When chefs craft a tasting menu, it usually reflects the season, the finest ingredients—and the chef’s preferences. But what if you could go to a restaurant and feast on a menu crafted just for you? Chef Alvin Dela Cruz, chef de cuisine at Westend Bistro in The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C., said he was basically doing just that for friends who came into the restaurant, and he decided to extend the offering to guests last year. The experience ranges from $100 per person for a five-course menu to $220 per person for an eight-course tasting with beverage pairings.
To kick things off, Dela Cruz sends a one-page questionnaire to diners with queries like, “What are your favorite types of proteins and preferred cooking temperature?” and “What are your favorite desserts?” He also wants to know what foods diners dislike, and whether they gravitate toward salty, sweet or sour, among other things. The questionnaire is followed up by a phone call that helps Dela Cruz fine-tune your preferences and get a feel for what kind of eater you are.
He says four diners per seating is optimal, since each menu has to incorporate the tastes of every diner partaking. “It makes for a very fun and lively group,” he says. “It literally does become like when you host a party in your house and everybody gathers inside the kitchen, that’s the feel we end up having.”
Dela Cruz especially loves how these dinners help guests get to know one another, making it particularly great for dates and groups of friends. “Your friends, you might not know what they’ll choose, even people you’ve known for a long time,” he says. “It’s interesting to learn more about their palates.”
We can attest to that. At a recent dinner created for me and DC Refined photographer Amanda, she and I had so much fun comparing notes and realizing we had weirdly similar tastes and answers to the questions Dela Cruz posed. Favorite meat? Pork. Adventurous eater? Yes! Favorite fruits? Mango and peaches. Typical drinks? Gin or wine. I mean, aside from the fact that I love beets and she hates them, the similarities were pretty eerie. We’ve known each other for a few years but had no idea.
Our questionnaire resulted in a parade of dishes brought out by different cooks, including an amuse bouche of Thai shrimp, a dish of Berkshire pork with herb salad and crispy chicken skin, and a mango-raspberry layered dessert reminiscent of one of my favorites, English trifle. The favorite dish of the night was the mushroom cacio e pepe nesting an organic egg yolk, which was inspired by my love of vegetable dishes and pasta carbonara. (Dela Cruz had intended to serve us pasta but nixed the idea after talking with me on the phone. It turns out, I’m intimidatingly passionate about my favorite pasta dish.)
“I’m pretty confident of my truffle pasta, but that’s like trying to re-create your mom’s spaghetti recipe,” he says of my carbonara adoration. “You just can’t do it.”
Beverage pairings also took our preferences into account, such as a gin and tonic made with lemongrass tonic, cucumber and freshly ground pepper, an addictive peach beer served with the pork dish and a pinot noir chosen to accompany the short ribs.
Was every dish perfectly calibrated to our liking? Not exactly. For instance, I would have preferred a fish dish rather than the lamb served after the pork and before the short rib, making for a pretty meat-heavy meal. Always thinking about how to improve, Dela Cruz agreed without missing a beat: “If I could redo that dinner for you, I would have done a Middle Eastern twist on halibut.”
But any shortcomings were eclipsed by the fun of the experience, the thoughtful efforts of the entire kitchen staff, and the general vibe of hospitality. Let’s just say if someone handed me a questionnaire asking whether I’d do it again, the answer would be yes.
To reserve, email Carlene.Kerp@ritzcarlton.com or call 202-974-4946.