The devil is in the detail, as the saying goes. (Sometimes it’s “details,” plural…see what I mean?) It holds as true for restaurants as for anything else—& thus for restaurant criticism, whose practitioners share the singularly annoying habit of actually caring about words & their proper usage.
And so it is that my old pal MC Slim JB, a beloved Boston-based scribe, & I have pored over menus in our time, analyzing our descriptive likes & dislikes. For instance, though they’ve toned down the quotation mark–laden pretension of a few years back considerably, to this day I’m irked by pompous, insiderly phrases like “foie gras for my mentors” on the menu at T. W. Food in Cambridge, Mass.; ditto the laborious claim on Root Down’s website that “much like jazz, Root Down is the combined effort of individual strengths coming together to create a rhythmic, interplaying, & improvisational masterpiece….We’re all about the convention of life in all its eclectic glory.” Effort of strengths in a combination that’s coming together? That’s a lot of collective exertion; must get sweaty. And eclectic convention? Is that like idiosyncratic orthodoxy?
By contrast, the minimalist style—to allude to this fascinating article on menu psychology Slim pointed me to—doesn’t do a lot for me personally: as much as I’d kill for a meal at Chicago’s Alinea (& I’d kill a lot), the fact that I can’t actually picture, say, “distillation—of Thai flavors” means I can’t drool in anticipation. And heavy salivating’s all part of the fun, n’est-ce pas? Granted, the same could be said of surprise, which is what Achatz is clearly going for; as the article quotes him, “I want [the menu] to be more mysterious as a clean, crisp, graphically laid-out object,” & besides, “our food is so manipulated that…it’s not going to look like [you] think it’s going to look anyway.” But in that case, it’s still going to be a surprise, so why not build the suspense with a few extra delicious syllables, like “dehydrated bacon swinging from a trapeze with a butterscotch ribbon & thyme leaves”?
And so it is that Slim & I have thought long & hard about the menus that inspire & seduce us along with the ones that leave us cold—or, worse, howling. Now it’s off our chests & on your shoulders, restaurateurs: hope it’s helpful.
Slim: I like Charles Draghi’s menus at Erbaluce. He did a printer font for his menu based on his handwriting, & always has really interesting ingredients and unusual preparations going on. He’s meticulous about citing his local sources without seeming boastful.
Deborah Hansen’s wine list at Taberna de Haro is fabulous. Her knowledge of & passion for Spanish wines really comes through, the wines are grouped sensibly by their approximate heft, & the descriptions are uncannily accurate & helpful. (I haven’t been to Ondo’s yet, but may it be half so good as this old fave of mine is—the marinated deep-fried shark I ate there a decade ago still circles in my brainwaves—D.)
O Ya (named the best restaurant in the US by the Times’ Frank Bruni in ’08—D.) has menu prose that seems perfectly suited to the exquisitely minimalist vibe & cuisine: it’s like a series of ingredient haikus.
D: The exuberance of startling juxtapositions on the menus of Neptune Oyster & Osetra Sono, run by the former Neptune Oyster chef—lobster crème fraiche gravy here, warm French goat cheese & cider syrup there—never fail to stir my soul. Closer to home, the same goes for Rioja—preserved lemon yogurt, gorgonzola-creamed farro, prosciutto-scented broth, are you kidding me? And Beatrice & Woodsley: even though some of the dish names are uselessly flowery (I don’t want my scallops to go on holiday; I want them right here, working overtime), the concrete descriptions themselves send me: olive oil–milk confiture, charred tomato–parmesan jam, roasted carrot mousse, yes oh yes. And then there’s Opus, whose website is being revamped—but keep your eyes peeled; it’s a meaty (but not fatty) read.
D: Overwriting & underwriting aside, it’s misspelling (along with its corollary, mispronunciation) that yanks my chain hardest for being at once the most common & most avoidable mistake. How familiar are you with your own ingredients? Have you studied their origins, their traditional uses? I’m a stickler for the notion that you have to know the rules in order to break them right; talented as you may be, talent without knowledge is a risk only the arrogant are willing to take. (We’re making an arbitrary exception here for speakers of non-Romance languages; Chinglish & its ilk tend to veer far too off-kilter to be anything but utterly charming, even poetically convincing. Yes, I will have the “benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk,” thank you very much. Sounds delish!)
