The language of menus
By February 2016
At LuMi Bar & Dining, a newish harbourside restaurant beloved of Sydney’s crisp white shirt dining set, a carefully stubbled chef presents a dish of crab meat, highlighted, he explains, with puffed rice. Puffed grains are a favourite ingredient of LuMi’s Italian head chef, Federico Zanellato. But if there’s puffery on the plate, it figures as an asterisk to the restaurant’s guiding aesthetic: a devotion to simplicity and cleanliness that borders on the Scandinavian.
LuMi, like many high-end restaurants now, is emphatically post-Noma, which makes sense when you discover Zanellato served time at the legendary Copenhagen restaurant. Everything about LuMi is stripped back, smoothed out, reduced to its unpuffy essence. Wooden tables bear the clean lines of Danish design, and the room is dotted with low-slung couches in mid-century style. Succulents, the least demanding of the plants, occupy the dead spaces. The chefs, who personally transport the food to diners in the Noma fashion, glide from table to table under bare light bulbs, offering plates filled with powder and ice and custard, and no emotion.
But it’s on the page that LuMi’s aspirations to purity express themselves best. The menu, written in a plain sans-serif typeface, tells us no more than is absolutely necessary. Descriptions of the dishes consist of three or four words separated by commas. “Scallops, kohlrabi, yukari.” “Beetroot, black sesame, cream.” We’re deep into tweezer food territory – a place where the fare is surgically spectacular, the chefs coax ingredients onto plates with the help of pincers and pipettes, even the tiniest leaf receives a program of pastoral care to smooth the passage from stem to mouth, and the menu prose is so austere and liturgically rhythmic it could pass for late Beckett. There are no connectors, no elaborations on the provenance of the produce, no writerly adornments.
This style – Degustation Laconic, we’ll call it – is a style embraced by many chefs serving adventurous food today: the menus at Australia’s most expensive restaurants are, for the most part, an aggressively preposition-free zone. If the dish descriptions at Oscillate Wildly, in Sydney’s inner west, were substituted for those on LuMi’s menu, it’s likely no one would notice. Tuna, dashi, buckwheat. Whiting, radish, ink. This, to be fair, is a global phenomenon: one of the dishes on offer at Wildair, a popular new restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side where the patrons sit on high chairs, is “Black bass, pineapple, nduja”. But Australia has taken to Degustation Laconic with particular zeal – no surprise, considering our historical fetishisation of the minimally verbal.
Menus are some of the most studied, obsessed-over documents in the world, but their composition remains a subject of little exploration. Perhaps this is inevitable: people go to restaurants to enjoy food, not to argue over authorship and usage. But that is changing. Menus are now fodder for internet comedy: the website brooklynbarmenus.com offers aspiring hospitality operators in the booming New York borough an automatic menu generation tool (sample items: “seasonal pepper discs”, “rustic watermelon toss and blistered chorizo”, “tormented oyster”).
One hundred years ago, New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel advertised its chicken main course as “Chicken”. The description of a beef main was only slightly more elaborate: “Rib of beef”. As restaurant dining Frenchified through the 20th century, menus threw off this reticence: where once diners had been brutalised with “mutton”, suddenly there was a flowering of veloutés and gastriques. The past few decades – in the English-speaking world, at least – have been one long tale of menu de-Frenchification. We’ve gone from the jungle to the tundra, elaborate cursive fonts and teeming course descriptions replaced by a succession of monkish truncations. The parody websites don’t go far enough: menus have returned to something like their original state. In Brooklyn today, at Chef’s Table restaurant, a high temple of North American tweezer food, Cesar Ramirez uses no more than a single word to describe each course. Fluke. Butter. Scallop.
The difference is that now the simplicity of the prose is designed to be playfully elliptical (it says potato, but we know we’re getting so much more!), whereas pre-Frenchified menus delivered exactly what they promised. “Mutton” at the Waldorf Astoria in 1914 was, you can be sure, a single piece of mutton dropped on a plate.
Project the cycle of erasure in menu writing to its logical conclusion and we won’t end at Degustation Laconic: chefs will keep deleting until the page is blank. But not all countries are heading this way. The menu at Mugaritz, in Spain, has offered “toast of roasted crusts” and “fifth-quarter octopus”, while at Italy’s Osteria Francescana chef Massimo Bottura makes a dessert called “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart”. At Michelin three-starred French restaurant Maison Troisgros a recent tasting list included a dessert called “Who saw the flower?”, while Marc Veyrat, a French chef known for cooking with mountain plants and wearing a black hat, produces something called “a completely crazy egg”. These descriptions often tell a story. Bottura’s syntactically complete lemon tart was created by accident, after his pastry chef dropped a dessert ready for service; the result was, in Bottura’s eyes, more beautiful than the original.
Does menu style even matter? Most chefs in this country will tell you it doesn’t. The job of a menu, they’ll say, is to be as clear and unobtrusive as possible. A good one communicates the basics of the food without drawing too much attention to itself. But clarity, of course, is in itself a style, and conformity on the page can feed conformity on the plate. Most high-end restaurants in Australia have been very happily swallowed into the cloaca of Degustation Laconic. But pockets of resistance remain. For instance, the December tasting menu at Attica, in Melbourne, offered “Halftime oranges”, “142 days on earth”, “Wallaby blood pikelet” and “Gazza’s lamb pie”. In previous months, some course descriptions even included verbs.