The High Cost of Tasting Menus?

June 16, 2019

Even before the fine-dining restaurant Pineapple and Pearls (abbreviated P&P hereafter) opened in Spring 2016, several foodies had preemptively decried its then-price of $250. The comments section of numerous online articles became the bastion for their indignation and disgust. Adjectives such as “outrageous”, “ridiculous”, “pretentious”, and “out-of-touch” were just a few of the colorful (and printable!) pejoratives strewn among the discussion. How could any restaurant charge that much money, regardless of how great the food may be, some intoned? How dare Aaron Silverman, chef and owner of the local but nationally regarded Rose’s Luxury, have the temerity to ask such an astronomical price? For those comfortably accustomed to the fast-casual food culture prevalent in Washington, DC, P&P became the source of their ire. If they had been looking for a target to pillory, they found it in a restaurant that appeared excessively expensive, even by DC standards.

In 2016, P&P was not the sole tasting menu in the national capital region. It was simply the latest. Komi, Marcel’s, The Source, minibar and a slew of other establishments were already serving multi-course, multi-hour meals while commanding prices that could be construed as expensive to exorbitant. However, different from most of their peers, P&P had implemented a prepay model consisting of a single amount inclusive of everything:  food, drinks, tax, and tip. Choosing to dine at P&P meant you had to pay all charges at once even before dinner was served. Thus, the price appeared expensive because it was a sum of all related costs typical for any fine-dining meal. In reality, the constituents of the total, when broken out, were very similar to those in other US cities of comparable size. In fact, the food cost alone was quite reasonable when assessed against similar upscale restaurants across the US that serve tasting menus.

Understanding the particulars that made up the P&P price may have required more critical analysis and reasoned judgement than what the average local foodie was willing to make. They were already—mostly—fixated by the three-digit sticker shock. Never mind that P&P was designed and advertised to be a high-end restaurant from the outset, even if it would be located right next door to the more affordable and neighborly Rose’s Luxury. Less important was that, while Rose’s Luxury served mainly an à la carte menu, P&P was always destined to be a tasting-menu restaurant in the evening. (At the time, the restaurant still served coffee, pastries, and sandwiches during the morning and early afternoon.) The foodies who had already branded P&P a pariah had made up their mind and could not be swayed.

The case of P&P is only one example where a particular style of dining appears to invite immediate scrutiny, sometimes damning without cause, due to a perceived high cost. While foodies may debate the merits of a tasting-menu format versus the à la carte option, the impulsive conclusion that tasting menus are altogether too expensive is simply shortsighted. Cost is not some absolute fact after all but rather, a notion relative to individual priorities. For the connoisseurs that enjoy haute cuisine with matching service, the price of tasting menus is, generally speaking, an acceptable expense. For those who prefer more casual or fast-casual dining predominantly, tasting menus may appear unnecessarily and prohibitively expensive. Both arguments can be valid, depending on the context and perspective. However, the knee-jerk assertion that tasting-menu restaurants are categorically overpriced comes across as too ill-informed and too faulty of a claim to make without a more nuanced discussion. Similarly, questions such as “Is it worth it?” cannot be simply and objectively answered without first knowing an individual’s perspective on the cost of dining.

Whatever rationalization one chooses to assess the price of tasting menus, they do not have to be an either/or, take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Across the US, numerous restaurants offer them at various price points and with different levels of service. They cater to a broad range of budgets as well as appetites. One can dine on as few as four courses in roughly the span of a typical lunch period or indulge in a much longer experience consisting of twenty or more individual dishes spread over several hours. In short, if a premium tasting menu like P&P is beyond one’s allotted budget, other much more affordable options exist.

Little Pearl, located in the same Capitol Hill neighborhood as Rose’s Luxury, is one such restaurant. By day, the café offers casual cuisine for breakfast and lunch, the same foods P&P once served during daytime hours back in 2016. In the evening, it switches to a tasting-menu format that delivers eight courses for $45, a fraction of what P&P now charges. Because of Little Pearl’s lesser price, the restaurant, as a matter of fact, cannot offer the same panoply of luxury ingredients found at P&P, of course. Nevertheless, the cooking is solidly competent and self-assured and no less fun or playful than either of its siblings. The courses in this particular tasting menu, deemed favorites of the restaurant, wallop your taste buds all the same with its creative and delicious combinations of flavors.

