The tasting menu — at least of the pricey three-hour variety — is typically reserved for birthday fetes and intimate champagne-fueled dates, but it's also a stellar way to savor a chef’s range of cooking. Now that several imaginative chefs are injecting the sometimes rote (asparagus is in season, let’s put it in every dish!), sometimes stuffy, prix fixe dinner formula with alluring personality, there is even further incentive to settle in for a multicourse feast. Here are eight tasting menus, all flaunting a distinct point of view, that are worth bypassing the à la carte.
Nature-inspired: Juni in NYC
When he was growing up in Australia, Shaun Hergatt of Juni in New York fondly devoured chocolate bars like the other kids. Unlike them, he transformed that memory into the Cherry Ripe, a dessert with foie gras mousse and pistachio dust. Likewise, visits to the oyster farm his dad’s pal owned spawned a Japanese charcoal-powdered cracker canapé filled with fresh sea beans and a tapioca pearl. Diners are treated to both when they spring for his $185, 11-course tasting menu, which doubles as an ode to Hergatt’s nature-inspired youth.
12 E. 31st St., New York; 212-995-8599
Sustainability-focused: Laurel in Philadelphia, PA
There is only one way to eat at Laurel, Top Chef Nicholas Elmi’s South Philly restaurant, and that is via the reasonably priced $85, seven-course tasting menu. A champion of sustainability, Elmi’s passion for fresh and local ingredients is reflected in Asian-accented dishes like East Coast sea urchin accompanied by green tomato, cucumber and ponzu, as well as roasted Peking duck with garlic scape, sea beans, coffee and verjus.
1617 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia; 215-271-8299
Farmer's market–driven: Boka in Chicago, IL
Like most chefs keen on just-plucked produce, Lee Wolen of Boka in Chicago relishes his visits to the farmer's market. That is why his discoveries — maybe green chickpeas, maybe rhubarb — make cameos on his ever-changing $115, seven-course tasting menu. Over the course of one evening it is possible to follow up, say, suckling pig confit with summer beans and mustard with violet-amped toasted almond sorbet.
1729 N. Halstead St., Chicago; 312-337-6070
Mexican through a global lens: Empellon Cocina in NYC
When Alex Stupak shuttered his New York restaurant for a revamp, he also gave the menu an overhaul, introducing 18-course tastings that explore Mexican cuisine through a decidedly global lens. The $165 menu changes nightly, but encompasses such nuanced creations as trout-belly tartare flautas and masa waffles with chicken-liver butter.
105 First Ave., New York; 212-780-0999
Relaxed dinner party: Lazy Bear in San Francisco, CA
If you are lucky enough to snag a ticket to one of the sold-a-month-in-advance seatings at Lazy Bear in San Francisco, chef David Barzelay will reward you with such treats as whipped scrambled eggs with bacon, maple and hot sauce and rhubarb with chamomile, pink peppercorn and tarragon. In true laid-back dinner-party fashion, before the meal unfolds at one of the long wood tables, snacks and drinks are served in the upstairs living room.
3416 19th St., San Francisco; 415-874-9921
Rotating chefs and their playlists: Intro in Chicago, IL
Every few months a new “chef-in-residence” finds his way into the kitchen at Chicago restaurant Intro. The cast of roving talents dream up their own menus, while also choosing the music and vibe to reflect their distinct style. Erik Anderson of Nashville’s The Catbird Seat fame is just wrapping up his stint of turning out preserved foie gras tarts with salted strawberries and maple syrup laced roasted hay custard. Up next: Aaron Martinez, who shot to fame while at Quince in San Francisco and Commis in Oakland.
2300 Lincoln Park W., Chicago; 773-868-0002
Travel-inspired: Malai Kitchen in Dallas, TX
Before opening Malai Kitchen in Dallas, Braden Wages spent ample time traveling throughout Southeast Asia. His new tasting menu — a steal at just $58 for four courses — is a playful nod to the cuisine he encountered on those sojourns. The menu rotates every month, but dishes such as grilled sticky rice crostini with housemade Sriracha and stir-fried blue crab lacquered in tamarind glaze always skew toward the experimental.
3699 McKinney Ave. #319, Dallas; 214-599-7857
Impromptu feast: Cure in Pittsburgh, PA
There is no official tasting menu to peruse at Justin Severino’s Mediterranean Pittsburgh lair, Cure. After all, the regular one is constantly in flux. However, loyal fans — and there are many — know to ask the chef for his little publicized, off-the-cuff multicourse spread. The set of five to six spontaneous dishes, for $85, will be different every time, but hopefully includes inventive seafood charcuterie preparations like the Cynar-tinged arctic char.
5336 Butler St., Pittsburgh; 412-252-2595