What’s in a Menu Description?

There are many ways to write a menu to describe the food to a hungry diner. From minimalist listings of ingredients to consummate detail to everything in between. Sometimes one can come away with an accurate portrait of what a particular dish will be like, while other times the description leaves a lot or all to the imagination. Depending on the kind of restaurant and the style of food, the style of describing a course means more or less to me. If I’m at a Modernist restaurant in which whimsy and surprise are potent elements of a chef’s alchemy, I don’t mind leaving a little mystery in the description, but when I’m dining at a more straightforward restaurant, I prefer the menu to be an accurate representation of the food.

The other night, I ordered a pizza at a local restaurant. The menu called the pizza a “Clam Pizza.” It also described other ingredients on the pizza including pancetta, garlic, chile, parsley and grana padano. Given the top billing and status as the title ingredient, I expected that the pizza would have featured clams front and center, but while there were clams on the pie, they were probably the only ingredient that I couldn’t actually taste. I’m not saying that the pizza was a bad pizza, that it was poorly conceived or poorly made. It wasn’t. IT was actually quite tasty. I wasn’t unhappy with it, but I’m not sure that it should be called a “Clam Pizza.” The pancetta was certainly the dominant protein source, at least flavor wise and between that, the chile, the garlic and the cheese, any semblance of clam taste was essentially eliminated or at best relegated to the background. The flavor of the pizza may have truly benefited from the clams, but at best they played a supporting role. For star billing, I expect a star performance.

Frankly, as long as the food is good, as the pizza was, I don’t really care too much, but I do hate it when an inaccurate description results in something that leaves me dissatisfied. While I’m not interested in naming restaurant names, I would love to read examples of good or bad menu descriptions from others.

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4 Responses to What’s in a Menu Description?

  1. Yao says:

    Reminds me of a dinner I had at benu. One of Lee’s signature dishes is listed as “shark’s fins soup”. It was in fact a great black truffle consomme. The naming was a disservice not only to the original dish, but to his creation. It’s interesting how names can raise certain expectations…

  2. Daniel B. says:

    I’m still annoyed at Chef Ric Orlando’s “Crispy Tofu Sticks” which conjured up the tasty image of tofu fries. Instead they were more like sauteeed tofu skewers, which picked up the barest trace of a crust from the pan. Although I take some responsibility, as I didn’t ask for confirmation from the waiter before I placed the order.

    It’s always a good idea to check your assumptions with someone who is an expert on the dishes from the menu.

  3. Henrik Gammelgaard says:

    Some years ago I were at a touristy place in Denmark; friends + I managed to find a restaurant that was serving more than just fish/pizza buffets.

    I happened to order a chateaubriand along with a whisky sauce (it was either whiskey or ketchup – so don’t hold it against me) – according to the cart it was homemade and of superb quality, along with the best steaks in that part of the country.

    When the plate arrived there was a tiny, very very well done piece of steak, along with something that tasted of a poor quality barbeque sauce — apparently I were the first customer ever to complain about the quality of the sauce. The waiter explained that the sauce were made according to the instructions on the bottle (!), however after a few he came back and said that they for the last many years never had added the necessary ingredients to their premade sauce – apparently the bottle mentioned things such as milk/cream, which they had never added before.

    That, and the stake came with a toothpick in the middle of it – and costed 2x as much as what would one have ‘expected’ (compared to a regular steak house) kinda did put me into a defensive position in regards to restaurants and bold claims.

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