There are so many food bloggers in the world today clamoring to publish reviews of elaborate tasting menus at top restaurants, often in secret hopes of getting their meal comped in the process. This is not the Foodwalkers style and such reviews are typically avoided. But once in a while a place merits comment – either because of its specialness, or as an example of why an establishment that is really good misses that magic mark which could make it Great.
A tasting menu such as that at Restaurant 040 in Santiago should, for the diner, be an experience akin to floating over the swells of a beautiful sea. One dish takes you upward onto a smooth, rounded wave, shadowed from the sky, with the gentle emergence of robust flavors and the promise of excitement to come. The next dish delivers you to the crest of that wave, where the sky becomes visible, the sun blares down and you are thrilled by bold flavor sensations. They make you rejoice over the food and marvel at the genius behind it. That exhilaration is followed by a gentle down-slope, returning you to the smooth surface of the turquoise sea by taming your gustatory fervor with something more delicate. Another wave approaches, once again lifting your taste buds over a new, turbid crest, and then back down. Then another wave rolls in, and another, so that by the end of the meal you feel as if you’ve reveled in the ebb-and-flow of culinary creativity. It should be a special, memorable journey.
Restaurant 040 is an elegantly sleek venue for upscale dining. It offers a 12-course tasting menu which can be paired with 3 options of wine flights. The food is innovative and based on an eclectic array of styles and flavors from around the world. There are many internet posts about 040’s food, its lusciousness, richness and beautiful presentation -- and it’s hard for me to disagree with most of them. So I won’t spew more familiar accolades here. Instead I’ll focus on the things which could make 040 — like so many other very good restaurants — a Great restaurant. Perhaps even at the same level as nearby Boragó, rated the 4th best in all of Latin America and #27 in the world. Why, one might ponder, is 040 not right there with it?
The answer reveals the discrepancy between good and great. As enthusiastic eaters know, you often experience food in four ways before you actually put it in your mouth. The look, smell, sound and its context within the overall meal precedes the taste. A great chef thinks about that when planning a tasting menu, and at 040 they should think about that, too. Because while all of the dishes modeled beautifully on the plate, there was no explanation of the mission of the tasting or the relevance of each course to it. Aside from a perfunctory statement of each of chef Sergio Barroso’s artistic culinaria, no connection to his other creations before or after it was suggested. Each course was powerful and rich, but there seemed a shortfall of balance between them. Together they risked inducing palate fatigue by the absence of something to settle down in between. The ripples and rises of that magical sea were missing, stretching instead to a glassy surface of winsome water with few swells of excitement. The result was almost one-note, lacking the arc of a menu designed to take diners on a ride.
Just as with the food on a tasting menu, there should be intention behind each wine selected for each dish. But sadly, at 040 those relationships remained undisclosed. The wine steward missed the chance to wax poetic over the romance between the food and drink. Like why the gently-seared pork was in love with the Pinot Noir, or how the soothing kiss of the Riesling tempered the raucous mood of chili crab and drew them into a flavorful embrace. With such excellent wines available here in Chile the pairings could have been amorous. But without context they were instead like ships passing in the night.
Contextual interaction of each item on a tasting menu like that at 040 is a critical component of memorable dining – but its absence renders even excellent food quickly forgettable. The lineup must strive to create not just a delicious meal, but an emotional escapade. It should evoke wisps of nostalgia in the future and a dream of one day reuniting. That is the magic which marks the difference between a Good restaurant and a Great one. And while many chefs are damn good cooks, only a special few are magicians.
p.s., Don't get me wrong -- to most diners looking for something upscale in Santiago, Restaurant 040 is a very good choice. And at about 40,000 pesos p/p for the tasting menu and an additional 35,000 for the wine pairing (equaling about US$130p/p overall) it is a good value; in New York that bill might be more than $300 p/p. But 040, with its many qualities, could be better – even great – and, frankly, should be.
Restaurant 040, Calle Antonio Lopez de Bello 40, Santiago, Chile