Destinations Magazine

How to Read a Menu.

By Johntalbott

A loyal reader sent me this comment: “Your article on Zero de Conduite poses another worthwhile discussion:  how to read a menu.   Not problems in translation or understanding the fine points of garniture  but rather reading between the lines to extract the nuggets of joy or at least the edible.  

I have this gift.   My husband does not.   In Paris or Peoria, my husband can find and order the stinker on the menu.   He has, not infrequently, walked out of a restaurant and proclaimed, ‘I don't know why I just don't tell the waiter, I'll have what she's having.’

I am guessing that it was S. who ordered the scrambled eggs and steak-frites, minding the infallible old adage, "KISS" (keep it simple, stupid).   Look for local, seasonal, and anything that has to be cooked to order as she did or something that can sit on the back of the stove (or be frozen!) for ages, like a braise.   Never fish or shellfish.   Greens but not green vegetables.   And as you initially pointed out, considering what can sensibly be served at any price point.   As in, if it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

Now since this wonderful woman considers her relationship with me to be one of mutual “devil’s advocates,” I don’t think she’ll mind if I agree and disagree.

Certainly KISS is a surefire motto, but since I enter most places with no idea about whether the chef’s apprentissage at the House of Robuchon or Constant or Bouchet was for a decade of sous-chefdom or 2 weeks of sweeping the floor and often I don’t know even his or her provenance, I expect to test the chef and the kitchen, not have to order defensively.  Sure at Quick or Courtepaille, the latter of which I did indeed once try, I go for that which cannot be screwed up.  But I do expect any place a step up to be able to dress a green salad without drowning it and source and sautée a lobe of foie gras.

The looking “for local, seasonal, and anything that has to be cooked to order” items is a good rule in some situations.  For instance, before a catered event at our house, Colette and I pressed one of our daughters, the one who graduated from a culinary institute, to select items for serving that could not be prepared and stored hours or days before, and the results were great. 

But getting back to going to new places in Paris.  It would be surefire to order oysters, an entrecote and a flan every day, but I don’t want to eat them every day.  I see brains, or pigs’ feet, or their grandmother’s mousse and I want to see if they can do it.

Now, this inevitably means disappointments some days; lifeless terrines, boring potatoes, over-cooked fish, banal fowl and cardboard-like desserts.   But it also means soaring surprises and innovative sauces and interesting ingredients, spices and herbs.

One further point which I’ve mentioned before.  When I first started my food samizdat, I had a special section for where to get the best seafood platter, bouillabaisse, fish soup, cotes de boeuf, cassoulet, coq au vin, couscous, etc. in Paris.  It took a long time for it to dawn on me that folks assumed that if they or their spouses or S.O.’s or kids didn’t want the sacred dish too, they wouldn’t go, so no more of that for me.

The other day I was present when a couple with a reservation, entered a restaurant, sat down, looked at the menu and departed.  It was a terrific restaurant; one of our favorites, with lots of choices.  I looked at the waitguy, put my puzzled-look face on, he shrugged the “I have no idea” shrug, and went about his business.  Was it the “menu”, the carte, the prices, the choices, the welcome, the décor, the clientele?  I had no idea either.  PS the meal was great.  But more about “walking out” later.

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