Can This Seattle Restaurant Revolutionize Centuries of Dining Tradition?
It’s dinner time at Seattle’s modern Valencian-meets-Pacific Northwest restaurant, Tarsan i Jane. Ten diners sitting at a communal table sip gin and tonics accented with seaweed or spirals of cucumber. They watch chef Perfecte Rocher and his team busy themselves in the open kitchen, firing ingredients on the large wood-burning hearth. After the cooks carefully plate the first course, Perfecte’s wife and business partner, Alia, accompanied by a bevy of staff, set the first of 12 courses before each diner in synchronicity: a pristine slice of Wagyu beef, served with crispy sunchokes and a sauce made from fermented plums.
From there, the meal progresses into ever-lighter courses that showcase Rocher’s Valencian roots, love of Pacific Northwest ingredients, and playfulness. There’s a roasted celery root dish with local barley and black trumpet mushrooms, a parsnip rice cake with fermented goji berries served on a faux alligator skull, Puget Sound oysters with fermented wild licorice, and a smoked beet “salad” that’s encased in something akin to a large Gusher. Each dish is resplendent in its presentation and taste, enough to garner a rare four-star rating from The Seattle Times critic, Providence Cicero.
Rather than start with a lighter course, as is the tradition in coursed meal service, Tarsan i Jane serves what it calls an inverted menu. The restaurant, which opened in 2016, recently turned their entire 12-course tasting menu on its head, trotting out the heaviest, red meat course first and serving progressively lighter dishes as diners nibble toward dessert.
Chances are you've been there: you’re nine courses into a multi-course menu, and finally that red meat arrives, accompanied by a hefty steak knife. But there's no way you have room to enjoy it by then, no matter how outstanding the food is. You make room for a respectful bite or two, but most of it goes back to the kitchen and into the trash.
The Rochers want to avert that red meat tragedy—and avoid making their diners feel disgustingly full. “We decided to try to make something delicious and impactful. At the end, the guests feel really nice,” Alia says. “They can go out and do something after dinner and not just curl up and lie down.”
When Perfecte initially proposed the idea to Alia, she balked. “With tasting menus, you traditionally get that richer course at the end, which is nice because you have a progression of the menu and you can follow that.” But she realized that their diners are often too full to appreciate the red meat by the time it arrives. “With the inverted menu, we want to prevent that, want our guests to fully enjoy the whole tasting,” she says.
In doing so, Tarsan i Jane has subverted a dining tradition that dates back more than 700 years, all the way to the Middle Ages. Starting around 1300, families of means ate “a sequence of individual courses designed to promote good digestion,” writes Dr. Susan Pinkard in her 2009 book, A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine. That meant meals would begin with an acidic dish of fruit or salad thought to prepare the stomach for bigger courses, moving to a second course of a soup, stew, or pasta, building to a large and impressive main course of meat or fish, following with lighter dishes like cheese or charcuterie, and finishing with various sweeter bites.
Pinkard’s research showed that the multi-course meal could be adapted to various budgets, with wealthy households creating more elaborate meals by adding more dishes to each course or subdividing the principle courses. She found that this meal structure took hold not just in France, but throughout England, Italy, and Central Europe—and it persists today.
Reversing the meal order certainly seems to make diners more comfortable, but Pinkard’s work indicates it might also have some concrete health benefits.
“What we know is that things like carbohydrates—sugars—can elevate insulin, and to pretty significant levels,” says Dr. David Agus, a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California and the bestselling author of The End of Illness and A Short Guide to a Long Life. He also happens to be a frequent diner at Tarsan i Jane.
“When you start a meal with protein and fat, what happens is your eventual insulin peak is less. And a lower insulin peak, we know, correlates to better health. Certainly a good reason to start with the heavier items and get lighter as you go.”
By shrugging off centuries of culinary traditionalism, Tarsan i Jane is hoping to make the whole dining experience a lot more enjoyable. And yes, maybe it’s all a bit quaint, but the end result is diners feel like they matter above all else, even above the chef’s ego and his obsession with showing off by plying diners with course after perfectly tweezed course. Chefs who serve multi-course meals tend to get carried away, without consideration for what’s happening on the other side of the kitchen wall.
After all, isn’t experiential consumption—the very reason we go out to eat—ultimately about feeling pampered and taken care of? Does being fed to the point of discomfort accomplish that? At a time when there are so many other ways that restaurants aren’t doing enough to accommodate diners—chiefly in the form of too-loud dining rooms, where noise levels actually impact diners’ taste buds—it’s refreshing to find a restaurant engaging in this kind of creative reinvention just to help people feel more comfortable.
It seemed like a risky move at first, Alia says, but it’s paying off. The restaurant didn’t change how much food it serves, just the order of the dishes. Before the change, some diners had a hard time eating all that food. But now, most people finish every bite of their 12 courses.