The Irritations of Modern Life: 3; Modern Menus

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The Independent Culture
IN 1914 E Brunet, chef to the Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe, translated L Saulnier's Le Repertoire de la Cuisine into English and condemned us to 50 years of French menus.Thus in the Sixties anyone faced with a box of Dover sole could riffle through its pages and find 338 helpful suggestions. The index runs all the way from Adrienne - "Fillets, folded and poached, coated with Polignac sauce, garnished with soft roes and tartlets filled with crayfish tails cohered with Nantua sauce" - to Yvette - "Same as Sole Crevettes, glazed, slice of truffle".

During the Seventies, as diners started to think for themselves rather than be bullied into the choices of a snooty head waiter, chefs started to chip away at the supremacy of the French menu. We get a respected Lake District restaurant offering "strawberry pots de creme" and a Cornish hotel offering "fraises Charles Stuart" - the best of both worlds, French enough for stuffy customers but accessible by hoi polloi.

Nobody was prepared for what happened next. In the past 20 years the restaurant business has exploded; food has become the new football. And to the chagrin of the die-hards, we're not talking French food either, but Thai, Tuscan, Gujerati, Japanese, Nonya, Caribbean, Cajun - each with a rich vein of language to scribble across menus.

What's more, the idea of "fusion" bubbled to the surface. Now chefs could combine Thai spices with French dishes - and use both kinds of jargon on a single menu. Suddenly going out to dinner requires that you know what a "laksa" is.

And as well as the glorious newness of it all, behind this obfuscation lay a certain amount of self-interest.

As far as restaurateurs are concerned, one of the primary functions of a menu is to help the head waiter strike up a relationship with his or her customers. Consider this, from the menu at a new and mega-trendy Italian eatery: "deep fried artichokes and lamb sweetbreads with dragoncella". It's a model of clarity, simple and straightforward... except for that last word. What is dragoncella? Tarragon, that's what. Is it unduly paranoid to suspect that the only reason it reads dragoncella and not tarragon is so that George, the charming headwaiter, can get to work?

The prize for the most consummately prolix and flesh-crawling menu- writing of the modern age must go to a rather posh hotel in the north of England. See if this stirs the gastric juices: "Asparagus & Artichoke Salad with Dandelion Leaves, Loganberry Dressing Around It and Balsamic Vinegar In It and the Poached Quails Egg We Nearly Forgot!" (punctuation and bizarre capitalisation as in the original). What can be worse than joking about your customers' dinners? Especially when the jokes aren't even funny. It's a shame, as the dishes themselves are very good indeed.

As customers, we want menus that are clear, informative and evocative. Perhaps today's chefs would do well to look once more at Le Repertoire. On the subject of menu writing, the introduction says: "Pompous words such as Cryptogramma instead of Mushroom should not be used although, if employed with extreme moderation, a bold euphemism such as `Black Pearls' for truffles is occasionally permissible." It is hard to disagree.