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New trend in menus: Celebrating chefs' whims

craigie on main dish

Omakase, the Japanese word for “entrusting,” also refers to menus that require diners to put their trust in the chef to prepare a tasting selection. These omakaseor “chef’s choice”menus have been on the rise for years in more upscale establishments. Although traditionally associated with sushi, these menus are growing beyond Japanese fare to include Italian, French and other cuisines. Here’s a sampling from around the U.S.

Maple & Ash

maple ash menu

Maple & Ash is a Chicago steakhouse that debuted in October. The restaurant spotlights an “I Don’t Give A F*@K” selection that it describes merely as “Let us take care of you.” For $145, guests can leave their entire dining experience up to the chef’s discretion.

Craigie on Main

craigie on main chef

Craigie on Main, in Boston’s neighboring city of Cambridge, is a seasonal, rustic French-inspired restaurant. Available on Sundays after 9 p.m. is a $57 six-course or $45 four-course Chef’s Whim menu, in which chef Tony Maws serves up impromptu, never-to-be-repeated dishes in two versions: a meat-friendly The Surprise, and The Vegetarian Surprise.

Corduroy

corduroy

Corduroy is a fine-dining New American restaurant in Washington, D.C. The restaurant serves a $70 Chef’s Surprise Five Course Tasting Menu, which in the past has featured dishes such as lobster and sea bass bisque, sea urchin linguine and fruit or chocolate tarts.

Sanford

sanford restaurant chef

Sanford in Milwaukee describes itself as a “modern ethnic” restaurant that sources from local farms and artisans when possible. Available Monday through Friday is a seven-course Surprise Tasting Menu that’s tailored “for the adventurous diner where caution is thrown to the wind.” It’s priced at $85, with an optional $40 wine pairing.

Several trends support the uptick of restaurants offering this format. First, these menus allow chefs to spotlight peak seasonal ingredients, which diners increasingly crave. In addition, many Americans are now willing to shell out the extra dough for these once-in-a-lifetime dining occasions. In fact, diners age 18–34—traditionally the most concerned about value and price—are on average willing to pay $282 for a splurge culinary experience, compared to those age 45–54 ($170) and age 65 and older ($122), according to a recent Michelin poll.

While the industry moves in the direction of greater menu transparency, it’s interesting that we’re seeing this coinciding trend of mysterious dining at full-service restaurants. However, the potential for chef’s choice menus beyond upscale restaurants abounds. Though offering a full tasting menu may be impractical for most chains, creating a single chef’s choice food or beverage item is not only possible at chef-driven trendy fast casuals and retailers—it’s also an opportunity. Diners still want mystery when it comes to some dining occasions, as it adds to the overall experience. Creating a trusting environment paired with a little hype could go a long way for restaurants looking to offer a chef’s choice item.

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