À la confusion

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on April 06, 2018

Menunomics: Think of the last time you visited a hip new eatery and opened the menu, expecting the names of dishes. Only to be confronted with bewildering, detailed descriptions of the fare on offer — part grocery list, part recipe, part affectation.   -  ISTOCK.COM/VLADI79

Shabnam Minwalla   -  BUSINESS LINE

Part grocery list, part recipe, part affectation — today’s hipster new menu is baffling diners

I’ve just spent a happy half hour on the Internet, and realised that it’s not just me. There are other cantankerous souls out there who go to restaurants to enjoy a meal rather than to read the wordy fiction that masquerades as menus these days. That there are others who find “Miniature gateau flavoured with liquorice from the Spanish Maine concealing a heart of liquid fire glazed with quince jelly and served on lapsang crème Anglaise with baby pear finished with an arabesque of purest gold” difficult to swallow.

Just this once, instead of a paean to a favourite food, I’m indulging in a rant against a non-favourite food trend: The Rise of the Pretentious, Supercilious, Verbose Restaurant Menu.

Think of the last time you visited a hip new eatery and opened the menu, expecting the names of dishes. Only to be confronted with bewildering, detailed descriptions of the fare on offer — part grocery list, part recipe, part affectation.

This is a realm in which the tomatoes are universally vine-ripened, the vegetables are farm-fresh and the cheeses are hand-selected. (Aren’t we glad they didn’t use their toes instead?)

Some ingredients are “locally produced”. Others have travelled a long, long way to get to our plates. Either way, we are meant to feel grovellingly grateful that our Yellowfin tuna tataki is being served with “New Zealand hass avocado, tomato gelée, sesame vinaigrette”.

Just as we are meant to pretend that the aam aadmi knows all about amuse-bouches, au jus and garganelli. That we perfectly understand what it means that our Chicken 64, will come along with “rigatoni and mushroom gratin, mornay sauce, morel jus”.

Or that we are perfectly comfortable making choices based on the most cryptic clues — that could yield anything from a Caesar salad to a chutney sandwich. Take, for example, “tempered ricotta vada, pao bhaji, kafir lime butter pao ‘Chowpatty in a bowl’”. Or the even more haiku-like and minimalist: “Glazed parsnip: Mango, juniper, pine nuts”.

To which the only honest response can be, “Means what?”

And the only honest answer can be, “It’s some veg, fruit and nuts on a plate. But we are trying to make it sound fancy and mysterious so that you pay a packet.”

This is not just my cynicism speaking. The business of writing and analysing menus is a serious one. A study conducted by Cornell University found that customers are willing to pay more for a dish if it’s been conjured up with pretty words and adjectives. They’re also likely to rate “A satiny pudding infused with Ghana cocoa beans” more highly than they would rate the very same dish, if it’s served up as plain old chocolate pudding.

Stranger still, another study in the US found that customers associate fancy fonts with fancy food — and so are willing to pay more for “Baked potato topped with parsley” than for “Baked potato topped with parsley”. Which finally explains why I’m constantly reaching for my spectacles in restaurants these days.

Menu engineers — yes, it’s a proper profession and yes, there are university courses in the subject — are employing all the possible tricks. Swirly fonts. Elaborate descriptions. Promises that the fish is “line-caught”; the chicken is “farm-raised,” the vegetables are “locally-sourced” and the microgreens are “harvested”. (Is it even possible to cook with microgreens that have not been harvested?)

Little wonder, then, that menus from Mumbai to Manchester use the same lingo and clichés. And the end results range from over-the-top to absolutely bizarre.

In The Guardian, the marvellous food writer Simon Majumdar maintains that, “At the top of the pile so far is the description of baked crab hand rolls at Japanese restaurant, Katsuya, in Los Angeles. According to the menu, the rolls have been “lightly kissed with Chef’s signature sauce” a description which, at best conjures up images of the sushi chef snogging seafood and, at worst, well I shall leave that to your active imaginations. Suffice to say I couldn’t be persuaded to try them, not least due of the terrifying prediction that ‘one taste will leave you wanting more’.”

While menu engineers are dreaming up new ways to described zesty salads and silky soufflés, customers have started protesting. The Internet and blogs are full of “menu decoders” for the befuddled patrons of sniffy restaurants. Anybody with a free moment and Wi-Fi should check out the Brooklyn Bar Menu Generator.

This website was put together by a disgruntled customer who, fed up of the pretentious menus featured by various hipster bars, decided to poke a little gentle fun at the trend. The menu generator uses standard restaurant ingredients and lingo to come up with its own creations like “rustic farfalle reduction with awakened ham”. Or “quickened pepper spread, pan seared clam jam and cider pork belly waffle”.

Don’t be too amused. It might well feature on the next menu you encounter.

After some thought, I decided to serve up a hipster recipe to keep with the hipster menu theme. You can come up with your very own description!

Shabnam Minwalla   -  BUSINESS LINE



Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of The Shy Supergirl. Her latest book, What Maya Saw, is now in bookstores

Published on April 06, 2018

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