Fellow writer Brandon Hernandez just posted an interesting piece that brings up some good points about menus and how they are written. His issue: Rather than list just the basic ingredients, he longs for a detailed explanation of each dish on the menu. Brandon (he’s a pal) where’s your sense of adventure and excitement for an evening of good dining? Risk adverse? You’re probably not alone especially in San Diego where–as you note–“we’re still finding our way where cuisine is concerned”.
If, in fact, each dish read as you might wish, including ingredients and cooking technique, it would almost resemble a recipe and the menu would read like a book. And consider that many ethnic restaurants don’t go deeply into specifics, but simply name a dish with a main ingredient (chicken quesadilla, sweet and sour pork, etc.).
Why not write the menu with just the main ingredients as many well-known restaurants do? Less is more in many places including Gramercy Tavern in New York or Scottsdale’s Posh where the diner is given a list of ingredients and asked to strike any that they wouldn’t want to eat. Posh embodies improvisational cuisine at it’s very best (Buzz has eaten there twice) and shows what chef/owner Josh Hebert can do daily with seasonal ingredients.
Spago and Bouchon Bistro in Beverly Hills provide some idea of what to expect when you order. Across the pond, the hotspot in Paris, Le Comptoir’s menu gives you the basics. In San Francisco, the year-old Prospect writes a succinct menu with ingredients. Here in San Diego, The Marine Room lists an expanded ingredient list while 1500 Ocean names just a few.
For many chefs writing the menu with few ingredients allows the kitchen latitude for presentation–sautéed snapper could be poached another night or Yukon potatoes could be mashed one night and steamed another. Same ingredients, different preparation. It’s up to the diner to let the server know about any allergies (if possible when making the reservation) and to ask the server about a particular dish. It’s not up to the diner to ask for a complete redo of a dish after it’s explained.
So on your next night out, take a chance with the chef, suspend imagining what a dish might be, ask a question or two if the ingredients sound intriguing, and may your taste buds tingle with an enlightened and inventive meal.