Monday, 26 January 2009

Happy Australia Day to you

Visiting Nellie this afternoon was the prompt for a long (in Nellie terms! She has young children so conversations which last more than one sentence are Guinness Book of Records fodder!) convoluted conversation about chefs, menus and food. Nellie had been reading my blog and was questioning me further on various issues in it.

We came to the conclusion that we think many chefs try too hard to describe their menu food, with the unfortunate consequence that if the description which led you to order the dish in the first place was misleading to you, then the dish won’t meet up with your expectations and the anticipated taste you had already formed inside your head while excitedly picturing this meal. You come away feeling slightly let down but not exactly sure why, especially when there's nothing you can really put your finger on to blame this feeling on.

If it was just my thinking, I’d tend to think I was being a boring old fart, and operating in that traditional old people’s way – but it’s not. When Nellie agrees, then I’m not feeling as if I’m the one out of step with everyone else.

If a menu plainly read “Fish and chips”, and out of the kitchen came a beautifully made light and crispy beer batter, containing a lovely, fresh, tasty piece of blue eye accompanied by a handful of Steve Cumper’s local, specially cooked chips (as opposed to the bulk pre-cooked/frozen chips most places use) – wouldn’t it make you gasp with amazement, wonder and happiness? Wouldn’t you race off and tell everyone to go there? How could you possibly get let down by simplicity?

But the wonder-wording of many menus often leaves me feeling like a failure if I haven’t enjoyed it quite as much as I thought I would. In other words, I’m saying that surely a good, competent, self-confident (OK, there aren’t so many of THOSE around!) chef should be able to prove their worth with the actual food product, not his or her clever wordsmithing.

Maybe that particular habit started with someone wanting to be more specific about what their food actually comprised. That’s totally understandable, and laudable. But many menus these days tend to make you feel like you’re living a Rogers and Hammerstein, or Gilbert and Sullivan, musical! In the case of somewhere like Marque IV or Piccalilly, the need is there in order for them to justify and explain the amount of intricacy involved in getting the food onto the plate. Their food has undergone so many processes that it would be criminal for them NOT to go into some detail. But that doesn’t cover your average restaurant plate.

Maybe the thinking is that the more descriptive you are about your food, the higher price you can justify charging for it? I don’t know. But I think you’re leaving yourself more open to criticism if you wax lyrical about the food on your menu, rather than just saying it like it is. The old adage, “The proof is in the pudding” rings true.

Let your talent and cooking skills and expertise hang out! Get rid of all those superfluous adjectives and call it as it is – eggs and bacon; steak, chips and veggies with gravy; fish and chips; roast lamb; beef casserole etc.
Posted on by Rita


sir grumpy said...

That menu speak is a turn-off, Rita. You know jus instead of gravy etc.
Pan-fried (what else..just say fried).
You mention fish and chips and Steve Cumper has this down as an Australian Dish. Fair dinkum. What next, haggis?

Anonymous said...

Cheeky, Sir G. Quite agree, Rita. Must admit some restaurants have reduced me to tears of laughter with their eloquent descriptions, especially when the food was ordinary.
Just back from Castle Zayee which had a Chinese New Year banquet. I felt so sorry for them. Great menu (felt I was in Chinatown or Singapore) but only 16 people there - and we were 6 of them!
Is it because it is too far north? Is it because they do not have an Australian Chinese menu?
The food varied from fantastic to interesting. We started with a tangy jellyfish, seaweed and noodle salad which zinged. The jellyfish was a textural note which slurped up the lemon, chilli dressing. Then a pork, duck and turkey soup which was rich and velvety. Finally got to try some dumplings with broth and pork which burst in your mouth!
Garlic rice had beef and lots of crunchy garlic shoots. Whole steamed fish with coriander, mushrooms and a rich soy based sauce which highlighted the delicacy of the fish. Prawns with honey sesame sauce and a challenging vegetable dish with greens, bean curd, mushrooms and numerous fungus which varied from delicious to 'oh, well - this is an experience!'
Dessert was weird but nice. Seafood and sweet custard 'fritter' with orange sauce and fruit. As someone who generally detests sweet and savoury I found it OK.
But what a shame it was so empty!!
Have been there for yum cha which is always yummy but I hope business picks up.
Love your new site. Very sophis!!

Anonymous said...

Rita, Sir G and Kzee I'm sort of with you on this. I shall elaborate:

When describing a menu item we are often a slave to two masters. Whilst trying to accurately depict a dish we are also having to advertise it such as to entice a sale.
Most of us have menus on our windows. To entice people in. This is vital. Decisions are often made at this point.
I agree though that what is said must be reasonably accurate without being too wanky or downright misleading.

