December 18, 2010

Do I need my decoder ring?

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While at dinner last night, Amy told me that she used one of my quotes for an article in the Scene Asia blog of the Wall Street Journal.  The subject of the article was cryptic menus and diner's perception of them, and Froggie was also quoted.

How dishes are written on a menu has a large impact on the likelihood of those dishes being ordered by diners.  In addition to telling us which ingredients are used in the dish, it should also give information regarding the method of cooking/preparation.  This helps the diner form an mental image of the dish, which will either appeal to the diner or not.

In general, I don't like cryptic menus where I have difficulty forming an accurate image of the dish in my mind.  It's one thing if I'm at a restaurant whose menu I know well, or if I'm in an adventurous mood and just want the chef to surprise me.  Sometimes I walk into a restaurant and give the chef free rein, like placing yourself in the chef's good hands with omakase in Japanese restaurants.

Most of the time, however, I'm browsing through a menu and trying to see which handful of items jump out from a page among a few dozen.  I need all the help I can get to determine which dishes I'll be most happy spending my money on.  The restaurant won't be doing me any favors by withholding information.  If I order something and it comes out completely different from what I expected, and I happen not to like the dish... well it's gonna affect my desire to come back and spend more money.

The exception for me would be restaurants where they are very creative, and often these would be the guys doing molecular gastronomy.  The chefs at these restaurants are trying to surprise diners with their creativity, by breaking with tradition and playing on texture, cooking method, flavors...etc.  Here I'm happy even not to see a menu at the start of the meal, and just see what playful dishes can come out from the kitchen.  El Bulli, Tapas Molecular Bar, Krug Room and BO Innovation are all places I'd go back to despite cryptic menus, although one can argue that they all serve set meals where diners don't have a choice of dishes.

My other pet peeve is actually menus which are overly descriptive.  Years ago on my one and only visit to Saint Pierre in Singapore, one of the things which turned me off completely was the menu.  When each dish was written with three lines of text, it became difficult at times to figure out which was the principal ingredient...  I don't think it's necessary to know every single little spice the chef used to flavor the broth.  I'm a food lover, not a food geek who's trying to de-construct each dish.  I haven't gone back to the restaurant since that visit more than 6 years ago...

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