The mad, mad world of menus

March 06, 1994|By MARY COREY

So, here you sit, tucked cozily in the trendy bistro du jour, contemplating your choices. Will it be mesclun with pancetta and duck confit tonight? Or something more substantial like osso bucco? And to finish? Hmmm, it's a tossup between the zabaglione and syllabub.

Wait a mouth-watering minute. . . .

Perhaps we nodded off in home ec class or missed an episode of Julia Child, but restaurant menus, it seems, now resemble gastronomic pop quizzes.

At one time, the most intimidating thing about them was the prices. You ordered beef, seafood or poultry. Chicken wasn't free-range, it was fried. Tomatoes weren't sun-dried or air-dried or oven-dried; they were grown. And nothing, so far as we can remember, was pan-seared.

Nowadays, diners have to be trilingual to read the fine print between the appetizers and dessert. There's proscuitto from Italy, tahini from the Middle East and clafouti from France.

Even simple things like bread have become new-fangled. Peek into the basket, and you no longer have white, wheat or rye, but focaccia, brioche or challah.

How did it all get so complicating -- and intimidating?

"I blame the '80s," says Mark Rose, manager of Paolo's at Harborplace. "Nobody wanted to run a normal restaurant anymore. Everybody was trying to dazzle with nouvelle cuisine. So people would spend $80 to have dishes and sauces they'd never heard of before."

At Paolo's, the service staff fields the most questions about the black pepper linguine (egg pasta sprinkled with black pepper), tapenade (a spread of eggplant, olives, garlic and olive oil) and the quattro formaggi (four-cheese) pizza.

It's simpler than it sounds. But Mr. Rose says some people err by making decisions without knowing what they're getting. One gentleman recently ordered fried calamari. When it arrived and he learned it was squid, he balked.

"This is what?" he asked. "I want something else."

Even when the customer is uninformed, he's still right in the service trade. The dish was whisked away and replaced with something more familiar: fried eggplant.

While complicated menus may represent culinary one-upmanship, restaurant consultant Diane Neas says that sophisticated ingredients and preparations simply mirror the wide variety of ethnic influences in food today.

"People are exposed to so much more," says Ms. Neas, whose business is based in Kingsville. "When you're in the grocery store, you see starfruit, endive and cilantro. The whole pasta business has changed. It's not spaghetti anymore. It's capelletti, fettuccine, tagliatelle. Chefs are integrating different cuisines to make multiethnic menus."

She sees no problem with menus that may have a few unfamiliar terms as long as the server acts as interpreter.

And as your grade-school teacher told you, there's no such thing as a dumb question. Even pros occasionally are puzzled by food terms. Ms. Neas, a New England native, finds herself constantly confused by chicken-fried steak. "It's always been an intriguing thing to me. I know it's a battered piece of meat. But is it chicken? Or is it steak?" she says with a laugh. (This staple of the South is made of beef, according to our food dictionary.)

Mark Henry, executive chef of the Milton Inn in Sparks, hopes diners aren't cognizant of every ingredient on his menu.

"That's what keeps it interesting," he says. "Dining out is about more than just filling your stomach."

One of the big hits on the Milton Inn's dessert menu -- blueberry slump -- elicits a number of raised eyebrows among the uninitiated. Unless diners are from New England, few know that the dessert is a cobbler-type dish with a biscuit topping and cooked fruit.

And then there are times when restaurant marketers are simply gussying up unpleasant truths about food.

"Restaurants mask the name of a thymus gland in a calf and call it sweetbreads," says Mr. Rose. "It's a fantastic taste in your mouth, but nobody would order it if you called it thymus gland."

What are some of the most commonly asked-about terms? We surveyed area restaurants -- and their menus. Here's what we found:

INGREDIENTS

Andouille (ahn-DWEE): A spicy, smoked sausage made from pork chitterlings (pig intestines).

Balsamic vinegar (bal-SAH-mick): Made from white Trebbiano grape juice, this Italian vinegar gets its color and sweetness from aging in barrels for years.

Chervil (CHER-vuhl): An herb of the parsley family with a subtle licorice taste.

Chevre (SHEHV-ruh): Goat cheese.

Cilantro (sih-LAHN-troh): The alternative name for coriander leaves, cilantro has a pungent odor that works well with seasoned food.

Cumin (KUH-mihn): A plant with long seeds and a hot, bitter taste.

Duxelles (dook-SEHL): Chopped, sauteed mushrooms and shallots used as a garnish or to flavor sauces and soups.

Extra-virgin olive oil: Considered the finest of the olive oils and the most expensive, it's the cold-pressed result of the first pressing of the olives.

Mesclun (mehs-KLUN): A type of French salad consisting of an assortment of leaves.

Pancetta (pan-CHEH-tuh): Italian bacon.

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