Of course, faced with a misspelling, I don’t really automatically assume you don’t know, say, your hummus from your soil composed of decomposed matter and excrement (humus); but I might assume you don’t care—that your respect for your own raw material isn’t utmost.
Slim: These cringe-inducing errors are much more common at tourist traps, places whose traditional cooking credentials are suspect anyway. The red-sauce palaces of Boston’s North End are particular culprits: dumbass owner, dumbass menu. But plenty of fancy places trip up on menu prose, too: it just seems less common, which supports your “attention to detail throughout” premise.
Quite a few more fine-dining restaurants appear to be sweating the menu harder these days; there’s a fair amount of art & science that has emerged around menu prose, layout, etc. When properly done, it can justify higher menu prices, boosting revenue & margins. When you put that much focus on the menu, you tend to screw up less on spelling.
Here, then, is our little vocabulary primer, listing some of the worst offenses. Note that the majority are Italian, involving singular/plural and masculine/feminine distinctions—which is disheartening, because they’re really not that hard to master (minus a few rule-breaking exceptions). Look:
-o: masculine singular
-i: masculine plural
-a: feminine singular
-e: feminine plural
Learn ’em, live ’em.
antipasta for antipasto
I heard this recently on the Boston-local TV restaurant “review” show, Phantom Gourmet. I wonder: if you were to order the the antipasta & the pasta & they arrived at the same time, would the universe explode?—Slim.
artisinal for artisanal
arugala for arugula
buerre for beurre
cacciatora for cacciatore
cannoli for cannolo
The latter’s the singular (ditto ravioli for raviolo, panini for panino)—D.
cannolis for cannoli
The latter’s the plural (ditto raviolis for ravioli, paninis for panini)—D.
carmel for caramel/carmalized for caramelized
Ceaser for Caesar
chipolte for chipotle
fettuccini for fettuccine/linguini for linguine
gnocci for gnocchi
Grand Mariner for Grand Marnier
mesculin, mescaline, etc., for mesclun
scallopine for scaloppine
pizziola for pizzaiolo
proscuitto for prosciutto
Rueben for Reuben
uh-kai for ah-sigh-ee (açai)
brooshetta for broosketta (bruschetta. C’mon, you’ve had decades to learn this one. There are even Facebook groups for getting it right—D.)
kuchaka for cachaça
chewreeko for shoo-reese-ooh or, more colloquially, shoo-reese (Portuguese chouriço)
As pronounced by Billy Costa, another local TV show host, who allegedly has some Portuguese ancestry—Slim.
chipoltay for chipohtlay (chipotle)
expresso for espresso
Mr. Costa, amazingly, again—Slim. FWIW, aside from the crazy Venetian dialect, there’s no x in Italian—D.
marscapoan for mahscarpohnay (mascarpone)
vinegar-et for vinehgret (vinaigrette)
OTHER SOLECISMS PER MC SLIM
Carbonara used to describe a cream-based sauce
Carbonara is creamy, but not due to the incorporation of milk or cream; it’s the combo of eggs and parmesan that give it its richness—D.
Confit for anything vaguely reduced or long-cooked
The term should be reserved for something salted & preserved in its own fat, most famously duck or goose—D.
Shrimp scampi (or gamberi scampi, mussels scampi, or scallops scampi)
Scampo is a crustacean, not a preparation—Slim. Some might argue that widespread usage makes this legit, but I’m with Slim—why not just skirt controversy with the phrase “garlicky butter & white wine sauce”?
“We’re doing a rift on American cuisine.”
Kathy Sidell Trustman, owner of The Met Club steakhouse chain, in a TV interview on plans for a forthcoming Boston outlet—Slim. Oof—D.
And you, kids? Feel free to share your peeves; we’re all ears.