What's in a Menu

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The great food writer M.F.K. Fisher frequently referred to menus as "intelligent" or "playful." In my early twenties I admired that insight immensely, chiefly because I had no idea what she was talking about. Why was serving one soup smarter than serving another? What was playful about a trout?

Recently I set out to discover what really makes a menu, be it charming, wise or impudent. I asked local chefs dozens of questions about what Madison loves and what it snubs, prodded them about the business side of menu writing, requested a few trade secrets and unsuccessfully lobbied Shinji Muramoto for a ramen joint. A menu seems so simple, but in truth it is part business plan, part efficiency expertise, part artistry, part culture vulture and part psychological tug-of-war.

Once a chef has determined her demographic, she needs to evaluate the skills of her staff and potential equipment limitations, and determine product availability. Sarah Minasian, a culinary consultant and food journalist who teaches menu planning at MATC, adds, "And let's not forget that variety and the balancing act of sensory stimulation all perform the same theme song. From color and texture to taste and cooking methods--the entire menu needs to dance to the overall theme of the restaurant. And ideally, the menu itself should visually support the theme as well."

A restaurant menu announces its intentions in a variety of ways, balancing practicality and desire right down to the paper. A higher-end restaurant menu may be literally more substantial: heavier paper and broader dimensions seem to prepare the eye for double-digit prices. Capitol ChopHouse, for instance, presents its guests with a simple two-color printout at lunch but an oversize cardstock version at dinner. Harvest began its tenure with menus in handmade books featuring photos of local products. Each book took owner Tami Lax about two hours to produce--which was fine until they needed to be replaced. A company makes the simplified linen-wrapped holders Harvest uses now, less cumbersome than books but still telegraphing the same upscale message as heavy silver and whisper-thin stemware.

For places like Restaurant Muramoto and Harvest, pared down descriptions imply elegance and simplicity that speak for themselves ("Roasted Grouper, Shiitake and Oyster Mushrooms, Spinach") without so much as a "with" or "and." L'Etoile, on the other hand, lavishes as much menu space on producers as on the dish components. Whatever a restaurant chooses, a perfect description hinges on clarity, concision and the ability to paint an accurate picture in the guest's mind.

"I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that when I read a menu, I don't want to work, and I don't want to feel foolish by not understanding the copy," says Minasian. "I want to understand what the main ingredients in the dish are, and basically (not every single step, mind you) how it is prepared." For Minasian, ultra-abbreviated menu copy is missing a marketing opportunity. "Smart menu planners make you want to order (and pay) more than you're hungry for--already psychologically locking you in on a return trip back."

While most of the chefs I spoke to insist mere wording isn't important, those choices can expose a certain whimsy in the dining public. Prentice Berge noted that Natt Spil's delicious but sparsely sold antipasto pizza became a sales juggernaut under the tongue-in-cheek name "Greek Goddess Love Nest Pizza." Menu phrasings also may expose more tender sensibilities: I once watched an acquaintance consider an entrée but stop cold at the server's juxtaposition of "shredded" and "rabbit." And sometimes words alone are not enough: Faced with a series of distraught vegetarians who had accidentally ordered pork, Lombardino's gave up and added little pig icons.

Pigs and paper aside, perhaps nothing marks a Madison menu as clearly as the mention of local ingredients, a culinary emphasis that has helped lure transplants and returning Madisonians alike. Marcia and Patrick O'Halloran, owners of Lombardino's and partners at The Old-Fashioned, were drawn to the farmers' market philosophy they felt Milwaukee's dining scene, where they worked for a time, lacked. Upon returning from New York City, Harvest chef Derek Rowe realized the approach was more of the norm in Madison high-end restaurants than perhaps it was back East. "Here we remember that there are still optimal seasons to produce," he says. Flip over a menu at L'Etoile, which has been emphasizing seasonal and local the longest of all, and one finds a densely packed list of ingredients, producers and locales, including my personal favorite, "Raspberries from Maggie."

The significance of Madison's frequent, easily accessible farmers' markets, where chefs can pop out, meet farmers and buy product, may be impossible to overstate. I think it's fair to say it has made us much of who we are as a dining city, drawing new chefs to the area and inspiring the ones we have. When Craig Summers, executive chef at the Capitol ChopHouse, arrived from Chicago three years ago, he could be forgiven for having expected more relaxed competition in a small city. "I was really surprised by the competition of it, and the culinary creativity," he says. "I thought it would be easier, but it's not, because of the buy local [idea], and how serious everyone is about it." The solution was clear, and one way the ChopHouse has distinguished itself among a sea of nearby steakhouses is its use of as much as sixty percent local products.

While local sourcing has its pitfalls (such as placing orders with dozens of different producers instead of one behemoth distributor) the direct contact between farmer and chef can have far-reaching effects. What begins with a stop at the Saturday market to buy tomatoes and ask how much are available and for how long may become a longer-term collaboration. After a successful but short run a few years ago, pumpkin risotto has returned to Lombardino's menu now that Garden to Be has produced a five-hundred-pumpkin crop for the restaurant. Their customers' menu standards may shift not only what a farmer grows, but how she grows it. That's why local trumps organic for Lax, who points out, "If I can get somebody to supply me with something locally and then convince them that I would prefer that they do it in an organic fashion and I will pay you more for it, then it's a way of educating a supplier also."

But some places latch on to the marketing allure without seriously putting the principle into play, says Nancy Christy, former co-owner of Kennedy Manor and Wilson Street Grill and now owner of the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Those "abundant local ingredients" might turn out to consist of a sprinkling of Nueske's bacon. "The negative is when the language has been hijacked as a marketing tool," Christy says, "and you think you've been invited into this realm and you think, 'Oh, good, can't wait,' and then you realize, 'Hey, wait a second. I've been marketed.'" A tag on the menu about buying local is one thing, but a knowledgeable staff who can discuss a whole list of ingredients and origins is a whole other ballgame.

It goes without saying that indepen-dent restaurants are going to fare better in this realm than chains. "Ideas such as sustainability, organic, local are huge all the way across the board with independents. I think that's the core of what Madison's about and has been for fifteen years," says Berge. "We're like a secret society."

Neighborhood matters too. Shinji Muramoto points out that one of Madison's unique qualities, given its small size, is that each neighborhood has a personality. He designed each of his restaurants to speak to its locale: the Hilldale sushi restaurant stays more conservative while Restaurant Muramoto aims to meet the downtown demand for innovation and extensive drink menus, and Kushi Bar wants the adventurous nibblers and drinkers. So does Natt Spil, which offers an eclectic mix of inexpensive dishes--bar food for those bored with bar food. The campus end of Monroe Street thrives with diners and takeout joints, and where the houses get bigger and pricier a few blocks away, Brasserie V is casual enough for locals to walk to on a whim, but then order Belgian beer and truffled quail. And Willy Street is proudly Willy Street, potent cocktails, Bob's bad breath burgers, moak pa and all. Like the relationship between farmer and chef, the one between neighborhood and restaurant is a two-way street. A prescient restaurant may not only reflect what characteristics are already present in a neighborhood, but lead the way. After all, how many years did L'Etoile anchor a sparse downtown until the dining scene began to blossom?

These varying neighborhoods call to mind a larger and perhaps more urban city than Madison truly is, and the city's perception of itself may not always jibe with the view from the back of the house. "Madison is a tough crowd, because of the way that we view ourselves as a big city, and we always want to be innovative and moving forward," says L'Etoile's Tory Miller. "But then when we actually try to put that into practice here, Madisonians might not be down with that."
 

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