Sitka and Spruce’s menu, up for interpretation.

The fashion now in dining rooms is menu minimalism: Descriptions that may (or may not) list ingredients, but coyly withhold the preparation details diners might reasonably deem critical to their selection—or leave undefined arcane terms even diehard foodies might not know.

Yes readers, I have pointed this out before. The way La Bete offered Manila clams with gnocchi and aromatics without specifying that it was a stew, not a bowl of clams-in-shell. Tilth does it every time it lists its citrus brulee on its brunch card, amplifying that meaningless description only with “arugula, tarragon, Holmquist hazelnut.” (FYI, it’s caramelized orange slices with herbed greens, and if it’s on the menu you should order it: it’s really stunning.) Sitka and Spruce is an old hand at the cryptic treatment, peddling such mysteries as lamb manti and ful madams without a whisper of explanation. And LloydMartin: Shouldn’t a diner be granted the intelligence that “rabbit, sweet potato veloute, chestnut, Italian porcini” is a pasta dish?

I figured these Hemingwaylike descriptions might be a pendulum-swing from the days when menus were lampooned for a level of detail so Faulknerian, they read pretentious. Some chefs might be humbly keeping preparation descriptors low so as to forefront the primacy of the ingredient. Or maybe, to the contrary, they’re a chef’s not-so-humble way of suggesting that he should be trusted to wrest greatness from these ingredients—nevermind the details.
Now this just in from LloydMartin chef and owner, Sam Crannell: “We definitely list the main product in each dish, but we don’t want the descriptions to be too long,” he told me last week. “The way we do it opens up the ability to have a friendly conversation with the waitstaff. We don’t want to toy with guests, but we do want to encourage those conversations.”

Nothing personal, Sam, but to this guest’s mind, ordering already presents enough of a challenge. Sure, it’s not brain surgery. But between the demands of a table’s dietary restrictions and desire for variety—not to mention an individual’s cravings—diners work to come up with the orders they’ll be paying for. Seizing a waiter’s undivided attention to get the simple descriptive basics in the thick of the dinner hour so that waiter can properly “sell” us a dish should not be a diner’s responsibility—and, unless restaurants get staffed up with considerably more waiters, should not be the only way a diner can find out that there’s pasta in that thar rabbit plate.

“Yeah, we were even toying with the idea of one-word menus,” Crannell added. Forget Faulkner and Hemingway—now we’re in the realm of James Joyce.

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