20 August 2014

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Restau-RANT: why can’t menus tell it straight?


restauRANT_lucy mangan_menus - RestauRANT_menus.jpgThere’s nothing wrong with a bit of flowery language, says Lucy Mangan, but why can’t menus tell us what we really need to know?

It is unfashionable to admit it, but I’m actually quite a fan of adjectival overload on a menu. It fits nicely with the general air of decadence I experience whenever I decide to eat out. I shall be drinking Prosecco and scarfing a delicious meal I haven’t cooked myself. By all means, add some gleeful linguistic bubbles to the proceedings! Tell me that my hand-reared/sustainably farmed/painlessly harvested fillet of beef/sea bass/unicorn has been gently pan-fried, strewn with aromatic herbs and served on a bed of fresh spring greens/samphire reaped by the ivory hand of a maiden fair by the dawn light of a new day. I am never happier than when perusing something that reads like an EU-mandated list of ingredients filtered through the mind of a frustrated Elizabethan poet. I’ve had a wash and put a frock on, so it’s nice to feel that some unseen scribe has put in a bit of work, too.

The only problem is that however elaborately detailed the menu, it never actually tells you the things you really need to know.

How many times, for example, have I been tempted by the promise of a sumptuously creamy fish pie, filled to the brim with succulent prawns and chunks of salmon, cod and haddock hewn from the flanks of the sweet denizens of the sea, and topped with an equally sumptuously creamy yet fluffy layer of mashed potato, only to find that atop this lies a layer of breadcrumbs. Sodding breadcrumbs – an agent of the devil, capable of ruining any dish in which they have a malevolent hand – go entirely unmentioned. Why? Is it because breadcrumbs are tiny, although their effect is entirely disproportionate to their size? Is there an unspoken requirement regarding ingredient volume rather than impact? It would explain why capers are so often left off menu listings – despite the fact that all chefs should adhere to the culinary version of Occam’s Razor (the philosophical principle that no entity should be complicated beyond absolute necessity), which states that any dish that is good with capers in it is even better without them.

Puddings, of course, are the scene of the diner’s greatest tragedies. You will be told that your chocolate fudge sundae or brownie-based delight is bedrizzled with warm chocolate meltingness, coated with cream, custard or a richly flavoured ice cream of your choosing. What you will not be told is whether the cake involved is studded with little bits of ginger. Not enough to taste; not enough to pick out before you start. Just enough to get lodged in your teeth and ruin the glorious sensation of chocolatey goo coating the inside of your mouth before disappearing down your gullet. When that happens, I always come back late at night and set fire to the place.

The greatest offender, perhaps, is the hotel breakfast. The ‘cooked’ can contain a multitude of sins – barely grilled bacon lying like anaemic dogs’ tongues across the plate. Sausages so underdone they look like a dead giant’s fingers. Fried eggs so raw you might as well pour a vial of salmonella down your throat to save time. And of course the grilled tomato, which once prompted Bill Bryson to explain, when questioned about why he hadn’t eaten his, that he’d thought it was a blood clot.

As for the continental breakfast, it is hard, when presented with the stated ‘warm, flaky, all-butter croissant and jam’, to look the waitress in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m going to need six times as much jam as you’ve seen fit to give me, and you’d better bring me some actual butter, too, if this whole thing’s going to work.’ It makes you look greedy, when of course what you are is a perfectly normal human being – one whose breakfast conserve needs do not accord with the hotel’s bottom line. Their parsimony is simply making you look bad. (If it’s toast and a tiny pot of honey on offer, things are easier. You just use comedian Chic Murray’s line to his miserly landlady: ‘Ah. I see you keep a bee.’)

Menu writers of the world, hear my plea. Plunder the thesaurus at will but don’t forget to tell us what we really need to know about our chosen dishes. And hotels, please remember – an extra ounce of jam means pounds of repeat business. I speak for all of humanity here.

Rules I shall impose when I am minister in charge of public eateries

1. Turn the music down.
2. Now turn it off.
3. No fish pie needs to be hotter than the sun.
4. Do not decrumb my table between courses. Either I haven’t made a mess, so your intervention is pointless and annoying, or I have and you are just rudely calling attention to it.
5. Stop saying ‘sparkling’ mineral water. It’s fizzy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

This feature was published in the autumn 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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