There are things that we may wish to highlight; Fish 'n' chips is perhaps better as Fresh landed Flathead and local potatoes fried in beer batter etc.

Personally I like a brief description, and a Waitperson with the knowledge to elaborate on the finer points to the customer.

Sir Grumpy, as for Jus; this is often mis-described by many to the point of an outright lie. Many jus are actually a jus lie (pronounced julie). But this is a technical point that, frankly given the hour I can't be fully arsed explaining. But on a note, try not to call the chefs sauce a gravy, thats a whole other point of technicality that could find you at the sharp end of a 30cm blade, some people take the time to bake them bones down into a Demi glace, and create the stocks for the base of the sauces your calling a gravy.

Rita, for the record, its easier when some of the dishes are named after the place or pay some homage to the place of origin. Last year My mother ordered, "A lightly flambed and folded pan fried golden batter with fresh Orange and liqueur sauce accompanied with quinnelles of chilled vanilla cream"
I nearly pissed myself laughing recognising it as crepe Suzette.
I gave the chef, some stick for that.


Blue Mtns Chef said...

I've often been tempted to put the following on my specials board:

"a terrine of ground roasted panamanian peanuts, topped with a seasonal raspberry compote reduction, on a layer of organic sourdough batard loaf"

in other words, a peanut butter and jam sandwich.

Anon2 said...

Over elaborate descriptions of food can lead to disillusion. However, it is more often the quality and freshness of the ingredients that disappoint.
If you can afford to dine regularly at Marque IV, Piccalily or Monty's, for example, you will most likely be rarely disappointed in this regard. If you go to the local pub for a feed, things may be less consistent. In other words, you "pays your money and takes your pleasure".
However, it is places in the mid price range, which people like myself go to for regular eating out, where food descriptions and what's actually on the plate are often at variance. When you do find a place where quality and price are in a good balance, you support them like mad and tell all your friends until they invariably "go off". This can happen from complacency, losing a good chef to a more upmarket establishment, or succumbing to the financial pressures of providing quality while trying to make a living.

Bruce said...

How about a competition for the most pretentious menu, Rita?

I nominate Moorilla.

Justin Harris said...

I apologise for writing and cooking a menu that deliberately uses local, sustainable produce, is focused on the wine friendly cuisines of Southern Europe and due to this is worded with some terms that diners may not be fully that familiar with. Sometimes there is no other way to describe a dish or technique. Our waiting staff are well trained to answer any queries and we attempt to offer items that may not be served elswhere.

If that is pretention, then I confess my guilt.

Rita said...

Sir G - glad to see you're with Nellie and I on this one. But leave my cobber Steve alone! I know we're not in the old country now, but we've poached so many dishes from round the world (due to our diverse population), surely we can poach the old fish 'n chips too!
Kzee - good to hear from you again, and thanks for your report on Castle Zayee. It's just not a place I would ever think of going. I didn't even know it was still operating till someone mentioned it last year sometime here.
Glad you like the new-look site too.
Sir Cartouche - I agree with you about the waitperson giving a more explanatory description to the customer. That would demonstrate a few things apart from the obvious.
Agree also about the jus, but have to add that I have had what was noted on the menu as a 'jus', only to find it was your average watery gravy, and no pan juices went anywhere near it.
Love your Crepes Suzette and ice cream description! I'm now on the hunt for the most poseur-ish menu description ever - so restaurants be warned! Rita is on the hunt for the best, most ridiculous menu description in Hobart.
Please feel free to add any YOU come across! Which also takes up Bruce's challenge - thanks Bruce! But we need specifics so please provide us with the actual wording so we can judge for ourselves.
Blue Mtns Chef - thanks for dropping by again. Love your sarcasm!
Anon2 - Agree totally with you about the problem being mostly with medium sized places.

Susannah said...

Interesting spelling on menus can also be a source of ammusement. "Bollanaise" and other variants are pretty commonplace, but my favourite of all time was on a menu outside the hotel at Longley (nearly 20 years ago, when it had pretentions). I was never really sure whether the advertised "Yummy muscles" referred to the bivalves, or to the biceps of the chap behing the bar......

by the way, Rita, the new website looks pretty swish!

Rita said...

Justin - welcome, and thank you for responding with your side of the menu story.
Susannah - Did the Longley pub ever have pretensions? You're right about the spelling errors too. I wish I'd written down some of the beauties I've seen over the years.

sir grumpy said...

