I don't want to have to read between the lines, and most importantly, I don't want a menu to lead my expectations astray, only to have the first bite reel them in.
I hate to make assumptions with food
I don’t often order eggs for breakfast – too early in the day for the disappointment – but last week I had a perfect plate of them. Eggs Dragonfly was exactly what the menu said it would be: cornbread topped with two poached eggs and a sweet, roasted red pepper sauce, with black-eyed peas and silky Southern-style greens.
While Taos, New Mexico, is not as active a hippie community as it once was, there’s a lot of room for eccentricity up in those mountains and they’re still heavily populated with free-thinking characters. While I ate my eggs, a man with a pleasant smile approached each table to let people know that he was inside offering free astrological readings.
Usually, when I hear of someone’s dazzling recent astrological, palm or tarot reading, I can be counted on to say something sarcastic. Part of my bad attitude can be chalked up to stories I heard from a friend who paid her college tuition by working for a psychic hotline. According to her, the company had milked millions out of callers, mostly women of a certain age who expressed themes of desperation, vulnerability or paralysis, and were willing to pay a lot of money for generic advice from a total stranger. I imagine waiting 50 years to be asked whether I felt misunderstood as a child. Some assumptions, it’s safe to say, are safe to make.
One area where I dislike making assumptions is food. It’s not that I don’t love to be surprised; it’s that I don’t want the element of surprise to be the most memorable part of the experience. I don’t want to have to read between the lines, and most importantly, I don’t want a menu to lead my expectations astray, only to have the first bite reel them in. Perhaps it’s why I have a special fondness for the restrained integrity of simple menus.
We’ve all bumbled our way through flamboyant menus. Beyond the compulsion to list the source of every ingredient as it’s described, some menus are dense with information so arcane or irrelevant to the finished dish that the act of reading the menu warrants its own reward, such as a visit to the dentist. How many times have you bitten into something and, before even formulating an opinion, thought (for better or for worse), “this doesn’t taste anything like I thought it would”. The problem with listing the garnish of toasted nasturtium is that people will expect to taste it.
Which is why my deliriously awesome lunch yesterday at Hot Doug’s in Chicago, Illinois, was enthralling. The place serves nothing but hot dogs and fries, every single item on the menu – such as the duck sausage, topped with truffle mousse and dirham-sized coins of foie gras torchon – tastes exactly like the three or four components from which it is assembled. The countless steps that went into making each of those components don’t require individual recognition.
On the other end of the spectrum, the California vegan chain Cafe Gratitude features more than 50 menu items all beginning with “I AM” (in all caps), such as I AM BEAUTIFUL (an orange and vanilla milkshake) and I AM DAZZLING (a Caesar salad). As we were taught at an early age: when it’s better left unsaid, and especially when there isn’t anything nice to say about it, resist.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico