If the Spanish film Menú Degustació had to be described as a culinary dish, it would probably be the strawberry mousse: refreshing and easy to digest but lacking in substance.
It is Roger Gual’s third time in the director’s seat – after Smoking Room (2002) and Remake (2006) – and in Tasting Menu, as it translates into English, he brings us a charming comedy set in a lovely Catalan restaurant as shown a part of the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American festival.
The restaurant in question has acquired international fame but is closing, despite being a huge success, and now asks all of its patrons back for one last night of fine dining.
Included on the guest list is the film’s main couple: Marc (Jan Cornet), a paediatrician, and Rachel (Claudia Bassols), a writer. They have recently divorced but attend the closing night anyway – bookings are so difficult to secure that they reserved a table months ago.
The intrigue in the film focuses on these two – will they recapture their old fondness for each other on a night when, as the head chef Mar (Vicenta N’Dongo) ominously says, ‘emulsions only work when they are together’?
Standing in the way of a happy reunion is Daniel (Timothy Gibbs), Rachel’s editor, who appears unexpectedly at the restaurant and who we later find is Rachel’s current partner.
This being a comedy, the wedding ring he sends to her table gets lost somewhere along the way, just as his explicit and highly personal note to her ends up diverted to Mina (Marta Torné) at another table.
Mina is busy entertaining two Japanese businessmen who, unfortunately, have been paired together despite being rival investors. Mina does her best to overcome the awkwardness of the situation and the language barrier.
Japanese is spoken when these two interact, but the rest of the film is divided into Spanish, Catalan and English. It is an interesting mix, but one which the director hopes reflects a realistic cultural melting pot inside the restaurant.
The two standout performances come from Fionnula Flanagan and Stephen Rea, who play two more diners present at the restaurant’s curtain call.
Flanagan plays Countess D’Arcy, an eccentric widow that supplies many of the film’s funny moments. Rea is the mysterious Walter: a man that is suspected of being a harsh, snobby food critic.
There are a few twists and complications but nothing that ever threatens to set off the smoke alarms in this cookery-based comedy.
The fancy meals served in the restaurant do look appealing though – and that’s thanks to the help of the Roca brothers (Joan, Josep and Jordi) who were hired to assist with all things food-related. They trio currently own the best restaurant in the world: El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.
In the Q&A after the film, Gual says they were really helpful with the whole project and jokes that all the actors loved doing re-takes, because it meant having to bring out fresh dishes for them to eat again (for continuity, of course).
Before the screening, Gual told the audience the film would make us feel hungry – and make us want to go home and make love.
On that front, I can only say I didn’t get the urge: perhaps it’s a Spanish thing.
The director had first thought of the film whilst out drinking with a friend. He liked the idea of reuniting two people that had chosen to separate – their love of good food the only thing that brings them back together.
So what started out as an idea in a bar has finished with a decent film in a restaurant.
It is easy-going and heart-warming, if only in an unobtrusive way. On first reaction, it is a pleasant and enjoyable film but more could possibly have been done with the plot.
The limited possibilities of the film – it covers just one night in the characters’ lives in just one setting – makes the whole thing stagnate a little near the end. It never leaves the comfort zone of the restaurant.
On this note, Marta Torné (who was also present at the Q&A, and happens to be Gual’s partner) said that filming took place at the restaurant between 6pm and 6am – because the film’s events only take place at night. It was ‘hard’, she insists, but it was also a very special place to film in ‘one of the most magical places in Barcelona’.
“Don’t go looking for the restaurant in the film though,” she adds. “It isn’t real – it’s just a specially-built set.”
The film is an interesting cultural experience, especially for non-Spaniards.
The food and the language are quite alien to us but the characters’ relationship problems are ones that everyone will understand.
Yes, it is too light and airy – a bit too ‘strawberry mousse’.
It doesn’t quite take your breath away in the same style that head chef Mar’s cooking does in the film.
It really depends on your taste.
I, for one, don’t mind strawberry mousse.
Image courtesy of trash world with thanks