The Costa Brava region of Spain, just north of Barcelona, has become a destination for gastronomic tourists, who come almost expecting spiritual enlightenment, sensual pleasure and nourishment with every bite from the region’s many Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s the perfect setting for Roger Gual’s feature film, Tasting Menu, which centers on the lives of the staff and patrons attending the last dinner service at a famed restaurant.
Like the region, the joint Spanish-Irish production is an amalgam of several cultures and cuisines, moving between Catalan, Spanish and English with ease. There’s a laid-back quality to the first part of the film, setting up for a sanguine evening of food, wine, conversation, comic moments and a little conflict. But when Tasting Menu loses its focus on the food to concentrate on a little far-fetched plot twist, it becomes far less palatable.
Chef Mar Vidal (Vicenta N’dongo) is closing her beloved restaurant, Chakula, at the height of its success to explore other options (much like Catalan chef Ferran Adrià did with his famous elBulli restaurant in 2010). The last dinner is a hot-item ticket, with guests making the reservations a year in advance.
Patrons travel from around the globe to the small restaurant for varied reasons. Marc (Jan Cornet) and Rachel (Claudia Bassols) are in the midst of a divorce, but neither wants to give up the reservation. Two standoffish Japanese businessmen (Togo Igawa and Akihiko Serkawa) are from competing companies interested in buying the restaurant and wooing Mar to Japan. They’re seated with their chaperone/tour guide Mina (Marta Torné), who speaks no Japanese. A widowed, local countess (Fionnula Flanagan), comes at Chef Mar’s invitation, bringing along her husband’s urn to dinner, while enigmatic patron Walter (Stephen Rea) eats alone. Rounding out the diners is a New York-based editor, Daniel (Timothy Gibbs), who comes to surprise Rachel.
On the other side of the kitchen window is the restaurant’s staff, led by Mar and her boyfriend-partner Max (Andrew Tarbet). While she tries to keep the cooking staff on point, Max handles the front-of-house duties while keeping tabs on the arrival of the special desserts and musicians by boat. As the film progresses, he becomes slightly obsessed in finding out whether Walter’s a restaurant writer or critic.
As the guests gather for dinner, their personal issues are laid out as an amuse bouche. The major plot revolves around whether Marc and Rachel will reconcile. Living apart for the past year, he’s remained in Spain working as a pediatrician, while Rachel’s been in New York tending to her blossoming writing career. Chemistry still lingers between the two, and the countess, who seems remarkably rejuvenated by her outing, helps the couple along with advice and a little mischief.
The other patrons are more one-dimensional: Daniel is clearly meant as the bad guy, used to come between the couple; the Japanese businessmen are stoic throughout, loosening up only slightly after dinner; and their tourist guide lacks any self-awareness or manners. (If she were meant as the comic relief in the odd trio, the character doesn’t work at all.)
Two-thirds of the way through the film, there’s a jarring turn of events in which the musicians and desserts are lost at sea, and the guests try to rescue them. The whole adventure seems completely unnecessary, knowing that there’s usually enough drama and stress happening in restaurant kitchens. Even with the “tragic” loss of desserts, the film resolves this last-course quandary and each of the storylines without any surprises. Even Rea’s mysterious, yet bland, character fits in a little too neatly with the rescue.
In great foodie films like Babette’s Feast, the meal itself almost becomes a central character. Even in films where food is not the main focus, the camera’s attention to detail makes the dishes (and scenes) all the more memorable, like the slicing of garlic with a razor in Goodfellas or the crimping of the peach pie crust in Labor Day. Gual’s film, however, pays less attention to the food, relegating the prep and presentation further to the background, as the meal progresses. It’s a shame since the menu was designed by Joan Roca, chef of the world-renowned El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. The lack of true conflict, comedy or even just a hint of spice in this food-themed dramedy leaves viewers feeling unsatiated.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.
Director: Roger Gual
Writers: Roger Gual and Javier Calvo, based on an original idea by Sílvia González Laá
Starring: Jan Cornet, Claudia Bassols, Vicenta N’dongo, Andrew Tarbet, Fionnula Flanagan, Stephen Rea
Release Date: Apr. 18, 2014 (Los Angeles and New York)