20 October 2015
Wall Street Journal
When patrons dine at O Ya, an adventurous, Japanese-inspired restaurant that opened in June inside the Park South Hotel in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood, they know to come hungry.
One night last week, the array of dishes served to most guests included hamachi with banana-pepper mousse, eel with Thai basil, Pacific Coast oysters prepared two ways, a warm chive omelet and a “Legs & Eggs” pairing of lobster meat and caviar.
And that wasn’t even the first half of the menu.
In all, O Ya aims to wow diners with a 24-course meal that can last up to four hours and costs $245 per person, not including tax, tips or drinks. The idea is to experience “a slew of flavor profiles, textures, temperatures and spice levels” in one sitting, said its chef, Tim Cushman, who runs the 55-seat restaurant with his wife, Nancy.
Tasting menus, featuring a succession of courses usually determined by the chef, have multiplied in New York City over the past decade. No sooner does one restaurant grab the attention of deep-pocketed gastronomes with its tasting menu than another starts touting its multicourse meal, often with an even longer or more complex menu.
Consider that in 2004, when Thomas Keller opened the contemporary American restaurant Per Se at the Time Warner Center, he did so with a nine-course tasting-menu option. When the Japanese-meets-French Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare bowed in downtown Brooklyn in 2009, it set 15 courses as a kind of culinary benchmark.
Today, O Ya is one of a few local restaurants with 20 or more courses on its omakase (a Japanese term for “chef’s choice”) menu. Others with sizable tasting or omakase menus include the West Village’s Sushi Nakazawa (21 courses), the East Village’s Shuko (25-30 courses) and Bushwick’s contemporary-minded Blanca (with 18-22). O Ya also offers a relatively restrained 18-course option for $185.
Diners appear to be eating, and eating, it up. Restaurants specializing in ambitious multicourse meals are often booked weeks or months in advance, wooing patrons with dishes ranging fromGabriel Kreuther’s sturgeon-and-sauerkraut tart to Atera’s contemporary take on the Danish chocolate-covered treat known as the flødeboller.
Buo Zhang, a 30-year-old Manhattan resident who has eaten at Chef’s Table, O Ya and Blanca, considers herself a fan of the concept.
“Just like artists sculpt or paint, these chefs do something similar, but they do it with food,” said Ms. Zhang, who works in finance. She typically skips breakfast and lunch in advance of a tasting-menu dinner, she said, and sometimes the previous night’s supper as well.
Chefs say that tasting-menu meals aren’t gluttonous affairs, noting that a “course” can be as small as a piece of sushi or a bite-sized portion of beef. And they take pains to structure a meal that the average diner can enjoy from start to finish.
At O Ya, for example, the meal has courses intended as palate-refreshing transitions, like a mushroom broth flavored with citrus and rosemary that comes a little past the halfway point, between light sashimi dishes and heavier, cooked ones.
Mr. Cushman, who won a James Beard Foundation award for his first incarnation of the restaurant in Boston, said his goal isn’t to outrank other chefs doing tasting menus, but to offer as satisfying an experience as possible.
“It’s not like we’re doing 24 courses to beat out the guy who’s doing 23,” he said.
According to Francine Segan, a New York-based food historian and cookbook author, multicourse dining has a long history. “The ancient Romans were famous for it,” she said.
More to the point, she and other culinary experts said that New York chefs are now running with a trend that has its roots in the work of the influential Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, whose now-closed El Bulli was famous for serving meals with as many as 50 courses.
Some overstuffed diners are begging for less. David Rosengarten, a former Food Network personality who now edits a culinary newsletter, cites a meal at a New York restaurant—he declined to name it—that stretched into six hours, with more than 20 courses.
“We just started to crumble in our seats,” he said.
Surprisingly, a chef who is famous for his tasting menu can empathize.
Masayoshi Takayama’s 11-year-old, three-Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Masa was a tasting-menu pioneer in New York, and it continues to offer a $450 meal that can easily top 25 courses.
But Mr. Takayama emphasizes the lightness of most of the courses, as well as that he aims to get customers out of the dining room within a relatively quick two hours. Chefs, he said, need to respect diners’ limits, food and time-wise.
“Too much is too much,” he said.