Eat Your Words
A guide to Menu English.
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.
Illustrations by Nina Frenkel.