unexpected bites, each bringing novel but balanced combinations that intensify and extract every last bit of flavor from each small portion?

I’d opt for the latter myself, and I suspect many others would, too. The chefs I spoke with are optimistic that, far from fading into irrelevance, the tasting menu has a promising future.

Vinson Petrillo sees a market where restaurateurs are increasingly getting pulled in one of two directions. “A lot of chefs are going to be moving to some sort of fast casual concept,” he predicts. “Your awesome cheeseburger or your cheesesteak.” (Or your shatteringly crisp fried chicken sandwich, in the case of Ashley Christensen.)

But that doesn’t mean fine dining is dead. “I think its going to be a little bit of both,” he says. “An offering that’s going to give people joy, like a cheeseburger or delivery or pickup. And we’ll still have something like a nice restaurant. . . . I feel like more than ever people have a reason to celebrate. Why not get out there and indulge in something?”

For now, Charleston remains the most fertile ground in the Carolinas for the tasting menu-only model. In addition to Zero and Wild Common, R. Kitchen offers a five-course, reservation only menu that changes daily at its two locations, one downtown on the Peninsula and the other out in West Ashley. Chef Anthony Marini just opened The Pass, which serves artisan deli sandwiches at lunch but at night offers a reservation-only eight-course meal at its chef’s table.

Mike Noll of Bardo is bullish on the prospects of the tasting menu in Charlotte, too. “I think it’s going to grow,” he says. “Charlotte’s a growing city. I think its going to be constantly evolving.”

Indeed, Charlotte already has a second tasting menu-only restaurant, Counter-, which opened in September 2020 and is every bit as iconoclastic as Bardo. (The name with its appended hyphen invokes “counter” everything—counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, counter-balanced.) Chef Sam Hart’s ten-course meals are seasonally themed to tell a story, and each course is paired not just with wine but with music to create an “immersive” dining experience. It’s proved so popular that Counter- is moving into a larger space next spring.

Might the curated tasting menu find its way to other Carolina cities in the future? I wouldn’t rule it out. The era of gaudy conspicuous consumption and tyrannical chefs doesn’t seem likely to return, but as diners stumble out of the malaise of 2020 and 2021 and look hopefully forward, an array of small, intensely-flavored bites might offer a much-needed culinary adventure.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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