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Baweja prepares a tasting menu. Photo by Stephanie Breijo.
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Lehja's seared scallops over yellow crab curry. Photo by Stephanie Breijo.
In Lehja’s busy Short Pump kitchen, Sandeep “Sunny” Baweja gently spoons a mellow, yellow curry of mustard, coconut cream, onion and a secret combination of Southern Indian spices into a pan. A scoop of backfin crabmeat and two seared scallops later, and the managing partner, chef and host has created one of the restaurant’s most delicate, nuanced and wholly craveable dishes. But there’s a catch.
“With the tasting menu,” he says, “we want to showcase.”
Tasting menus are few and far between in Richmond, and can be as elusive as they are immersive. Many restaurants don’t list these three- to 10-course dinners on their menus or websites, as these multi-hour meals require extra planning and execution in addition to a chef’s attention to regular dinner service. But if you do find them, the rewards for diners are plentiful.
“If I go out to dinner and I see a tasting menu, I will order it because, to me, it’s highlighting what a chef does,” says David Dunlap, executive chef at Maple & Pine. He’s been testing his own tasting menu, which he hopes to launch this spring. “Each course should have a sequence and supersede the other and become harmonious.”
It’s a meal, a bonding experience, a window into the chef’s skill and creativity. A procession of courses unavailable on a restaurant’s menu, the tasting allows chefs to work more closely with dietary restrictions and limited, exotic ingredients they typically wouldn't purchase. Some allow chefs to work without boundaries, while some push the boundaries of tradition. At Lehja, the offerings shift from specific regional cuisine to a blend; Southern Indian curries share a plate with Northern-style prawns. “With the regular menu, you change it every season. But these items,” Baweja flips black chickpeas — another tasting specialty — over a burner, “you can do only at certain times, and you can change it every other day.”
It’s a secret menu, an achievement unlocked. If you’re looking to set aside a few hours of your evening and leave your meal in a chef’s capable hands, keep in mind that one typically books a tasting a few days to a week in advance, so that the chef can begin preparing. While Heritage, Acacia Mid-town and Dutch & Co. do not advertise their tastings, they’re happy to comply, but prefer notice. Often, a tasting will include one or two regular menu items. Mel Oza of Curry Craft breaks his tasting menu into three tiers: one-third from his normal menu, one-third what the restaurant would be if it were tasting menu-only, and the final third a blend of modern Indian with classic European technique. The only Richmond restaurant — of which I am aware — that serves a day-of tasting menu of entirely off-menu dishes is The Rogue Gentlemen, whose tasting receipts comprise one-third of the restaurant’s food sales. “We weren’t sure how Richmond would react,” says owner John Maher, “so we were pretty anxious about [offering] it, but it’s been really wonderful for two years and some change now.” Rogue opened with a five- and a seven-course option, but has since switched to a flat by-the-course price. Once, Maher says, two diners each ordered a 21-course tasting: “They were here for like five hours. It was pretty rad.”
Amici Ristorante also offers a tasting menu, and Secco plans to re-launch its popular tasting in the restaurant and wine bar’s new Fan location at the end of summer.
Back at Lehja, Baweja weighs the pros and cons from a chef’s perspective. He ponders what the special menu means to him. His eyes light up. “If you’re not doing it from the heart, then it’s not a tasting menu.”