Sunday, October 3, 2010

Not Much On The Menu

New York City, 

In August 2009, restaurant critic Frank Bruni awarded Eleven Madison Park a perfect four stars in the New York Times. The restaurant, which opened in 1998, was now ranked “among the most alluring and impressive restaurants" in the city. What brought Bruni “particular joy” was the fact that Eleven Madison Park had gotten better and better over a long period of time. Principal owner Danny Meyer and his team continued to make improvements even during the Great Recession, when most restaurateurs were battening down the hatches. The hard work has continued to pay off. In April 2010, the restaurant was named as one of the "World’s 50 Best Restaurants" on San Pellegrino's annual list compiled by Restaurant Magazine.

In September of that year, Eleven Madison Park went exclusively to a tasting format. The change is reflected in a new minimalist menu, the antithesis of the text-heavy style that has been popular for so long. Yet in the warm and inviting context of Eleven Madison Park, the new menu strikes me as a bit austere. Stylistically, it is more reminiscent of a word game than a menu that’s fun to ponder.

For the sake of comparison, let's take a look at an earlier menu, such as the one below from winter 2010. Providing a choice between a three-course prix fixe ($88) and a six-course tasting ($125), these large menus (9 x 14½ inches) were held in an expensive, custom-made holder similar to those used at other top-tier restaurants in Manhattan.

In the new format, diners can select either a four- or five-course tasting for $125 and $155, respectively. The new menu, an 8- x 8-inch card, comprises only sixteen words, one to represent each dish named solely for its principal ingredient. For example, a typical four-course tasting might be composed of Crab, Potato, Beef, and Apple. If you opt for the five-course dinner, you simply add any one of the twelve unselected items. The restaurant explains that the concept is intended to provide diners with “the inherent surprise of a tasting menu, while still maintaining some control.” The process is now geared more toward having a dialogue with your captain than reading the menu.

There is an axiom that menus with less verbiage offer more choices. This new menu is no exception. In fact, the four-course menu offers 256 different combinations (1,536 if you order five courses!) That’s a lot of choices for a tasting menu which is usually set in stone. And that number does not include the numerous hors d’oevres, known as amuse-bouches, the bite-sized morsels that rank as one of the highlights of dining at Eleven Madison Park.

The change to a tasting format in a high-cuisine restaurant is not unusual. Back in 1998, restaurant critic William Grimes reported that people were beginning to prefer many small dishes to “the three-act drama” of the American restaurant meal. He quipped, “Ordering from a menu used to be routine. No more. It is becoming a journey into the unknown, a junior division of the adventure-travel industry, as chefs working with new cuisines and new ideas reconfigure their menus, creating new categories, offering new combinations of dishes and befuddling the unwary.”

As diners began to ignore the entrees and make meals out of appetizers, restaurants such as Charlie Trotter in Chicago and the French Laundry in Napa Valley adopted multi-course tastings. Over the last few years, such menus have again become increasingly popular.

Nor is Eleven Madison Park the only restaurant to use the names of the primary ingredients to describe a tasting. In lieu of a menu, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York provides their diners with a list of over a hundred ingredients for their “farmer’s feast” (a list of foods to be used in preparing the tasting). Yet the basic concept of the two restaurants is very different. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is about sourcing from local farms; ingredients such as Berkshire pigs and Cornish Cross chickens are specifically identified as a part their locavore philosophy, and the only decision you need to make is the number of courses. At Eleven Madison Park, the simplicity of language is deceptive: generic terms like Pork and Chicken are used to represent complex dishes.

There are some pros and cons to the new approach. On the positive side, you are spared those tedious descriptions regarding the origin and pedigree of the meal’s components. On the other hand, some of the literary creativity is missing. There is a style of playful affectation that is a part of the game at the high end. The new menu is affected but not amusing, missing the typical allusion to an everyday food, as expressed in dishes like Le Bernardin’s “Surf and Turf” and Per Se’s “Snickers Bar.” Along those lines, the old menu at Eleven Madison Park featured “Soda Pop,” a dessert which consists of a sphere of tangerine foam which has been frozen with liquid nitrogen and placed atop pomelo pulp, grapefruit and blood orange dice, crumbled lemon meringue, and Pop Rocks, causing it to pop when you bite it.  Blood orange cream serves as the base. The dish may still be served there, since the cuisine itself hasn’t changed. However, which would you rather think about, talk about, and marvel over when it arrived—“Soda Pop” or Tangerine?

If you request a menu as a souvenir, you are in for a little surprise. Each person at the table is presented with a menu that has been transformed into a personal memento. As shown below, the prices are removed and replaced with the date and a brief description of the particular dishes that you ordered. The keepsake is cleverly enhanced with information that you might want to remember, absent the prices which they assume you would like to forget.


jeanne said...

wow! fascinating cultural commentary! what a great surprise! the american menu is truly a topic worth a lifetime of exploration.

Jan Whitaker said...

Just fascinating. I've just subscribed to your blog -- love it! (I'm adding you to my blogroll too.)And please tell Julie I am blown away by the quality and creativity of the art projects on her site. Lucky, lucky children who get to do that in school!

Susan said...

So interesting!

"Soda Pop” or Tangerine? There's the rub.
To story tell or not to story tell. A fascinating topic to debate for sure.

"tedious descriptions regarding the origin and pedigree of the meal’s components".

This is interesting too because in France, these are valued descriptions. But they are region based (AOCs) and not the producer, which would be tedious on a menu indeed.

The most amazing menu in this style that I've seen so far is Alinéa. Mind blown with that one when know the explanation.

Thomas Anthony said...

This site is fabulous, I have always enjoyed menus and regret losing many that I've kept over the year. But I am at the Kindergarden level of menu-keep compared to you. I am often relutctant to hand over my menu when I order and opt to keep it by table side until the first item comes. I get weird looks. I might have a menu fetish.
I love menus that describe the food, the source if possible and are enjoyable to read, but I get a little anoyed if they go too far into the culinary thesaurus, for the sake of trying to sound sophisticated.