At some point in the ongoing education of our nation’s palate, “spaghetti and meatballs” became “bronze-cut all-semolina spaghetti with handmade polpettini of humanely raised veal, heirloom-breed pork, and house-toasted rustic bread crumbs with San Marzano tomato sauce.”
But florid descriptions of dishes aren’t enough to make a menu stand out anymore. Actually, forget the menu—to make your restaurant concept stand out these days, you need to take those menus to a whole new plane.
Here’s some dubious liberties some local establishments have taken with their bills of fare:
1. Meaningless Regionalism
Bethesda’s Passage to India is one of the finest subcontinental restaurants in the metropolitan area, and the place packs customers in its Cordell Avenue storefront like mushy peas in a samosa. The restaurant lures the upscale MoCo crowd in no small part because it goes to great lengths to distinguish itself from your run-of-the-mill curry house.
The decor is tasteful, the service is respectful, and, most of all, the menus are beautifully printed and bound. And while most curry joints file their dishes under categories like beef, lamb, chicken, and seafood, Passage to India opts for a geographical scheme: Entrees are grouped according to whether they are North Indian, South Indian, East Indian, or West Indian, with seven or eight dishes in each category.
Now, mind you, there is no explanation of what distinguishes each of these regional cuisines. North Indian dishes, you’ll find, include the familiar Chicken Tikka Masala and Saag Gosht, as well as the less familiar vegetarian dish Bhindi Do Piaza, but there’s no indication of what sets that region apart from the others. Is it the ingredients? The cooking methods? The construction of the dishes? All of the above?
The truth is, regional Indian cuisines go much more micro than North, South, East, and West. There’s Punjabi cuisine, Bengali cuisine, Mughlai cusine, Gujarati cuisine, Maharashtrian cuisine, to name a few. And geographically proximate cuisines don’t necessarily have much to do with each other. The cuisine of Rajasthan, in the north, is heavy on sweet and dairy-laden dishes; move to Uttar Pradesh, just to the east, and dishes are heavily spiced and include the origins of famous snacks like pakoras and samosas.
Without a guide to what the regional distinctions might actually mean, the menu tends to get overwhelming, forcing curious diners to rely on the expertise of the usually excellent wait staff or, alternately, order one of the restaurant’s khazanas, or sample platters. Those, however, stick to the best sellers, and you risk missing out on some of the restaurant’s best dishes.
2. Hectoring Admonishments
The restaurant business isn’t easy; you don’t have to be steeped in the Rocco DiSpirito story to know that. So it’s forgivable that some restaurateurs are a little touchy with their house policies. Those endless substitutions and split checks would certainly drive me nuts.
But Mannequin Pis in Olney takes it to a whole new level, in a real passive-aggressive sorta way. Each menu includes a list of “Suggested Reading.” That’s not some fine works of Belgian literature to accompany their fine Belgian cuisine. Rather, it’s a primer in what will and won’t fly within the bistro’s walls.
Some are pretty standard: “18% Gratuity will be added to checks of parties of five or more.” Some places let you have six or eight before the automatic tip kicks in, but sure.
“Your reservation would be automatically cancelled if not shown after 45 minutes.” The weird grammar makes it a bit ambiguous, but 45 minutes is more than enough time to show up.
“Due to our limited seating capacity on weekends, we allow a two hours time for each reservation.” Starting to get a little snippy here, but fair enough.
“All offerings are subject to availability, quality of produce and appreciation.” OK, lot of latitude there, but that, too, is fair enough.
“All of our dishes are made with love and we would appreciate no substitution, please.” Now you’re getting a little pass-agg.
“Sorry, we are not a children’s or vegetarian’s restaurant; but you may make prior arrangement to avail of our specially made vegetarian plate.” Make that more than a little pass-agg.
“Respect our other guests by turning off your cellular phones or Setting them on silent/vibrate.” And what if I don’t?
“Checks that require more than two credit card transactions incur a $1.5 fee per extra transaction.” “$1.5”? In this country, folks, we go to the hundredths place.
