Snooty Restaurant Survival Guide: How To Decipher Pretentious Menus
At nicer restaurants, I often feel like a barking idiot, spending the first part of dinner not briefly surveying the ridiculous menu descriptions and feeling satisfied with my choices, but asking the waiter, "What's that?" about every other word on the menu.
And once I finally make my decision, I'm not totally sure what I'm getting myself into; half of the descriptions are in French, and helpful adjectives are nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, I consider myself fairly adept at navigating the culinary landscape of today -- I write for a food site, after all -- but I've been stumped by pretentious menus too many times not to compile a snooty food dictionary for the wellbeing of the dining community. Study up and storm into your next highfalutin restaurant with the power of knowledge.
Here is a list of some pretentious food names and pretentious food descriptions. Category One: Simple Foods And Drinks, Usually Listed In French To Sound Better Aperitif: A light alcoholic beverage to stimulate the appetite before a meal. It's usually champagne or sherry, but does alcohol really have to be light to make you want food? Bouillon: Broth Burrata: A fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. It is the cheese of your dreams. If you see it, order it.
Digestif: An alcoholic beverage served after a meal to "aid digestion." They're usually listed on the dessert menu and are highly potent. Think Grand Marnier or Cognac. Framboise: Raspberry Fruits de mer: Seafood Gateau: Cake. If you say the word "cake," you've got my attention. Gateau?
Eh. Haricot Vert: Green bean Huile: Oil Jamon/Jambon: Ham. Yeah, the word "ham" has no allure, so I cast no judgment for snobbiness there. Lardon: Delicious bacon chunk. Lardons are both thicker and better than dry ol' bacon bits, so restaurants also have license to throw around a French word on this one.
Poivre: Pepper. You're probably getting yourself into a yummy situation where your meat was rubbed with coarse ground peppercorns or comes with a peppercorn sauce. Both good things. Pomme: Apple Pomme de terre: Potato ("apple from the earth," according to the French) Rocket/roquette/rucola/rugola: Arugula, that bitter green used in salads and thrown on pizzas Roe: Eggs or reproductive glands of fish and shellfish.
HA. Roe is usually used as a topping on sushi rolls. It's the orange, but sometimes red or black, stuff that tastes like salty, briny bubbles. It makes your meal more expensive but also more photogenic.
Sorrel: A bitter spring green. I don't know what I used to think this was, but every time I see the word, I picture a woodland animal. Truffle: Not the wonderful chocolates, in most cases. Truffles are super expensive fungi with an earthy, funky taste. They're commonly used to flavor fries and pastas. You should definitely order truffled things. Category Two: Common Menu Items, The Names Of Which Confuse People Canape: Small pieces of bread, sometimes toasted, topped with meats, cheeses and spreads and often served with cocktails.
It's the French word for "couch" and sounds like something you'd wear, but it's simple, good food. Carpaccio: Raw meat or fish sliced or pounded very thin. It's usually served as an appetizer with olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Charcuterie: Like a cheese board, but with meats. Think sausage and salami and prosciutto. The world's confusion with this term can best be summarized by Modern Family's Jay Pritchett: "That’s charcuterie? I’ve been avoiding that on menus for years. They’re killing themselves with that name."
Hash: Chopped up meat and veggies with seasoning, sautéed until golden brown. You usually can't go wrong with a hash, especially if you #putaneggonit. Smorgasbord: A lot of stuff on a plate. It can be served as an appetizer or main meal and usually includes pickled fish, marinated veggies, smoked salmon and other things. It's a Swedish thing. Tapas: A wonderful Spanish way of evening dining that involves small shared plates and local wines and aperitifs. It's gotten pretty hip in the U.S. and is a great way to eat out as a group.
Category Three: Technical Terms Al forno: Baked or roasted Au gratin: Means your dish has been topped with cheese or bread crumbs mixed with butter and baked. Means your dish, probably potatoes, is gooey and bubbly and topped with a desirable buttery crust. Means you could make just about anything au gratin, and it'll be a winner.
Bechamel sauce: Also a terrific gooey element. It's a thick cream sauce used as the base for many carb-heavy, and therefore excellent, foods, like lasagna and macaroni and cheese that is not from a box.
Compote: Basically jam Confit: Meat cooked in its own fat, usually the fate of ducks and geese Coulis: A thick puree, sauce or soup of absolutely anything. You could serve fries with Heinz ketchup and call it, "potato strings with tomato coulis."
Crudo: Raw fish. Different from sashimi in that it isn't just about the fish; it's about the ingredients added to flavor the fish. It makes for a light, refreshing appetizer. Fricassee: Stewed or fried pieces of meat served in a white sauce.
Next time you make a creamy chicken bake or something, definitely call it a fricassee. Absolutely. Noisette: French word for "hazelnut" but is actually a small round steak. (???) How many noisettes have I let pass me by because I thought they were nuts? Reduction: An extra-thick or concentrated liquid that got that way because it was boiled and/or simmered
Category Four: Straight Up Foolery Amuse-bouche: "Amuse the mouth," which sounds gross. Atomic Gourmet says these small samples of food are served before a meal to "whet the appetite" and "stimulate the palate," which are two more gross sounding clusters of words. As consolation, if you get an amuse-bouche, it's usually "compliments of the chef," so it's a free bite of classy food you got for eating somewhere bourgeois.
Amuse that mouth. Artisanal: Meant to conjure an air of handcrafted-ness but has come to mean absolutely nothing at all. Dunkin' Donuts rolled out Artisan Bagels, which really says it all. The word "artisan" on a menu description is like a mint leaf on top of a cake -- it does nothing but makes it look better.
Foraged: Carefully found food from nature. If you're eating at Noma, OK, your food was legitimately foraged from a Copenhagen forest near your table. If you're eating at Applebee's, the "foraged mushrooms" on your pizza were "hand-selected" from a truck. Hand-cut/hand-peeled/hand-selected: Your food was touched by people's hands, which is what would have had to have happened in order for it to be made.