Critics’ choice: New masters of the tasting menu

Saison; Minibar; Alma

Saison San Francisco

Saison’s tasting menu makes “extraordinary” demands on all takers, said Pete Wellsin The New York Times. For starters, the $298 price isn’t pocket change. Beyond that, the parade of dishes lasts three hours, the menu isn’t posted in advance, and chef/owner Joshua Skenes loves 1980s pop, which means his diners might be subjected to Phil Collins not once during a meal, but twice. When I ate at Saison just last year, I wished I had an escape hatch. But during a more recent meal in Saison’s chic new concrete-floored space, the pleasures far outweighed the costs. Across 15 courses, “I wasn’t bored once, and several times I was on the edge of my seat,” not knowing what thrill would arrive next. The 33-year-old Skenes “approaches his ingredients like a psychoanalyst: He makes them look inward, encouraging them to unlock their hidden potential.” So his cured tuna “was like prosciutto from the ocean,” and the grilled asparagus that it came with tasted “like a heightened version of itself.” A slice of cured blue-wing sea robin, seared along one edge, might have been the most memorable dish that night, but it’s very hard to choose. 178 Townsend St., (415) 828-7990

Minibar Washington, D.C.

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It’s not unusual these days for a chef to present himself as an artist, said Todd Kliman in Washingtonian. But few can make as valid a claim to the title as José Andrés. Consider the renowned chef’s latest masterwork—Minibar’s $225, 28-course tasting menu. You begin it studying his handiwork; “you end up simply submitting to it.” Using mostly molecular-gastronomy techniques, Andrés delivers a convention-defying, aesthetic triumph of a meal that also defies the contemporary craze for local, seasonal ingredients. Why serve a carrot when you can serve a dab of orange gel that tastes like an idealized form of carrot? Ditto a candied walnut filled with a cream that tastes “more strongly of walnut than a walnut.” Many courses are only a few bites, and many, like a “voluptuously rich” pig-tail curry laid between two meringues, are “little more than delivery systems for an idea.” But more substantive courses have been added recently, “including a grilled lobster tail and a luscious squab breast.” They make all the difference. “An intensely cerebral exercise is now also a feast for the senses.” 855 E St. NW, (202) 393-0812

Alma Los Angeles

A reasonably priced avant-garde tasting menu is a rarity in any city, said Matt Duckor in Bon Appétit. In L.A., there’s been no real precedent for tasting menus at all—which makes Ari Taymor’s Alma nothing short of a revelation. Taymor, a veteran of San Francisco’s Flour + Water who started Alma as a pop-up, settled for good into a minimalist space in a deserted section of downtown late last year. Since then, his output, highlighted by a “vegetable-centric” $90 tasting menu, has begun to look like “the future of California cuisine.” Meat does show up in the revolving menu, as in succulent smoked duck breast accompanied by peanut sprouts and peanuts steeped in milk. But whether Taymor is surprising you with a radish tofu or comforting you with a plate of carrots and porcini mushrooms, he’s become a veritable vegetable whisperer. 925 S. Broadway, (213) 444-0984

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