The Language of Menus

Do you experience a slight panic and a tinge of excitement when you are first handed the menu in a restaurant or the feeling of indecision and being out of step with your fellow diners when pressed for a decision?  I suggest there are conscious strategies, trends and tricks that all contribute to this restaurant feeling. A number of fascinating conventions have emerged and it’s interesting to explore from where they originate and how they spread throughout the foodie world. Our chefs and Maitre D’s like to tantalise us with jargon, and attempt to take us on voyages of discovery. We are required to imagine what a zeppelin of vegetables, or a compression of leeks, potatoes and black truffle might be. Sometimes we are embarrassed by our ignorance and are so intimidated, we daren’t ask.

I have gradually developed my own method to speed up my choice. Firstly, I like to decide on the main course ingredient, but menus now give us extra info which complicates things. How is it cooked, what is the provenance and what garnishes accompany it? Do you like your lamb slow-cooked, braised, roasted, pan-fried or cooked for 5 hours in a water bath? You then have to de-code the size of the garnish. On refined Michelin style menus, a simple ingredient like parsnip could turn out to be nothing more than five spots of puree around the edge of the plate, leaving those hoping for a nicely roasted wedge feeling sold short. How often has the reality before your eyes matched your expectations or left you deflated with disappointment?

We need to understand the fine differences between a coulis, a jus, a foam, a reduction, a nage and a sauce, all  which seem to be swirled or smeared like the Nike swish ….we only get a taste. Far gone are the days when we could soak up our mash in a humble gravy. TV chefs have popularised these presentations and they seem far happier to swirl a squirty bottle than to ladle us a generous helping in a sauce boat. Is this gastronomic art over real substance and human comfort?.. I fear so! Some of us relish the surprise on the plate, others prefer the reassurance of the expectable.

We can ease the panic of choice these days by a little internet research and it would be interesting to see how many diners browse menus first. On line we can even see the picture on the plate. For example, let’s take a glimpse at the top of the restaurant food chain, “Marcus Wareing”  at “The Berkeley”. A lunch starter,  ”Potato, Munster, comb honey, capers and malt”, kick starts the imagination and tickles the taste buds. At this level there is an element of conceit and mystique which is all part of the deal. See a main course of “Cornish sea bass, cauliflower, almonds, polonaise”. Do we get an i-pod with some Chopin?  No, a polonaise is a sauce.  And what about “venison, farro, monk’s beard, borage, liquorice and lychee” ? The excellent website explains the thinking behind some of these dishes and Marcus shares his chef’s alchemy with us.

In nostalgic contrast, I would like to show you some dishes from the 80’s, from the  under-celebrated Robert Carrier’s menus at “Hintlesham Hall” Suffolk where I did some commis work in the long school holidays. How about “Calf’s Liver with Avocado”, (Albert Stockli’s creation: thin slices of calf’s liver, sautéed in butter with sprigs of fresh sage and slices of avocado), or,” Boeuf en daube Nouvelle Cuisine” (cubes of fillet of beef sautéed for minutes only before simmering in a light beef and orange-flavoured jus. Garnished with button onions and mushrooms, lardoons of bacon and turned carrots).  Wow! Jus existed in the 80’s and we are even told how to cook it!

If you really are a menu browser obsessive you must dream over “Le Café Anglais”, in Bayswater, London. This is my kind of  menu, temptation on every line, reading like a litany to woo any foodie. If this doesn’t tempt you, try Shaun Hill’s combinations at “The Walnut Tree” Abergavenny. London prices in the Welsh Marches.

What are the trends for 2011? What’s round the corner after micro-herbs, carpaccios, smears and dustings? If you have found out first or can recommend an up and coming kitchen starlet let us know!!!


Grimes the Gourmet.

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