Expensive chefs and restaurants often try to dress up their menus, a pet peeve of mine, as someone who prides herself on being a wordsmith. The best places I’ve eaten often have little dressing in their verbiage because their food stands on its own. My favorite spots like Vetri, Garces Trading Co., Noble and Amis often use such spare language that I’m often left wondering what they left off, particularly when the food arrives. A simple “Gnocchi with Ox Tail Ragu” is written in clear type on impressive paper with little else to recommend it. However, when it arrives, there is so much more to this marvelous-melt-in-your-mouth-can-I-eat-this-every-day-until-I-die ragu than just ox tail.
Oh, the joy of spare language.
Which is where I always question lengthy menu descriptions or otherwise unnecessary inclusions in a menu. And this comes with its own fads. First, there were chutneys. Then any number of pureed root vegetables under heavy meats. And, now, the latest victim to fall to the Poor Editor is the coulis.
I actually wanted to look this up, and this is what I discovered.
In the first place, it’s a pretty cool thing. At its heart, a coulis is simply a thickened, sweet sauce, generally composed of fruit. Granted, this is the 21st century appropriation of that term. (The full definition would require a different rant altogether.) I can think of any number of desserts I have made that would benefit from a bit of window dressing with a coulis.
However, you do not put window dressing on the menu. Where is the heart of the food? That is what goes on the menu. Allow your guest to be surprised when their meal is just that – surprising. One of the best parts of a truly marvelous meal is the guessing game, chasing flavors down as you eat, trying to piece together the puzzle of the chef’s work.
The menu is a story – you can either include spoilers or allow the guest to be surprised. Admittedly, this is a story the restaurant can choose to tell however it chooses. But, when all the secrets are revealed in the opening act, the expectations change, and often are then not met. By tipping the kitchen’s hand in the menu type, there is little to sustain a restaurant go-er. Where is the mystery? Where is the suspense and surprise?
(I am choosing not to state the obvious – that the restaurants believe that we are dumb-dumbs. “The plebian guest will not notice the subtlies of the dish! We must enlighten them!” says the manager in a thick French accent.* I choose not to rise to this bait. Otherwise, I would simply cook at home forever.)
I beg you, oh restaurant menu writers, please, leave some joy to us. Even a small one. I don’t need curtains on my menu.
*I have nothing against the French and quite enjoy their cuisine. However, it is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that a snooty restaurant manager is nearly always French.