Too Good to Pass Up

Today marks the beginning of one of my favorite times in my city – Restaurant Week. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, allow me to explain the following rules:

  1. Posh, elitist, and just plain delicious restaurants around the city throw open their shutters to let the groundlings in for two weeks.
  2. These restaurants offer a prix fixe menu of three or more courses, from which you select what you want.
  3. And it’s only $35. Even the lowly graduate student can afford that.
Too much fun, right?
As a rule, the Wednesday Night Dinner crew tries to go out during Restaurant Week to give us weary teachers, education workers and part-time foodies a break from our kitchens. Of course, we’ve only been able to make this work once. You see, Restaurant Week has a habit of falling during tough times for teachers or during seasons of difficult weather. We did make it to one restaurant (a sadly forgettable experience – food not people – but I’ll save a real review for another time), and now we’re all anxious to try somewhere new. I’ll fill you in on where we ended up and how it went later. Promise.
In the meantime, I was delighted to find that the lovely coordinators, in collaboration with chefs at the various restaurants, have put together a cookbook in honor of Restaurant Week. I’m currently enjoying the digital format, but look forward to when I can download it and find it a home among the cookbooks’ over-crowded tenement bookcase.
Here’s a smattering of what I’ve found so far:
  • Lolita’s Chile Pumpkin Soup – I am in love with this restaurant. A friend and I had a Thanksgiving dinner there once (one of the few places not serving a traditional meal, which was a welcome change), and have been aching to go back among their North African-Southern Italian cuisine. (Odd, I know, but trust me on this!) While the ingredient list on this recipe is…daunting, the seeming ease of its execution makes me anxious to try it out.
  • Mushroom Tourte from Caribou Cafe – I’ve tried any number of mushroom tortes, and have a few recipes that I love, but this looks particularly yummy, veggie friendly and, again, easy.
  • Apple or Pear Upside Down Gingerbread from Davio’s – This recipe sounds like crazy talk, but I occasionally enjoy crazy talk recipes. One I’ll hang onto for now.
Happy eating, all!

Editorial Privilege

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.