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 dishIt’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.

7 thoughts on “On Menus

  1. I’m in your camp. I love the suspense and surprise of not knowing every little thing I’m being served, whether in a restaurant or a friend’s home. It’s fun and exciting to guess some of the flavors. I eat at Posh on a regular basis and find it refreshing not to have the same old, same old each time.

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  2. When studying chemistry in college, I spent more time than you can imagine in labs mixing chemicals, analyzing formulas and the like. That was great “left brain” stuff. When I’m in a restaurant, I want to use the “right brain”. Dazzle me with culinary brilliance. If I want to know the details, I’ll stay home and read about it. When an artist performs, I want the creative product, not the detailed mechanism.

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  3. Reader Todd comments:

    I really enjoy reading your posts on SD’s food scene. Thank you for your interesting and informative updates.

    Ironically, your Aug 29th posting about Menus was posted on my 24th wedding anniversary and the day on which my wife and I had one of the best dining experiences ever. We’ve eaten at some amazing places throughout our years in various cities, but our dinner on Aug 29, 2011 at 11 Madison Park in New York was the best and most memorable for quality of food, service, ambiance, innovation, setting and more. In terms of menus though, it was unlike any other place I’ve ever been. They serve a 4 course prix fixe menu ($125 per person – pricey for sure, but worth ever nickle). You have 4 choices for each of the 4 courses. The menu has one word descriptions of each of your choices – for example the appetizer course on the 29th menu listed “Couscous / Tuna / Octopus / Lobster”. That’s it. Here’s a link to their main page and the sample menu. http://www.elevenmadisonpark.com/ http://www.elevenmadisonpark.com/PDFS/samplemenu.pdf

    Their website describes their format as follows:

    Our menu format is intended to offer an experience in which our guests can enjoy the inherent surprise of a tasting menu, while still maintaining some control. Dishes are listed solely by their principal ingredients, and guests are invited to make their selections, share any thoughts or preferences, including any ingredient dislikes, and allow us to design their meal from there

    Its not meant to be gimmicky. They want to surprise you and give you a sense of food adventure. Things you mentioned in your post. They ask if you have any allergies or dislikes, and will generally describe a dish. But they keep their descriptions broad and a bit vague so you maintain that sense of expectation and wide eyed surprise by their presentations. In addition to the 4 courses, I counted 7 other surprises (amuse bouche(s)) during our 3 hour dinner.

    So I’m with you. Less is better on a menu if the chef is talented and you have a willingness to try most anything.

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  4. Todd’s comments made me think about this conversation in a focused way. If you are at a fine establishment enjoying a multi-course tasting menu, there is typically a well trained individual who describes the dishes you are about to enjoy in detail, ushering you through a food journey. In those cases, one-word descriptions are fitting (and what Todd describes in his Madison Park experience). I think, though, that if you are not having that experience and you’re just dining off of the regular menu in a restaurant that is not a Madison Park or an Addison, an expanded description is preferable. (My 2 cents.)

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  5. I’m in Brandon’s camp regarding a fuller mental image of the dish beyond simply “four nouns”. However, “Buying something without knowing all about it is ill-advised” seems beyond extreme and unrealistic.

    Having only the most basic info on the menu leaves me with the task of quizzing the server about each potential dish–something I personally am not interested in doing and is time intensive for a busy server. Give me a reasonable amount of information so that I can make a decision on my own.

    Perhaps it’s my self-checkout-at-Ralphs personality but I really do not want to “need” my waiter to understand the menu (this is why I have not eaten at Indigo Grill in about 10 years – if you know what I mean).

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  6. After reading some of Mr Hernandez’s stuff where he acts like a smarta$$, I’m not surprised that he wishes that menus be dumbed down.

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