The mysteries of Menu English.

What to eat. What not to eat.
April 29 2003 10:32 AM

Eat Your Words

A guide to Menu English.

(Continued from Page 1)

But many self-satisfied menus take the freshness bit to the next level, referring, redundantly, to how food is procured, calling greens "gathered," wild mushrooms "foraged," and absurd little microgreens "hand-plucked." When David Bouley offers "Freshly Harpooned Tuna Sashimi With Shaved Fennel Dressed in Herb Oils and a Spicy Marinade," one almost pictures him, Ahab-like, in his chef's whites, readying to spear the slippery bugger himself.


Branding: Farm names originally showed up on restaurant menus to give credit to farmers and ranchers who had a special relationship with the chef. Somewhere along the line, the noble concern with the provenance of meat, fish, and produce has devolved into brand-name-dropping. Chefs now flash farm and ranch names the way Lil' Kim and 50 Cent flaunt their Gucci and Benz. Many of the firms they promote—such as Niman Ranch and Hudson Valley Foie Gras—aren't mom-and-pop farms but nationally distributed brands.

Exoticizing: Though American restaurants mercifully stick to English, even the best chefs can't resist a little je ne sais quoi, plopping in foreign words (80 percent of them French) like "spring mushroom civet," "plin of rabbit," "orange-jaggery gastrique." These are words for adventure seekers, and they are meant to act as tripwires for a conversation with the waiter and, in turn, a chance to up-sell. Menu exoticism isn't always foreign: "Emulsions," "infusions," and "foams" have science-labby appeal while "house made" chorizo/goat cheese/gravlax/vinegar/paneer (Indian-style cheese)/guinciale (Italian-style cured pork jowl) suggest that the "house" is performing feats of microbial derring-do.

Minimalizing: There are certain straight-edge chefs who refuse florid menu descriptions. Their "just the facts, ma'am" style—"Rack of Lamb, Classic"—caters to a jaded dining crowd. This "less is more" modernism works on people who eat out all the time, but it may alienate others. Such lean prose is admirable, but it can come off as a little stern.

Surprising: The better the restaurant, the bigger the gap between what's on paper and what arrives at the table. The frantic sourcing, impressing, and branding fade in high-end restaurants, where it's understood that all the ingredients are precious and diners are expected to trust the chef's judgment. After all, gentle surprise is a supreme virtue in extreme dining: a marrow bone carved out of potato or rough celery teased into a gentle aspic. Sometimes, none but the main ingredient is revealed, as in this starter from Le Bernadin. "Progressive Tasting of Marinated Fluke: Four different Ceviches; From Simple to Complex Combination." In the end, menus reflect a balance of power between the guest and the kitchen: How much of her hand does the chef have to reveal in order to make the sale?

The Non-Menu Menu: When I worked in one swank Beverly Hills restaurant, we'd go running when a certain oil billionaire/power broker ambled into the place and ordered his special gargantuan crab salad—the one that was not on the menu. As any aspiring kingpin knows, true restaurant power means never having to read the menu.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.