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Decoding Restaurant Menus

Rebel or Submit, at Mugaritz in Spain
Rebel or Submit, at Mugaritz in Spain
Geeta Bansal

How are diners faring with navigating restaurant menus?

Chefs and restaurants these days list every ingredient (usually obscure) on their menus or glorify staples by specifying their source or antecedents in great detail. This ploy is presumably meant to elevate their cuisine in the minds of their diners. Do diners really care to know if the spinach is from a tiny enclave in a some hard to spell locale or the provenance of the seeds germinated for the end product?

Until recently, menus simply specified if the produce was organic, vegan, and noted the use of gluten, nuts, or dairy for those dealing with allergies or religious constraints. In the last few years these disclosures have become an advanced but confusing art form on menus. A noticeable feature on menus these days is putting products, for example, a certain salami from somewhere in Italy that is not even available stateside, or poultry from a specific producer that is sold in super markets everywhere, but in order to make it more exclusive is listed by the producers name. These trends can be spotted at all kinds of restaurants, and even fast food joints are becoming willing partners in this game. To top it all when guests being totally confused by all these details turn to wait staff for answers they don't get much. The wait staff probably need to attend a seminar to answer the questions from befuddled diners.

Speaking of trends, they sometimes border on the ridiculous. There are only so many purees that are pleasing to the palate, unless someone has a problem masticating on something with a texture. So why over process food if it's not elevating the product in any way. Foraging is the other much flaunted word and for the most part the only foraging taking is in the walk in coolers or produce refrigerators. The advent of Nordic cuisine and it's foraging dogma have penetrated into every professional kitchen by default. Thankfully, fried moss in imitation of Noma has not appeared on plates in local eateries so far.

"Farm to table" is another term tossed for around for locavores to signify the big break through a restaurant operation is making. Isn't almost all food coming from a farm somewhere to tables at homes or restaurants? Is the philosophy of the chef or restaurant explained or elaborated on menus, or does the cuisine justify this concept? In the case of restaurants that maintain their own farms (i.e. Manresa in Los Gatos) to supply their kitchens, the use of this "Farm to table" label is justified.

Those who frequent "hot" restaurants on a regular basis can now play the game of attempting to recollect where they came across similar dishes mimicked on other chef's menus. Plates travel faster than Instagrams and tweets since they tend to make an appearance on another ambitious chefs menu almost in the blink of an eye. Maybe a new app will soon come on the horizon to facilitate this new game. Ferran Adria, one of the most creative chefs of our time, once explained creativity very simply as "NOT COPYING,'' something chefs should remember when they rush to participate in the "creation" of an assembly line of innocuous carbon copies which smart diners can recognize anyway. It's no secret that restauranteurs and chefs frequent other restaurants, creating a buzz on their day off as part of their R & D to pick up ideas.What happened to cooking from the heart and using their own intellect and instinct?

As much as local, seasonal , and responsibly sourced is touted on restaurant menus and websites, it's hard to comprehend or justify the choices of products used in preparing what's listed on the menu. What is the reasoning behind choosing to replace local products, for example California almonds with Marcona, or if a small local farms provide fresh produce, why must we use elements trucked in or flown in from hundreds or thousands of miles away? The other trend is postage stamp-sized restaurant gardens presumably supplying all the requirements of the kitchen. Then comes the pseudo-intellectual elements of the menu that disclose the processes used in cooking what is on the plate. People usually visit restaurants in search for a great tasting meal in a relaxed environment, but now they have to read up on cooking techniques and terminology like sous vide, gastrique, emulsions, immersion circulators, etc. before going out with company so as not to be the embarrassed ignoramus in the group.

It is probable that reality TV show aficionados are who these chefs are catering to, since diners who have not come across strange or relatively unknown ingredients on shows like "Chopped" are pretty much out of the game. Ethnic cuisines do utilize ingredients that are less familiar and so listing spices or vegetables on menus is understandable, but who needs to know where the grey sea salt used in a non-fine dining restaurant came from? Diners are at a restaurant for a meal, not a lesson in botany, biology, or geography, and constantly being bombarded with unsolicitated information can be wearing.

Well-known chefs around the world refer to their "R & D" labs or their "investigation" (a word that is my pet peeve at marquee food events) of products they put on their plates, and their posturing is perhaps to justify their astronomical prices. It is hard to apply the same reasoning for restaurants across the board who follow trends blindly by listing ingredients or techniques that require a reference guide. Is the average diner aware that brassicas are just broccoli? That onions, as they are commonly addressed, are the exotic sounding alliums, or that Daucos carrots or the Danvers 126 is just the run-of-the-mill carrot favored by Bugs Bunny?

Have chefs and cooks lost the art of simply cooking products to enhance them and create delicious food without resorting to lengthy verbiage about the "terroir" of carrots, apples, or shrimp? Maybe we are closer to D.O.C (Italian tradition of Denominazione di Origine Controllata) or A.O.C (French Appellation D'Origine Contrôlee) classifications as in France or Italy than we realize!

Then there are menus which could literally have a question mark next to each ingredient because they tell you next to nothing. Have diners that choose chefs tasting menus made a considered decision, or simply given up trying to comprehend menus and taken the easy route of eating what comes before them? A few years ago Chef Andoni Aduriz of the famed Mugaritz restaurant in Spain offered his diners two menu choices: Rebel, leaving the diners to choose their gastronomic fate, or Submit to the chef and sit back and enjoy what the kitchen sent out. Even the style of cuisine has not escaped this treatment with the confusing fusion of cuisines and references to a mother cuisine or another culture, when the restaurant is not even remotely representative in the ethnic or geographical context. Why not call it cuisine of the world?

Maybe it's time to let the food speak for itself and let menus simply be menus. Or add a glossary.

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