Despite a name that alludes to a younger, more inexperienced member of the family, Little Pearl is not naïve about any aspects of the dining experience it offers. Though the ambience is purposely less serious than P&P, I experienced roughly the same level of care and attention during a recent dinner. Eating here was pure delight. From my perspective as a foodie who has eaten at multiple three-Michelin-starred restaurants, inexpensive did not equate to reduced enjoyment or an inferior experience compared to a more elaborate tasting menu at a much higher price point. One can easily have a great dining adventure here and leave feeling you have received an amazing value.

With its terrific food and service, Little Pearl manages to carry, rather effortlessly at times, the same charm and whimsy that catapulted Rose’s Luxury to national prominence in 2014 when the popular restaurant landed the #1 spot on Bon Appetit’s annual list of “Best New Restaurants in America”. The atmosphere captures the same ebullient spirit one would find at P&P, borrowing much of the same finesse and hallmarks, albeit in a more relaxed setting. I found much to admire at this restaurant. Little Pearl successfully removes the notion that a tasting menu has to be expensive to be great or that it is only relegated to special occasions such as birthdays, graduations, or anniversaries. Tasting menus can accommodate everyone, regardless of how one perceives its cost. 

table setting

Course 1:  A creamy double-egg filling, topped with pickled ramp powder, sat on top of a meringue block acting as the egg white. This was a playful rendition of the classic hors d’oeuvre.

angel egg

Course 2:  An elevated take on a familiar side often served for breakfast or as a sandwich accompaniment.

fancy tater tots

Course 3:  I contend that Japanese mayo, with MSG as an ingredient, is far superior in taste to any American concoction. This course was a celebration of one of Maryland’s best seasonal seafood.

blue-crab onigiri, Old Bay seasoning, Japanese Kewpie mayo

Course 4:  Any tasting menu that includes a classic bar snack is going to be a fun one. This course was a reminder that Little Pearl never takes itself too seriously even when it is serving a tasting menu.

spicy pineapple chicken wings, chive, mint

Course 5:  Think sweet and savory notes combined here. Rather than overpowering the sorbet, the cheese complemented the sweetness of the sorbet quite naturally.

sorbet with Maytag blue-cheese crumble

Course 6:  This was the meat-and-vegetable dish, jazzed up. The steak was cooked to a perfect shade of medium-rare, exactly the way I like it.

steak au poivre, roasted Bluefoot mushrooms,
seared asparagus, topped with a peppercorn-Cognac sauce

À la Carte Course A:  The shrimp was marinated in a mixture of sherry vinegar and orange juice and served with a saffron aioli. House-made focaccia toast was provided as a starchy accessory to the tender shrimp. The richness of both the toast and aioli was nicely balanced by the acidity of the shrimp broth.

rock shrimp escabeche

À la Carte Course B:  This delicious burger was made with brisket and dry-aged strip loin, cheddar, beef fat-caramelized onions, and Russian dressing all on a brioche bun. It was serve with a potato shake which contained rich buttermilk. While it used a few upscale ingredients, the burger was mostly designed to invoke nostalgia and to hearken back to one’s adolescent years of hanging out at fast-food joints with friends. The unusual flavor of the milkshake was a playful nod to the practice of dipping fries into a milkshake or Wend’s Frosty. By the way, the “Grantimal-style” term was coined to describe as a mashup of cook Grant Gaydos’ name and the Animal-style burger from In-N-Out.

Course 7:  This dessert tasted delicious and comforting, much like the food from Rose’s Luxury in its earliest days.

vanilla pound cake, rhubarb ice cream,
fresh strawberries, tarragon oil, honey brittle

Course 8:  A classic Mexican treat that can close just about any tasting menu. Almost as good as a trip to Mexico City. It was certainly motivation for me to plan my next excursion down south.

churro with spicy chocolate sauce

Extra Dessert:  My amazing server, Roman Rossonero, provided me this cookie as an extra treat. He jokingly gave it a facetious name because I had asked if, next time, the kitchen would please cook my burger medium-rare instead of the standard medium-well.

“medium-rare” chocolate-chip cookie

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