Eatiquette for beginners
Unless you are an accomplished linguist with an obsessive interest in obscure gastronomic terminology, the average restaurant menu makes far more terrifying reading than any Stephen King novel.
By rights they should come with review notices: ‘a white-knuckle ride to hell”; ‘rear-clutching panic from beginning to end”; ‘I had to sleep with the light on”.
On a bad day — and there are seldom good days — there might be only one item on a menu that a reasonably literate civilian could understand.
The rest is an absurd collection of neologisms and ludicrous restaurantese, an impenetrable mélange of goujons, gigots and googlies.
The restaurant diner is often placed in the position of a novice batsman trying to read the spin of Shane Warne. Just when you think you’re smart enough to play a ganache of something or other, it turns out you were really thinking of a grabiche of something quite different. And, wham! Instead of fielding some kind of sauce with capers and hard-boiled eggs, you’re clean bowled by an ice cream.
Now all of this could be jolly good sport, especially if you enjoy surprises — but not if you’re looking to impress your dining companions. And, let’s face it, you’re always looking to impress your dining companions. That means a) you can’t afford to make silly gaffes and b) it’s not really done to enquire what the hell a sablé is (no I don’t know either, although it could be a sort of biscuit).
That in turn means, as it so often does in restaurants, that you need to resort to a little acting and a little cunning. Before that, though, here are a few ‘do nots” to memorise.
Do not grip the menu and stare senselessly at the gibberish in front of you. Do not mouth the strange words, even from behind the security of the menu. And do not try anything tricksy if you don’t need to.
So order that single item that is intelligible — say the pan-fried kingklip (as opposed, that is, to the pavement-fried kingklip) — and leave it at that, even if it means missing out on a first course. The chances are, however, that there won’t be any pan-fried kingklip left because everyone else will have ordered it for precisely the same reason as you.
The next best option now is to order something with at least one recognisable word in it. Ideally this word should describe the thing itself rather than how it was prepared. This is basic algebra.
For example, if you have to choose between a kawareh bi hummus and a pheasant en escabeche, you go for the poultry because you know that it’s pheasant, and it doesn’t matter that much how it comes. Whereas, while you know the former comes with hummus, you don’t know that kawareh is calf’s feet.
Simple rule: stick with what you know, or rather what you’re least ignorant about. (Escabeche, as if you didn’t know, is lime jelly. Yikes!)
Sometimes, of course, there is not even a solitary word that bears a resonance of meaning to you. The temptation in this scenario is to bottle it and say you’re not hungry. Resist the provocation. That way, given the way menus are going, lies starvation. As, ever, order last, the better to learn from your companions. They may well want to do the same, in which case be prepared for a tense game of brinkmanship: ‘You first.” ‘No, after you.” ‘I insist.” ‘Really.” ‘Honestly.”
Don’t give in. Remember, whoever opens the bidding has to be the first to take on the pronunciation. The poor soul will, naturally, make a complete fool of himself. Better still, if the waiter doesn’t amuse himself by repeating the order as it is supposed to be pronounced, he may do something much more humiliating to your dining partner, and therefore more helpful to you: he may repeat the order in plain English.
Thus he might reply to the request for a blanquette de veau a l’ancienne: ‘So that’s the stew for you.” This serves the twin purpose of embarrassing your companion and letting you know that blanquette means stew. With a few diners, you could quietly suss out half the menu and then make an educated choice.
Your turn. Do not look at the menu. You know what you want. Calmly, but with understated authority, hand the menu to the waiter, look him directly in the eye and say: ‘I’d like an egg-white omelette, please, with a green salad.” Ordering off menu. Now that is classy. Cheers.