When I started this blog, I promised to share occasional samples of good writing, whether by poets, authors, journalists or songwriters. Today I’d like to add restaurant chefs and the menu writers who staff them. I enjoy good food as much as I do reading and writing, so any occasion to combine these interests is a welcome treat.
It used to be that the best restaurants were as creative in presenting their gourmet creations on a printed menu as they were in presenting them on the plate.
One playful, alliterative chef might have portrayed his gnocchi as a “platter of petite potato pillows,” while another balanced his bounteous entrée with “braised baby bok choy.”
I tingle reading about tender young reeds of California asparagus and glistening flecks of pesto. Once, at Janos in Tucson, I actually wept when mushroom baklava was paired with a demitasse of consommé, silhouetted on the dinner plate in pistachio dust. Such artistic wonder could never be captured in mere words.
Things have changed. It seems nowadays, fine dining menus no longer offer poetic descriptions. The food stands on its own.
On one hand, omitting excessive verbs and adjectives puts the spotlight where many believe it belongs–on the food itself. This is effective when exotic or rare ingredients might otherwise be overshadowed by flowery language.
Examples of a straight menu include:
Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, Va. – Sautéed Sugar Toads with Glazed Sunchokes, Castelvetrano Olives and Espelette Pepper Aïoli. Or Wild Chicken of the Woods Mushroom Custard with Roasted Morels, Porcinis, Chanterelle Foam Feuilles de Bric Crisps and Micro Beet Greens.
The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif. – Four Story Hill Farm Cuisse de Poularde, Kanzuri Mousse, Akita Komachi Rice, Broccolini, Cashews, Shishito Peppers and Sauce Japonaise. Or Tartare of Japanese Toro with Sea Urchin, Razor Clams, Cucumber, Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, Thai Basil, Coconut and Lime Aigre-Doux.
Charlie Trotter’s, Chicago – Steamed Tasmanian Ocean Trout with Green Tea and Coriander Dusted Garbanzo Beans, followed by Meiwa Kumquats with Frozen Meringue and Cured Black Olives.
On the other hand, a straight menu takes half the fun out of the restaurant experience. In my quirky circle of family and friends, we make a parlor game out of going around the table and doing dramatic readings of the menu.
One of my favorite restaurants is Espuma in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where the printed menu does the cuisine no justice whatsoever. Rather, your dinner choices are brought to life by the waiter, who vividly recounts how fishermen brought in their fresh catch that very morning; how the afternoon sun fell upon, at an acute angle, the wild blueberries that are lovingly tucked into the shortcake (garnished, by the way, with an orange-thyme biscuit, cantaloupe carpaccio, citrus granite and EVOO); or how the Classic Three-day Berkshire Pork made it to the platter, in a day-by-day account of its journey. Don’t even ask about the Duet of Hudson Valley Duck or you’ll be weepy for the rest of the night.
Do you have favorite menu descriptions that have remained in your memory over the years, or can you suggest any eateries that still playfully present poetry on their pages?