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.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

I went to a nice vegetarian restaurant the other night and had crosnes. Specifically, I had "Roasted Garlic-Marjoram Risotto With English Pea Crème Brûlée, Crosnes, Turnip-Collard Green 'Lasagna' and Black Truffle Vinaigrette." Normally, I would not have ordered a dish like this—way too much on the plate—but I had homed in on the one word I had never seen before, asked the server about it, and ordered away. Crosnes, it turns out, are small larva-shaped vegetables, crunchy and not much else. They did very little in the dish, but on the menu, they had done a spectacular job of roping me into a dish I wouldn't otherwise have ventured.

Menus are the Pavlov's bell of eating out. They are a literature of control. Menu language, with its hyphens, quotation marks, and random outbursts of foreign words, serves less to describe food than to manage your expectations. Take the description of my dish above: It promises the unconventional—crosnes!—while reassuring the unadventurous with familiar comforts—risotto, peas—then slaps a thin veneer of glamour on the enterprise with the pizazz of "black truffle vinaigrette." This menu entry doesn't merely entice, it justifies the cost of dining out.

Not every menu manipulates you in the same way. Different kinds of restaurants use different strategies. Here's a guide to some of the most popular.

Hand-Holding: Chain restaurants deal with novice and timid eaters. Their menus aim for reassurance. Despite the "fun" names for dishes—"Moons Over My Hammy," "Death by Chocolate"—menu language at chain restaurants is extravagantly specific. It dictates the exact weight of a pork chop, the number of popcorn shrimp on a platter, and how many slices of American cheese will top a bacon double-cheeseburger. For more precision still, many chain restaurants put pictures of their offerings on the menu, something that is never seen in more upscale restaurants. The hand-holding guarantees the worried diner: There will be no surprise here.

Blue Chipping: As dining gets finer, menu language graduates from reassuring to showing off. There is a certain class of adjective that appears on restaurant menus and almost nowhere else: Roasted, Crisped, Seared, Glazed, and Lacquered (often hyphenated, for emphasis, with the likes of "Pan-, Oven-, Wok-, Maple-, and Honey-. You can play menu Mad Libs). These adjectives are often married to the blue-chip ingredients that would help sell SPAM on a shingle: hazelnuts, lobster risotto, bacon, foie gras, and, prime among them, truffles. Fresh imported truffles themselves still sell for hundreds of dollars a pound, but byproducts like truffle oils and butters have democratized the concept into the adjective "truffled." Nobody looks twice at a parsnip on a menu, but a truffled parsnip: Now, that's a different story. Food on blue-chipping menus may or may not be good. What's certain is that this restaurant thinks it is impressing you.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Traffic Jamming: Menus tend to be simpler abroad because other cultures have canonical dishes. Everyone in Italy knows what saltimbocca is. You don't have to tell a Frenchman what's in a gratin dauphinoise. But for better and for worse, American chefs aren't beholden to culinary history. Their menus shirk such basic titles.

Instead, some menus pile up tedious aggregations of ingredients—more like supermarket nutritional labels than menu prose. Spaghetti with red sauce at a San Francisco bistro morphs into "Spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and chili flake." Writing a menu this way panders to the finicky obsessiveness of certain American diners. It also, inadvertently, invites diners to micromanage their meal, picking and choosing among the ingredients.

Traffic-jamming menus exist in part to convince diners that they could not replicate such food at home—the sheer number of components on a plate helps persuade you that you are getting your money's worth. Take, for instance this offering from a ritzy San Francisco hotel: "Rosemary Basted Loin of Venison, Maple Glazed Endive, Vanilla Spiced Sweet Potato Purée, Chocolate Venison Jus, and Pickled Cranberries." Nothing says "don't try this at home" like Chocolate Venison Jus.

Freshening Up: Charles Gundel, the great Hungarian restaurateur, was aggravated by the American menu's exploitation of the word "fresh." In a midcentury interview, he complained, "My son Charles sometimes sends me menu cards from New York, where, it seems, they use the word 'fresh' with everything. As if in a good place, it should be considered necessary to point out that the food is fresh!"

Americans apparently remain oblivious to Gundel's point. Now more than ever, chefs sell their food as fresh—often substituting synonyms like "local," "market," and "seasonal" for variety's sake. And indeed, if the chef takes his or her role as procurer seriously, it is in these fresh flavors that customers can rediscover the pleasures of a carrot, a tomato, or a peach.

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.