07 November, 2012

What's on the menu?

Or, more to the point, what isn't?

Menus can start to read like shopping lists, or a particularly deconstructionist piece of fiction, if they get too particular about listing every morsel involved in each plate of food.

Then again, it can be surprising when elements of a dish don't make it onto the menu at all. So there's a balance to be struck between being informative, allowing the diner to reasonably picture what they're ordering, and not presenting too much wank in an effort to show you know your produce.

At the moment, I'm loving Monsieur Truffe on Lygon St (a chilli hot chocolate will resolve any problem you choose to take there). I had a lunch special the other day of cornbeef hash salad, and was surprised - though not disappointed - to discover a fried egg atop the plate. It worked fine in the dish, but it's a particularly significant element to have overlooked in its description.

Sometimes it goes the other way: the menu is right, but the dish - or the chef - is new, and things get missed. Or, in the case of Little Henri, the whole place is new and everyone is still getting the hang of things. At a weekend brunch there, the table next to us received baked eggs with ham, gruyere and garlic crumble sans the meat. I'd ordered the lunch bruschetta: smashed broad beans and ricotta with a soft egg. When the dish arrived I was surprised (again!) to find roasted tomatoes plopped on top of each piece of toast, which had been blistered to a point of dominating smokiness. As I pondered the oddity of not including the strongest taste element in the dish, I realised that the promised soft egg was AWOL. Full credit to the staff: after I checked with the waiter, a perfectly poached egg was added post-haste, while my (exceptional) coffee was just as efficiently removed from the bill.

And what about the elaborately explained dishes that don't make it on to the menu - the specials delivered with breathless, rehearsed haste? I always find them a bit of a challenge - if the waiter explains them before you've looked at the menu, you don't know how they fit in with what else is on offer. If you've agonised over the menu already, adding more choice can be a disaster for the indecisive. Listening to a range of specials that takes a couple of minutes to deliver feels like an educative psychology experiment, testing your memory on verbal versus written memory.

Despite specials often being delivered with a boggling amount of detail, the price point isn't always there at the end. My thinking is that a special shouldn't take any longer to explain than a menu item would to read aloud. Particularly if it's something you're definitely not going to order - for example when a waiter launches into the life and times of tonight's oyster special, I'd love to interrupt, but you can tell they're in full flight and cutting them off would only cause a restart so they could find their place in the recital again. I understand why restaurants don't type them up daily, but printed specials really are easier, unless you're a world champion at that 'I went to the shops and bought a comb, a coffee, a newspaper, a tin of paint etc etc etc' game. I'd be all for waiters saying, 'On the specials tonight are a vegetarian entree, a duck main and a pizza. Would you like me to tell you more about any of those?'

It's a science, producing a menu - and an underrated one at that.

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