A half century ago, it wasn't unusual for restaurateurs to stud their menus with French phrases as a way of demonstrating their culinary seriousness. At the Bakersfield Inn, an eater who didn't fill up on the "filet of sole, Anglaise" could order the "pudding du jour."
Gratuitous French has largely disappeared from menus, but diners are still struggling to interpret the terminology favored by chefs. When kitchens race to prove their sophistication by using esoteric ingredients and unusual preparation methods, diners are often left behind. "Why are they trying to confuse us?," an attendee at a recent MOHAI panel about Seattle menus asked me.
I'm accustomed to menu jargon, so I didn't fully appreciate the depth of the problem until I dined at Restaurant Zoe with friends. They tasked me with assembling an order, largely because they didn't recognize most of the words on the menu. "Is this a menu or a Scrabble board?," one of them asked. My companions seemed even more bewildered after the server explained the dishes, using words which were equally foreign to eaters who don't immerse themselves in cookbooks and food magazines.
To determine whether Zoe's menu was really as opaque as my friends claimed, I put together a short matching quiz for my office-mates, featuring 10 words from Zoe's menu and their definitions. They failed miserably. The average score was four right answers. There wasn't a single word which every quiz-taker knew, although a majority of respondents correct identified emmer farro as "the mother grain of modern wheat." (Well done, Bluebird Grain Farms.) Not one person had ever heard of a panisse.
I'm not sure what to make of the results. I'm glad that restaurants are experimenting, and love having the opportunity to discover something new when I go out to eat. But I hope the average diner doesn't feel so intimidated that it's diluting the joys of restaurant-going.
While I used Zoe's menu for this exercise, I could have used a menu from any similarly-priced restaurant: Zoe's menu doesn't include any words I haven't seen on other local menus. "Maybe menus should have a glossary," one of my dining companions suggested. I don't think that's realistic, nor do I think restaurants should have to skirt unfamiliar terms when listing ingredients. Still, my decidedly unscientific survey is a reminder that it's sometimes a good idea to call a panisse a fried chickpea patty.
Are you smarter than my co-workers? Here's the quiz: UPDATE: Answers are now in the comments section, so stop scrolling if you don't want to cheat.
3. Emmer farro
A. ricotta dumplings
B. the mother grain of modern wheat
C. Once considered a simple weed, this nutritious annual has a slightly sweet flavor
D. fried chickpea flour cake
E. crisp, tart pickle made from a tiny gherkin cucumber
F. flat, long wide noodle with rippled edges
G. classic French sauce made by combining mayonnaise with mustard, capers, chopped gherkins, herbs and anchovies
H. univalve mollusk
I. mixture of crushed basil, garlic and olive oil
J. Spanish smoked paprika