Since the early 1970s, when Alice Waters first opened Chez Panisse with a four-course set dinner, tasting menus — a price-fixed meal in which the chef serves up a series of unchangeable courses — have flourished in the San Francisco area.
Using local, seasonal ingredients that may be abundant one day and gone the next is what defines California cuisine: After all, what better way for chefs to show off their technique and prowess with farm-fresh produce than in a tasting menu?
Currently, the trend is experiencing a revival. Not only can you find these sensational options at upscale, award-winning restaurants, but you can also enjoy a memorable prix-fixe meal at the beloved neighborhood bistro. From low to high, here are the tasting menus we’re hungry for in the Bay Area.
It’s difficult to get a reservation at Trestle — and for good reason. The restaurant’s three-course, $35 prix-fixe menu changes nightly and is quite possibly the best deal in town. Diners get to choose from two different dishes per course, usually a soup or salad to start; beef, chicken, pork or fish as the main course; and a fruit-driven or chocolate-based dessert. A pasta course can be added to the menu for an additional cost. The food is comforting, homey and absolutely delicious. There isn’t a pinch of pretentiousness in the kitchen or dining area. The staff is warm and welcoming, and the vibe is inclusive and bustling. You’ll leave wishing the Jackson Square restaurant were down the street from your house.
With its thick fog and lack of hip restaurants, the Outer Richmond district is hardly a premier San Francisco dining destination. However, one eatery — Cassava — is trying to change the way diners view the neighborhood, one four-course tasting menu at a time.
Cassava’s cozy, bistro-like space is the sort of place where the owners know your favorite type of wine and inquire about your father’s health. The walls are painted pale blue and simple alstroemeria arrangements sit on the small wooden tables.
Cassava is run by chef Kris Toliao and his wife, general manager Yuka Ioroi. Its tasting menu, only available at dinner, features some of Toliao’s innovative cuisine. He takes seemingly standard dishes and elevates them to new and exciting heights by mixing flavors and textures. A bitter green and strawberry salad is ubiquitous in S.F., but at Cassava, it’s a revelation. Dried blueberries provide sweetness, crispy brown rice adds crunch, shiso gives it a punch of flavor and herbed crème frâiche pulls it all together.
Dominique Crenn is one of the world’s top chefs. A tasting menu at her first restaurant, Atelier Crenn, is costly ($300 per person), but if you want to see what the chef has to offer at a more affordable price, book a meal at her second eatery, Petit Crenn. Diners can enjoy an $87 five-course seafood and vegetable menu served at two seatings nightly. The food is so fresh that the chefs have been known to walk through the restaurant holding the catch of the day (the main course!). Oysters are often the first course, and local vegetables shine throughout the tasting.
Crenn’s childhood memories of visiting her grandmother in the coastal town of Brittany, France, inspired the nautical clean décor and traditional French cuisine. Delish!
Michael Mina, San Francisco
At Michael Mina’s Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star restaurant, adventurous diners can delight in two different tasting menus. The first is a three-course roster showcasing Mina’s signature trios, and the second is an even-more elaborate eight-course chef’s menu. Whichever tempts you, rest assured that it will be an intricate and out-of-this-world experience in an elegant and refined setting.
To sample how Mina made a name for himself, order the trios. Choose a seasonal option of sashimi, soft-shell crab or Morro Bay abalone as the first course. Each ingredient will be featured in three distinct and tasty ways, illustrating Mina’s dexterity in the kitchen.
To nibble on some of his classic dishes, like the caviar parfait with smoked salmon and potato cake, order the chef’s tasting. The bites are smaller — Monterey Bay squid, 28-day dry-aged beef and Spanish bluefin sashimi, to name a few — but more plentiful and jam-packed with luxurious elements like stinging nettle, foie gras and yuzu.
Up in wine country at the Four-Star Solage Calistoga, the spectacular Solbar serves up a memorable and scrumptious prix-fixe dinner. The seven-course tasting spread spotlights a wide range of ingredients, preparations and innovations. Chef Brandon Sharp expertly combines unexpected flavors on the endlessly evolving menu. For example, a briny oyster is served atop a pool of cooling passion fruit sorbet that melts in your mouth. Salmon tartare is done with a tangy mustard cream and a generous dollop of caviar.
The poolside patio setting is bucolic and feels a little European. Mini Edison bulbs drape from the trees to create a romantic feel. The meal lasts several hours. If a chill sets in while you’re at the table, the superb staff will wheel out a portable heater or wrap your shoulders in a snug blanket. Solbar’s tasting menu makes for a lovely celebratory meal, and the wine pairings are encouraged — it is Napa after all!