Why We’re Getting Fresh and Local with a Tasting Menu
Multi-course “tasting menus” are the newest dining trend in DC and New York, and one restaurant is even offering a tasting menu in Richmond. Chef Ian Robbins thinks it’s time for Williamsburg to feature this unique dining experience. We’re excited to announce a multi-course tasting menu at the Café Provençal featuring fresh, local ingredients. It’s a little different from a regular restaurant menu, but Chef Ian explains why that creates a tastier and more creative dining experience. With a tasting menu, guests have the same kind of intimate, personal meal they would have at a friend’s house – a friend who is an excellent cook. You arrive, sit down to a beautiful table and your friend serves you whatever dishes they were inspired to make that evening. Maybe they created a theme dinner, or maybe they just found some amazingly fresh rockfish and arugula at the farmer’s market (of course your thoughtful friend makes a few tweaks if you have food allergies).
The result? A seasonal, local dinner that showcases your friend’s culinary creativity and inspiration. With all the terrific local flavors we have here in the Tidewater, we wanted to give Chef Ian the freedom to cook what he thinks is best on any given evening.
“The whole reason behind doing a tasting menu is so we can highlight local, fresh ingredients,” Chef Ian says. “We can focus on what’s available, which forces us to be a little more creative and do something fresh with, say, collard greens or potatoes. But you’re eating them at the time of year you’re supposed to be, so they taste better than off-season ingredients.” With a normal menu, a chef develops a dish that must be recreated over and over, for weeks or months. That’s challenging if the restaurant depends on small family suppliers. For example, if our fishmonger runs short on rockfish one week, we have to strike that item from the menu. But on a tasting menu, if that rockfish doesn’t arrive, Chef Ian can make a last-minute change. He can ask the fishmonger what’s freshest, and maybe substitute a flaky white tilefish, or bay scallops. This weekend’s tasting menu includes dishes like Border Springs Farm Lamb Tartare, Poached Rappahannock Oysters, and Pan-Seared Duck.
“The skill of a chef is that we can work with what we find,” Chef Ian says. “A tasting menu cuts down on food waste and on cooking times in the kitchen because we can do a lot of prep in advance.” Less food waste means lower food costs, which frees the kitchen to source higher-end ingredients. For example, Chef Ian recently discovered Beaver Creek Farms, which raises local quail and pheasant – both commonly eaten in colonial times. “Quail isn’t something on every menu,” Chef Ian says. “But it’s a lighter, lean meat that’s a little more flavorful than chicken.” Quail are commonly served whole, with the breast bones removed, and stuffed with a bread or rice stuffing that may feature dried fruits. Diners can eat most of the quail with a knife and fork, but part of the fun of eating quail is using your fingers to pick up the tiny drumsticks to nibble.
Pheasant is a tasty dark-meat game bird slightly smaller than a chicken. Chef Ian partially debones the bird, then ties it up to poach and pan sear it to crisp the skin. Café Provencal will still be offering an à la carte menu with a selection of five starters and five main courses. And the restaurant will still rely on our own garden, which this winter gave us a steady supply of greens, carrots, heirloom beets and radishes. “Rolling out something new like this can be nerve-racking for sure, but we shouldn’t settle for the same dishes over and over,” Chef Ian says. “As a chef you owe it to the guests to not be lazy about what you’re serving. It’s hard, but if you are striving for that, you’re heading in the right direction.” Escape to the farm at Wessex Hundred for a culinary adventure and make sure to let Chef Ian know how you like the new tasting menu.