“We would like to apologize on behalf of the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control for their incapability of delivery, which is accompanied by an average of 35% increase in cost compared to anywhere else.” Yes, MoCo’s liquor laws are fucked, but what?
“The Kitchen welcomes your polite feedback; the door is wide open.” You don’t say?
3. Needless Didacticism
If you’re not familiar with the mechanics of eating the spicy chicken wings at Nando’s Peri-Peri in Penn Quarter, the outpost has offered a helpful guide. Helpful, I guess, in that you have to read this while standing at a counter, trying to decide what kind of chicken you’d like, what kind of sauce you want on it, whether you’d like a Roasted Whole Portobello Mushroom or a Portuguese Roll or Grilled Halloumi Cheese or Perinase or Chili Jam with that.
Then you have to:
“Memorize your table number.”
Then, “Place your order at the counter and pay.”
And then: “Collect the sauces and dressings you’d like and pick up your cutlery. (Using fingers may be easier and won’t be frowned upon!)”
OK: “If you’ve forgotten to order something, want extras or have a desire for a dessert or a coffee, flag down a Nandoca and ask!”
But what the hell’s a Nandoca?
4. Overzealous Sourcing
In the post–Alice Waters America, eating locally/knowing where your food came from has been fetishized to the point of satire. That point of satire would be located right on the menu of the Blue Duck Tavern menu.
“We at the Blue Duck Tavern would like to recognize the purveyors and artisans who enrich our menu with their fresh ingredients,” reads the top of the dinner menu, and, indeed, every last item on the menu is accompanied by the locale of its origin.
But how noteworthy is the location of those purveyors?
Sure, it’s nice to know the $25 Braised Beef Rib with Homemade Steak Sauce came from Vande Rose in Iowa, or that the Lamb Shank Braised in Stout with Gremolata is straight outta Elysian Fields, Pa. Or that I could go to the Jurgielewicz farm, also in Pennsylvania, if I wanted to recreate the Smoked and Pastrami Spiced Duck Breast at home.
But take the $24 “Roasted Tavern Steak/Rosted Garlic” listed on a recent dinner menu. Its point of origin is listed as “Fells Point, MD.” For the unaware, that’s not a bucolic Eastern Shore locale where Angus steer eat grass before slaughter. It’s a Baltimore neighborhood best known for a bar called the Wharf Rat and for hosting the fictional cops in Homicide: Life on the Street.
Something tells me the cow that steak was cut from wasn’t grazing anywhere near Bertha’s Mussels.
Then turn your attention to the “grains and potatoes” portion of the menu. To wit, the $8 “Mashed Potatoes with Soft Garlic and Chive” and the $9 “Hand Cut BDT Triple Fries.”
Guess where those came from?
5. Flights of Fancy
Wine pairings are old hat. In this day and age, you gotta take it to the next level. Or three levels.
Take Co Co Sala, the Penn Quarter chocolate boutique. It has a fun menu of coco bites, including different mac & cheeses, crab cakes, sliders, and salads. And for each of those categories is a pairing. Actually, pairings.
With your bacon mac & cheese (with orechiette [sic], four cheeses, and crispy bacon), for instance, the fine folks at Co Co suggest either an “alisar” cucumber cocktail ($13), a glass of Calone pinot noir ($9), or a Kasteel Rouge beer ($12—seriously). God forbid you order the “cocojito” cocktail ($13), Navaroo Correas cabernet ($9), or the Kalamazoo espresso stout ($8). Those, you see, are best paired with the Spicy Moroccan Swordfish sliders, with fennel salad, aged pecorino, and hazelnut coffee dressing.
And if you’re attracted to the monde du chocolat portion of the menu, with its three-course dessert flights, please know that the “grown up” flight, with highfalutin twists on a mini Boston cream doughnut, banana split, strawberry cheesecake with pop rocks, is best served with either the malted milk Martini ($13), the Rosa Regale bubbly ($10), or mocha java ($4—such a deal!). Not the “c3fix” coffee ($13), Fumello prosecco ($12), or the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe coffee (also $4)—those would be for the “ciocco” italian voyage.
Just so you know.