Critic's Notebook

Misleading Menus

What does "Citrus Brulee" mean to you?

By Kathryn Robinson September 26, 2011

Photo: Andy Ciordia (via Flickr)

The issue of how much description menus should contain grows more interesting as restaurants become more minimalist in their prose. A recent brunch at Tilth revealed this juicy menu entry: “Citrus Brulee: arugula, tarragon, Holmquist hazelnut.” As with so many meals in that certified-organic restaurant the diner discovers the provenance of the nuts—but next to nothing about the dish they’re in.

“Hmm…brulee,” my companion mused. “Maybe like a citrusy crème brulee? Like a flan?” Who knew? In fact it was better than flan, by about a mile—slices of grapefruit and orange, torched to a nice caramel (indeed: bruleed), with herbs, sweetened hazelnut hunks, and fistfuls of arugula. Sort of a fruit salad, and the best fruit treatment I’d encountered in a restaurant maybe…ever. Only who would have known that from the menu?

Similar deal across town at my new favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Ba Bar. I kept seeing dishes walk past me headed for other tables that I swore I hadn’t seen on the menu. Like the flaky pastry bun served steaming with gravy…where was that? “Oh, it’s the Pate Chaud,” our server finally told us (when we finally asked), and immediately I kicked myself for forgetting that Vietnamese street classic. Of course: the pork-filled puff pastry comfort food classic. Listed on the menu as: “Carlton Farms pork, caramelized onion, carrot.”

It’s a service issue, ultimately; a breach of good service, requiring the diner to seek out a server for explication, or founder without it. Or perhaps these menu lapses are meant to prod diners into more engagement with their servers…the kind of engagement that sells meals?

If that’s the case, it worked the first time I went to the Book Bindery. “Grilled Mishima Ranch Flavor Curve,” the menu crowed, “with confit potatoes, creamed Bloomsdale spinach, king trumpet mushrooms, and Bordelaise.” Flavor Curve? “It’s a particular cut of steak,” our server intoned, thus selling us on its velvety richness in a way perhaps no menu copywriter could have done.

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