A Delicate, Delicious Menu Discussion with a Side of Helpful Information

Mike Cook

You don't think about reading as a part of dining out, but it is, and writing is very much a part of cooking. The production of an easy to read menu is a skill in and of itself.

There are many variables to consider. Ingredients need to be listed in some detail, for diners' delight and for those who may be allergic. Space is limited, however, and no matter how much a chef wants to crow about his salads, they all have to fit on the same page.

Despite all the help out there (there are all kinds of articles online, like at the National Restaurant Association’s page, not to mention books like Profitable Menu Planning) some chefs still need help. Certain menu writers wield their pens like meat tenderizers. "House-made" is, like salt, useful but easy to overdo. "Our signature" means nothing, particularly on restaurants that haven't been around long enough to develop a signature anything. And there's "our famous," which is just plain wrong. Even by the most generous definition of fame, your mashed potatoes are not famous. No one has ever mentioned them. Come on, even YOU don't talk about them.

One of my recent favorites was "pan roasted to your perfection," which is both a little bit nonsensical and demonstrates that some places can't resist the "to perfection" construction. "Our house sirloin grilled to perfection" is both uninformative, duplicitous (did they raise the cow? How is it their sirloin?), and clichéd. The most common problem is the over written menu:

"Grilled rockfish delicately placed on a bed of sautéed kale with lemon olive oil dressing and Yukon gold chive mashed potatoes." Diners don't need to know how much strength you used to place the rockfish atop the kale, and the sides themselves could be reduced to "kale and mashed potatoes," or if you prefer, "sautéed kale and chive mashed potatoes."

Diners don't want to know everything about what the chef does so much as they want to taste everything the chef does. Calling your sandwich "delicious" makes me nervous that you felt the need to tell me. Let your food speak.

I like the way Charleston approaches the menu. For instance: "Pan-seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Toasted Brioche, Quail’s Egg, Ozark Plum Sauce."

It's a nice construction: thing, comma, other thing, comma. There's a bit too much info on the foie gras, but it's Charleston and you're paying a ton for it, so let it slide.

That brings up the topic of farm names, on which I'm torn. On one hand, I like knowing that someone cares about where the food is coming from. On the other, the list of names can get unwieldy. Not only are the menu descriptions long to read, but the names start to overload me. It's all most of us can do to keep up with the restaurants that are constantly coming in and out, but now I also want to remember where my cheeses are produced. It's not bad or unwanted information; it's just a bit too much information.

Though Woodberry Kitchen does sprinkle farm names throughout their menus, I like their other method. At the end of the menu they list the farms they work with. Interested diners can read all they want, while goal oriented (and hungry) folk can ignore.

Writing a menu with the diner in mind, and having some prospective, non-chef diners look over it, will help chefs achieve that balance of informing without overdoing, and that's what makes for a menu written "to perfection."


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