Michael Swamy deconstructs the menu and its design and highlights the challenges and strategies in creating the perfect one.
The menu and its application to food comes from almost a millennium ago when the Song Dynasty in China had restaurants listing the items being served. A Latin word, ‘menu’ indicates a resume of sorts that was and still is listed on blackboards with chalk to this day and age in several restaurants across the globe.
Behind the scenes
It is rather easy for one to consciously spot the difference between a well-turned out menu created by chefs and that created by a food professional. However, many a restaurant has been known to get its menus created by individuals who are not even part of the food business. These menus lack a level of finesse and the recipes aren’t even tried and tested. It is one thing to suggest names and another to bang out these dishes on a hot range by staff that has no concept of something they have never created before. Such menus are more a result of a money-making racket and can lead to potential disaster for the restaurant and its reputation. Moreover, it also hints at the lack of faith that restaurateurs have in a chef’s potential to create a menu.
Types of menus
The menu has grown from the days of an a la carte menu that lists everything that the restaurant serves, to a table d’ hote (TDH) menu that lists out a fixed set of dishes. The concept of a biblical menu that lists a host of dishes is a trend that has been dying out since over a decade ago. Smaller, manageable listings are the call of the day; not only do these allow for continuous change but also make for a smaller inventory and better potential of showcasing the chef’s talent. Drink menus have expanded since the days of just gin and tonics and bloody marys. Extensive wine lists and a knowledgeable wine waiter makes certain restaurants a destination point.
Restaurant menus are still based on the system of courses. Its starts off with soups, starters and then goes on to a sorbet or refresher course. After this comes the entrée, which is the main course, followed by a dessert and finished off with a hot beverage. A five course TDH menu is now the norm, and gone are the days of seven and thirteen courses, except in maybe a formal setup or a grand occasion. Another menu is the buffet menu, of which I’m not a fan. The buffet menu in no way reflects fine dining, food lingers in a hot pan, over cooking and killing off any manner of proteins and vitamins. A buffet setup is a convenient and shortcut method and no great chef loves showcasing his food this way.
A true menu takes into account several factors in its planning. Not only does one not repeat main ingredients, but one also doesn’t repeat a culinary technique through courses. For instance, you can’t have a soufflé as a starter and then serve up an airy dessert, both of which require the same set of culinary techniques.
A lot of true chefs today see a menu as an extension of their skill and creativity based on the theme of the restaurant and not just a list of dishes. It has become more personalised in today’s culinary climate, especially in restaurants that have a seasonal or cyclic menu. Changing a menu not only caters to the customer’s palate but is also an acknowledgement of the fact that they are a travelled and discernable lot. It also hints at the chef’s acceptance of change in the current trends.
Trends in menus
Another trend involves looking into the flying miles of a dish; making use of local produce while staying true to regional flavours is a cost effective way of pulling out a successful menu. If one is big on showcasing talent, one may create a degustation menu — a French culinary term — where small portions of several of the chef’s famous creations are created and presented one after another. More often than not, a degustation menu plays on all the senses and goes up to 16 courses of tiny, bite-sized portions of culinary art on a plate. Degustation menus can be pre-ordered; in fact, such menus are more often cheaper than a la carte menus in Europe.
Most restaurants get ahead of themselves with posting exotic dishes on a menu that has very often not been created by people with a culinary background. It is one thing to create a menu and another to have talented staff to back it up. There has been many a restaurant that has a fine menu but when it comes to the actual experience of those dishes one, more often than not, has a bad dining experience.
What to do right
A well written menu is the first thing a guest sees and has the potential of giving a diner a full culinary experience. A badly written menu and staff that is not well versed in the menu can have disastrous results. High flying foreign sounding names more often than not confuse customers. Rewriting them in a manner acceptable to customers is another key point to success. Many menus go the step further by highlighting the origins of ingredients to even making their desserts in-house, especially in the case of ice-creams. Day specials is another fine way of attracting customers. Dishes, courses and pairings that compliment each other is good, too.
Pricing is another key factor in good menus with today’s trend of budgeting, and emphasising on menus for single diners widens one’s customer base. Very often, highlighting food preferences with good pricing makes for repeat orders. When one is being stymied on a high price for a single dish, it is unlikely that a person will order more dishes; the key is to excite the customer into ordering more food; hence, dishes must be priced accordingly. Another key is to check out the competition, and it is never good to have two restaurants on the same block serving up the same kind of menu.
Menu art too has changed the way one looks at a menu. The old style of chalk on a board for specials still exists. A menu must be visual; one line descriptions are not enough. Copying menus from other restaurants is again a brainless way to go. A menu must always be identified with the restaurant and chef, for one is paying for the both the food experience and ambience.
While some cafes and diners have video loops of their specials, there is something special about being handed a café menu that has been printed on stiff paper and presented well. Designing is a key element from the font size to colours to the concept of the restaurant. Dimly lit restaurants need menus with a larger font. Menu inserts are another way of allowing for change. It is something as small as how a menu is presented to a guest that can make all the difference to a well turned out meal.
When one talks about a menu being identified with a restaurant it can be region or cuisine specific, which is what makes the restaurant stand out. Unfortunately, the lack of skilled labour and biblical menus makes it harder for the staff to give their best and their retention power for menu items becomes limited. A refined menu plays harmoniously well in a well-turned out kitchen, giving customers not only the best of ingredients but the benefit of full culinary perfection.
Menus of the future look to be creative to a whole new dimension. From edible menus to visual menus or a combination of both using modern day technologies. The tablet or I-pad on the table the latest gadget of showcasing a menu along with high resolution images has moved away from the card paper menus with dodgy images. Visuals on television screens showing chefs in action along with finished dishes are proving to be more effective that the pain old card and paper menus.