Eating & Drinking: Poetry on a plate

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SO IT HAS come to this. I am at a fish restaurant clutching the menu. It lists a dozen or so species of fish. That's it. There is a price beside each one, and below them, a short list of extras: salad, chips and green beans. That's not a menu, that's a shopping list.

Minimalism works in Chelsea apartments, New York studio lofts and Japanese bento boxes, but do we want it on our menus? Isn't a menu supposed to inform, lure, excite you - or at least give you an idea of what you might be able to eat?

"How is the fish cooked?" I ask. "Pan-fried, or grilled," replies the waiter. "Fillets or whole?" "Depends on the fish." "What do they come with?" "Lemon." "That's it?" "That's it." "Could you do a sauce if I wanted it?" "Yes, of course." "What could you do?" "What would you like?"

And so it goes, until the fashionably minimalist menu is bursting at the seams with its excess baggage of additional information and decision- making. The trouble with these crisp, clear, lean menus is that, along with the excess words, has gone a lot of clear and vital information. I like surprises, but not necessarily as I am sitting down to eat. Another menu had me in a dither, with a list that included rabbit, sweetbreads, onion terrine; grilled lobster, herb salad, butter; and grilled fish, salad, aubergine pickle. Doesn't anybody use conjunctions and verbs anymore?

The prize for the most say-it-like-it-is menu in all of eatingdom goes to London's St John for its simple, ever-changing list of such things as pork belly and peas; duck leg and carrots; chitterlings and mash. These are three separate dishes, although in some restaurants they could quite easily be on the one plate. You know that the pork belly is unlikely to be wok-fried with lemongrass, so you can safely assume that food will be cooked in a logical, matter-of-fact fashion, and served without fuss.

Of course, what is missing from our contemporary menus is any sense of poetry. By that I do not mean a symphony of vegetables, a melody of shellfish, or a harmony of fresh, dewy baby peas and beans, plucked from rich loamy soil. I ate enough symphonies, melodies and harmonies in the Eighties to start my own orchestra.

Perhaps we should follow the Chinese manner of looking beyond the obvious, wrapping the prosaic and pragmatic in a web of poetry. The most famous banquet dishes take their evocative names from historical stories or folk tales. Know the fable, and you know the dish.

Buddha Jumped Over the Wall, for instance, is a head-spinning soup created in the Imperial kitchens during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). It contains the most precious ingredients in the Chinese repertoire, including deer sinew, shark fin, sea slugs, pigeon, Yunnan-cured ham and herbs. According to the story, Buddha was working in his garden when the most delectable smell drifted over the wall from next door. Even though he was a strict vegetarian he cast his principles aside and leapt over the wall. (I think it was the sea slug that got him.)

And so it goes, with names like Ants Climbing Trees (minced pork with cellophane noodles), and Chrysanthemum Fish (fish with its flesh scored to open like the flower petals when cooked). Then there are Lion's Head Meatballs (braised pork meat balls surrounded by a "mane" of cabbage) and Mermaid's Tresses, crisply fried shreds of scallop and Chinese broccoli leaves that taste like a swimmer's salt-drenched hair.

To the Chinese, the name is as essential to the success of the dish as its preparation and presentation. Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom Chicken from Fujian is decorated with ornate patterns cut from scallions, leeks and green peppers. Bless the Old and the Young is an easily digestible, nutritious and cholesterol-free Cantonese fish dish that is suitable for the entire family.

Such names succeed in being both memorable and challenging to the food- curious, a sure way of ensuring their own survival. But we're not doing too badly. Let us never forget that in among our sausages and mash, and fish and chips, is that wonderful, poetic and unforgettable dish, Spotted Dick.