This summer, Tarsan i Jane replaced its dining room tables with one long, curving black counter that reflects both candlelight and the desire to recast dinner as a one-on-one experience. Now, just 10 people assemble here at a time, in a semicircular arrangement that casts chef Perfecte Rocher’s open kitchen as the stage, his progression of Valencian-Northwest flavors the players.
The restaurant on Leary Way had served shorter prix fixe menus ever since it opened in 2016. Now, every diner commits to a 12-course tasting menu—or the 18-course upgrade. Rocher and his staff line up with their backs to the row of diners, then spin around in the choreographed unison of a vintage Busby Berkeley production to present petite arrangements like coconut panna cotta blanketed in caviar and dotted with fermented lime. Recipients range from rapt Rocher superfans to a trepidatious fiftysomething man who’s game to try these modernist Catalan riffs as part of a friend’s birthday group. “That’s weird!” he declared of the night’s first bite—a coin of blood sausage capped with a barbecue sauce and yuzu.
Some consider a tasting menu the culinary version of a night at the theater; the entire point is submitting to a chef’s vision. Others are wary of odd ingredients, or being stuck in your seat longer than you might be at an actual theater.
A surprising number of new restaurants have embraced the tasting menu, albeit in more casual settings than at Tarsan i Jane. Most, like Le Messe, or Friday- and Saturday-only newcomer Birch, incorporate it alongside a la carte: broad appeal underwriting creative license. At Opus Co. in Greenwood, chef Mark Schroder didn’t expect three-fourths of his diners to go the chef’s menu route; some nights every single table orders it.
“This is how I like to eat when I go out,” he says—let the person who knows the restaurant best, the chef, choose what appears on your plate. “Tasting menu” seemed rather fancy for his $55 family-style version, so he dubbed it the Opus Feast. Sure, this gives Schroder’s whole-animal kitchen a place to use up ancillary necks and shanks. But there’s joy in exposing diners to lesser-known cuts, he says. A perfect pork chop is one thing, but “those are the experiences people walk away remembering.”
Back at Tarsan i Jane, the staff pivots to confer a geoduck course accompanied by a sphere of cantaloupe, liquefied jamon iberico in its center. The guy next to me, the good sport out for his friend’s birthday, popped the melon ball in his mouth. If his experience was anything like mine, the porky flavors concealed within burst forth in a small, savory tidal wave. “That’s weird!” he said once again. This time, his tone harbored something rather like glee.