What's on the Menu?

Chefs and restauranteurs may be disciples of any of a number of schools of thought on writing a menu

Asbury Park Press

Remember the salad days of dining out, when menus listed things like oysters Rockefeller, veal Parmesan and prime rib?

We took it on faith that each dish would be pretty much the same everywhere. We didn't need to know where the oysters came from, who made the Parmesan and that the beef was raised on organically grown feed.

We've come a long way, baby.

Sup at The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, Readington Township, and you might start off with "Les Huitres 'Pemaquids' du Maine Poelees au Caviar (seared Maine oysters with Russian Osetra caviar)"; your entree at La Fontana in New Brunswick might be "Scalloppine di Vitello Pescatore (rosettes of white veal topped with jumbo Boston sea scallops, laced with smoked salmon and topped with caviar"; or if you dine at Mumford's in Long Branch you could sink your teeth into "a rosemary and olive oil grilled lamb loin chop, a pineapple bread-crusted pork medallion and a five peppercorn-seared beef tenderloin medallion, presented with a side of creamy asparagus polenta and sauced with a smoked apple and sage cream."

Whew, that's a real mouthful. But anyone who has dined out during the past 10 years has probably noticed that menu descriptions have taken on some of the heaving breathlessness of a romance novel.

The question is how much is enough. It is no longer adequate to simply list the name of a dish; in fact, most menu items today have no names. But should the menu list only the main ingredients or should it list all of the ingredients and describe the preparation?

Restaurateurs say it's all a matter of taste.

"I think descriptions have a role to play. The consumers are sophisticated, so the descriptions have to be detailed enough so they can make a menu decision," said Louie Stavrakis, sales manager at Restaurant Graphics of Maplewood Township, which has designed menus for some 500 restaurants on the East Coast. "The method of preparation is very important. Prominent ingredients and tastes -- if someone hates garlic -- are important. Now, verbose and flowery language or prose is not beneficial."

"I think the customer gets a better idea of what a dish is by describing it," said Neil West, owner and chef of Neil's in Brick Township, a restaurant whose menu is fairly staightforward in comparison to others. Neil's menu lists the main ingredients and technique, for example "Shrimp Sauteed in Sweet Butter with Locatelli Cheese, Fresh Tomato & Herbs Served over Fettuccine."

"The thing that I try to avoid is to give dishes names, because they don't mean anything," said Constantine Papanicolao, owner and chef of the Metuchen Inn in Metuchen, which also uses simple menu language. "You have to be descriptive, but not so descriptive that people get tired of reading the menu. People get specials because they're too lazy to read the menu."

Mark Pascal follows the same philosophy at Stage Left: An American Cafe in New Brunswick. Menus at Stage Left use very basic language. "We don't like to cloud the menu with too many ingredients. Most people who come here know our style of cooking," said Pascal, a co-owner.

Overly descriptive menus pose a problem in restaurants that offer a big selection of food. "Our menu is so extensive, if we went into that much detail, it would take a week to read it," said Laura Sammarco, owner of Posillipo's in Asbury Park.

At Ken Marcotte's in Westfield, menu descriptions are limited to two lines; most are a single line of type. "Wording a menu is like poetry. There's a real art to that. When you have as large a menu as I do, it's really difficult to list all the ingredients," said chef-owner Ken Marcotte. "Overdescription takes away from the imagination -- of what the dish is going to taste like. It's like putting a picture of the food on the menu."

Chris Mumford of Mumford's uses two-tiered menu language. His menu, which changes monthly, names a dish, such as "Chicken Breast Kyle," named after his son. Then Mumford explains how the dish is prepared and what's in it, using complete thoughts: "A boneless breast of chicken stuffed with broccoli, mushrooms and Cheddar cheese, rolled in seasoned bread crumbs and baked, served with a creamy lemon basil sauce and Romano mashed potatoes."

Mumford gets playful on occasion, purposefully misspelling some terms or calling potatoes "lilies" because they are in the lily family.

Italian and French menus pose a separate problem. Do you use foreign language terms or not? Stavrakis tells owners of Italian and French restaurants to use foreign names on their menus, but also to describe each item in English.

Some menus even offer details such as the origin of an ingredient. Restaurateurs agree that they find this type of information helpful.

"There are certain regions where there are superior products -- New Zealand mussels, Colorado beef, Norwegian salmon. It indicates quality," Stavrakis said.

"I think it's nice to recognize the supplier," West added.

"Back in the '70s or '80s, you'd use a lot more adjectives in your menu. (Today), listing the ingredients becomes the adjectives," said Paul McVety, assistant dean of the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., one of the nation's premier training schools for young chefs.

But the precise descriptions are not just on the menu for vanity, according McVety. They are there for health reasons, much in the same way that product labels list all ingredients and nutritional information.

Consumers need to know what ingredients are in a dish in case they have food allergies. The danger has grown as chefs, driven to be ever more creative, include nontraditional ingredients in dishes, he said.

A case in point, McVety said, was a chili contest run in Providence in the mid-1980s. One chef added peanut butter to his chili and didn't make this public. A girl, allergic to peanuts, ate the chili and died.

"You need to tell the public," McVety said.

Johnson & Wales has identified ingredients that can trigger allergic reactions in more than 900 recipes it supplies to its students. The school also requires students to be trained in the Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points system to identify when ingredients can become contaminated. So, if a chef wants to use eggs on his menu, he must know how to store them properly, McVety said.

While there are no local or state laws that require restaurants to list every single ingredient, menus must tell the truth.

"The most important part is the truth of the menu," Papanicolao said. "You have to make sure -- 100 percent sure -- that you deliver what you say. You can be sued if a customer says you served something not on the menu."

The coming trend is the menu produced daily on a personal computer at the restaurant, not at a print shop, said McVety. He thinks menu language could get even more creative because there would be no one, save the restaurateur, to set any limitations.

Stavrakis believes computer-generated menus will be more colorful.

While the wording and the design of the menu is important to Stavrakis, there is another thing on his mind: the condition of the menu.

"The menu reflects the attitude and the commitment of the restaurant, both in what's offered on the menu, but also the physical appearance, including the condition of the menu. Is it ragged, is it dirty? It shows what's in the kitchen and the bathroom. The menu is the focal point."

Published in the Asbury Park Press and The Home News & Tribune 4/10/96

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