Now, Rita, wasn't that what this post was about....mislabelling etc.
Then you go and tell me Australians can poach fish and chips. Now back in Britain we fried 'em. Never had poached fish and chips! (I'll cop it for this).
And Cartouche, I salute those chefs who lovingly reduce a sauce and etc. I am just saying you get a bit of gravox some places advertised as chef's special sauce or jus and it's a giggle.
I also take the time to make my own stock but not of the roasted bones variety. That's what you chefs can do for us gruff (and grateful) punters!

Blue Mtns Chef said...

spelling mistakes (missteaks?) on menus - there's a whole book waiting to be compiled.

it's only been fairly recently that I haven't seen 'cuppo chino', usually out bush.

'peperoni', 'foccacia' and 'currie' are far too commonplace.

but my all-time pet hate is the inevitable-if-you're-pubgrubbing 'snitzel'.

really works me into a snit, that does...

Bruce said...

Fair call Justin. Perhaps I got a little hung up on your description of a cheese platter - "Artisan and farmhouse cheeses, served
with hand rolled lavoche, fig paste and nut loaf".

And Sir Grumpy, rumour has it that "fish and chips" were introduced to the Old Dart by the Portuguese.

Bruce said...

. . . and Belgium for the chips bit.

sir grumpy said...

Fish and chips ain't portuguese, Bruce. They have great fried fish and salt cod and stuff but the combination goes way back to Britain. Belgian chips are legend too.
Poor old Britain's cuisine gets a hammering...leave us something!
I was even suprised when maeve O'Mara did one of her food safaris on England. I thought she'd never do it, given the bad press poor old blighty has got over its once-wonderful food.

Rita said...

BTW - if you read the menu for Piermont, you'll see that Allan has written exactly and precisely what each item is - no more, and no less. I think I'll have to vote him as No 1 menu-describer thus far!
The menu items listed in my review are worded exactly as written on the menu.

rockoyster said...

Bruce and Sir G.

According to a BBC news article . . . It is thought to be the quintessential British meal, but new research claims the original idea for fish and chips came from Jewish and French dishes.

A study of the multicultural nature of UK cuisine suggests the meal was influenced by immigrants 150 years ago.

Professor Panikos Panayi of Leicester's De Montfort University has begun a £6,000 research project to investigate the global influence on British food.

He said fish and chips mixed "French frites with Jewish fish dishes".

He said: "In the middle of the 19th century the main concern of most sections of English society consisted of eating enough food of sufficient quality to stay alive, rather than displaying a concern about variety.

"Transformations between 1850 and 1945 included the emergence of fish and chips, influenced by both French and Jewish culinary traditions.

He said the origins of the dish were complex, but probably came about from the combination of French frites with Jewish fish dishes.

"It certainly isn't the traditional British food people might think, and of course the meal is often enjoyed with a cup of tea - the best example of the influence of the Empire on English eating and drinking habits."

Christina said...

Happy Australia Day and happy 17th Birthday to my wonderful son.
I'd rather be doing what I did this Australia Day that what I was doing this time 17 years ago.

So this year it was barbecued lamb and kangaroo on the barbie with lamingtons for dessert. A few games of darts with the Hubby and a few glasses of red.
The lamb was probably greekish, having been marinated in yoghurt and herbs fo 24 hours, the kangaroo was bought marinated in bush style marinade, the noodle salad I made was quite asian, the lamingtons self explanatory, the bbqu'ed pink eyes, well Tasmanian I suppose.
To me a true Australian meal. A wonderful mix of all things good about our gorgeous multicultural society.

On the subject of mis spelling and mistakes on menu's' Me Wah describes it's Peking Duck as being served with susumber and cunchy vegetables. I don't really care what it is, I've had it and it's pretty darn good!

Justin Harris said...

Thanks Bruce. I'm certainly not trying to be pretentious with the cheese description, just conveying the message that I am sourcing cheeses that are not mass produced. This description has been unchanged on our menu since inception and we find it serves us well in describing our intent. If it aint broke don't fix it perhaps.

Like Allen at Piermont I prefer a minimalist but well worded, non flowery menu. I certainly am not a 'wordsmith' (I'll leave that to my Maitre d') but I do try to keep it a little interesting without being too ostentatious.

I have recently seen some great menu desriptions in Hobart and could wax on about some (percieved) ridiculous menu descriptions, but I am not in the business of sledging on my peers.

Anonymous said...

Ha justin prententious nooo! (note sarcastic infliction)