The officially unofficial tagline of the site for the last ten years has been, “Eat. Drink. Design.” These are the elements that I’ve focused on to ensure a happy and healthy life. (Well, happy at the very least.) I enjoy the phrase because of it’s simplicity yet each word has a nearly endless depth of meaning. And, for me, these ideas are intertwined.
For example: I’ve had nights where a few glasses of whiskey late at night brought an epiphany on a branding project, which I imagine to be fueled by intoxication. Or, I’ve spent a night figuring out the right blends of alcohol, mixers, ice, etc. to create a fantastic cocktail, finding the right balance, designing a drink. These three functions are me at my simplest: designing what we consumed and consuming what is designed.
Often the “Eat” and “Design” are more abstractly related. How do they come together and what does designed eating manifest?
That’s what Atsushi Tanaka is doing with his menu at Restaurant A.T in Paris. Kyle surprised me with a visit, treating us to a 12 course tasting menu that blew my mind thanks to the chef’s ability to create visually stunning dishes with flavors that were unlike any I’d ever tasted before.
Here’s a breakdown of the dishes and the way I view food and design coming together.
Leek / Brown Butter
Image at top of post.
This was an optically stunning way to start the meal. Visually my mind reads this as “purple, flowers, pink dust, bite-size form factor… this must be something sweet.” To start, Chef Tanaka visually tricks your brain because this is a leek filled with oniony flavor made richer by a drizzle of brown butter sauce on top.
One other brilliant thing the restaurant does is hand out—or not hand out—cutlery for each course so you know exactly how you need to eat each dish. This dish came with nothing, implying that you grab it with your fingers and pop it in your mouth. Such a fun dish.
Love this dish because of the simplicity, both in presentation and flavor. The white asparagus was dotted with an oyster sauce… and it could have been left that way. Instead you’re being presented an image of spring freshness thanks to the inclusion of the tiny yellow flower petals. The wax paper is also interesting because it adds some texture to the dish overall but probably also works functionally by keeping the asparagus in place as it’s carried to the table.
Well, sadly, this dish doesn’t win any visual awards, but where it did earn marks was with the way it smelled. The beets were served two ways: Pureed into a logo shape on a disc (top right corner of photo) which was a bit clumsy, and then roasted and smoked on a bed of juniper leaves. When the dishes were brought out the room began smelling of smokey juniper, making everyone’s heads lift in unison, sniffing at the air and trying to discern what was headed their direction.
Ceviche of Squid / Yuzu
This is what all dishes called “ceviche of squid” should look like: a spring inspired palette, fresh herbs, the yuzu coloring the broth a pale gold. It honestly reminded me of an Easter basket, which may have also been informed by the size of the vessel it was served in. It was just the right size to fit into the palm of your hand.
Pieurotes / Poultry / Spider Crab
I’m a sucker for mushrooms which is what a pieurote is. This soup instantly made my mouth water. This easily could have been a brown broth with brown and tan mushrooms and it wouldn’t have been visually appealing. Chef Tanaka perked it up a bit with some greens and a smart choice of a blue bowl.
From a taste perspective this was one of my favorites because the broth was made from a mix of chicken and crab which made for an intensely powerful flavor.
Camouflage: Arctic Char / Juniper / Parsley
Camouflage, from what Kyle told me, is something of the chef’s signature dish. The shards of green dusted with white are meant to conceal the dishes secret: there’s a delicious bed of arctic char hiding underneath waiting to be uncovered. I didn’t do a great job capturing the height of the camouflage but I thought it was so fun exploring this dish, uncovering more and more depth.
Beef / Jerusalem Artichoke / Hay
I don’t think I had equated beef tartare with love until I had this dish. When I saw this dish a lot of stereotypical imagery popped into my head, “red means love, leaves look like hearts, the white artichoke slivers look like meringue cupcake decorations.” Visually it read to me like a dish you would serve someone on Valentine’s Day, which in my brain is very sweet and heart-warming. There’s also a lot of warm reds, golds, and purples coming together to form a warm hued palette.
From a flavor perspective this was bonkers because the beef tartare was smoked with the hay. I now want all of my foods to be smoked, thanks.
Scallop / Celeriac / Dill
The chef has now taken us from Camouflage—which had a super green palette—to the tartare—which was warmer hued—and now to the scallop dish, which has a very light, creamy tone to it. If you go back to the first image and scroll back through, you’ll see that each dish is visually differentiated from the ones before and after it, which makes each feel like it’s own unique experience. Chef Tanaka is designing a visual story that your brain is tracking with each dish, and because the dishes come every 10 to 15 minutes or so, they each need to feel like they have their own identity.
As for this dish, scallops are the best so this was amazing.
Turbot / Spring Onion / Cockles
With the turbot dish (Turbot is the fish.) he’s now melded both the green and cream colored palettes which is nice to see. The fish is lightly dusted with the green which acts as a bridge between the colors, unifying the color story of the dish. I also think the darker toned but neutrally colored plate was a smart choice, it allows the turbot to really pop off the plate. It’s also funny to see the green dusting on the leaves which makes their greenness even more green.
Lamb from Quercy / Oca / Black Garlic
I didn’t feel like the presentation of this plate really hit the mark. Everything feels too brown, there isn’t enough contrast on the plate, and it’s a bit disjointed in the placement of objects. Maybe if the plate had been a light blue or even a pinkish hue it would have read better? And maybe if the food and been centered more tightly on the plate it would have read as a better union?
That said, my lamb was cooked to perfection: I couldn’t have asked for a better cut. It was especially nice mixing it in with the black garlic that dotted the plate. What was also nice was the slivers of ginger that sat on top of the oca halves which gave it a bit of tartness.
Hinoki / Pepper of Jamaique / Blackberry
I posted an image of this on my socials as a preview to this post because this dessert was so out there. I mean: it’s a grey, monochromatic dish! Yet I’m so captivated by it and honestly surprised that I wanted to eat it. If I told you “I had the most amazing grey stuff for dessert.” you’d think I was crazy. But, when you see it, you get sucked into its intrigue and mystery. My first impression is that it looked like the chef had scooped up a bit of the moon and placed it on my plate.
I also have to mention that the flavor of the ice cream was of hinoki wood and pepper. It was insane. Mixed together with the blackberry it was a truly phenomenal flavor profile.
Sorrel / Lovbage / Avocado
Which takes us to our final dish, a dessert that smelled as green as it looked. Literally you could smell an earthy green enter the room as the dishes arrived. I like that Chef Tanaka ended with this for two reasons. First, it was the antithesis of the last dish. If the last dish was a scoop of the moon, this was a scoop of green, grassy earth. It helped finish his story with a breath of life. Second, it acted as a perfect palette cleanser. My mouth literally tasted like the idea of “fresh.”
I hope this helped illustrate how I see the relationship between food and design. Anything can be designed and the way food looks—the size and ergonomics of food, the plates you serve food on, the colored demarcations of what is and isn’t edible—is all a part of the way you experience food. All of those elements should be considered to make eating a truly enjoyable user experience. That’s exactly what Restaurant A.T did.