A formal meal in the French tradition can have a varied number of courses -- from five to 16 -- or more. Eight-course tasting menus have become a fixture in high-end restaurants as a way to showcase a chef's talents. An eight-course meal does not have a precisely fixed order of courses; the exact progression is at the discretion of the chef. Nevertheless, a diner can expect an eight-course meal to move from appetizers and small plates through main courses and onto dessert.
Appetizers and Openers
A diner sitting down to an eight-course meal could reasonably expect to be greeted first with an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized and often whimsical "amusement for the mouth." California chef Thomas Keller's savory salmon and creme fraiche appetizers shaped to resemble an ice cream cone are a classic example of the well-executed amuse bouche. After the amuse-bouche, a larger and more formal appetizer plate is served. Traditionally, this course features a plate of oysters on the half-shell or other shellfish dish, but at the modern table it may be raw fish served crudo-style, house-cured charcuterie or a selection of dips with crudites and crackers.
Soup and Salad
After the opening bites, the next course in a formal meal is a small bowl of soup, often a smooth pureed veloute, bisque or light broth. In a traditional French meal, the salad is served after the main courses as a sort of palate-cleanser. American diners, however, often prefer to have their salad served before the main course, and many chefs have modified their menu accordingly.
A formal meal can have as many as three main courses featuring meat, poultry and fish; an eight-course meal typically has two. Whatever the number, the main courses are pinnacle of the meal. Chefs design main course offerings to showcase their best ingredients and most innovative techniques. They might feature local meats, seasonal fish, unusual cuts and complex sauces. One of these courses may be pasta rather than meat or fish, especially if the menu features Italian influences. The main course might also be accompanied by two vegetable side dishes on the plate.
The Cheese Course
The cheese course has become a standard offering in multicourse meals, always appearing between the main course and dessert. A simple cheese course features a single cheese, plus fresh or dried fruit or nuts. It may be accompanied by bread and crackers. A more elaborate cheese course showcases two or three cheeses -- one soft, one hard or semi-hard, and one blue.
Dessert is the finale of the formal meal and its exclamation point. Expect anything from a scoop of house-made ice cream or sorbet to a towering pastry concoction. Sometimes, two dessert courses are offered instead of two main courses; in this case, a scoop of sorbet or a selection of fresh fruit is served as a palate-cleanser before a more elaborate dessert presentation. Coffee or tea and accompanying cookies or petit fours are not usually considered a separate course.