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The menu

I have been writing this blog too long. I no longer remember what I have written about, so please bear with me today because I'm pretty sure I have covered this subject before. I started to feel this as I was doing my 'research'. Something stirred in the dim recesses of memory. So let us hope that even if I have talked about 'the menu' before, that this time I shall say something different, or at least slightly different.

The impetus for the post was twofold. The first were the two pictures above. And I cannot now remember why they sprang into my head and sent me searching for them. I actually have three or four more - possibly it's a set and worth money. They are the covers of the menus presented to the diners in the restaurant of the P&O's S.S Oransay in November 1976 when my parents were either travelling home from a visit to Australia or voyaging out for a new one. I suspect the latter, because I know they were here the previous year for the birth of my second son. The drawings, by the way, are by Ronald Searle, who was famous at the time.

But let me not witter on about parents.

The point is really the presentation. I remember us having a whole lot more of various different series that our father brought home - he worked in the food and hospitality area of the P&O ships for many years. Inside, for these are a folded cardboard item, there is a lengthy menu which is laid out as follows:

  • Appetisers - always three of these - things like Grapefruit cocktail and Pâté de Fois

  • Soup - two of these of which one is always a consommé and the other a creamy soup. So obviously consommé was a posh thing back then

  • Fish - just one - and sometimes it was not a separate item, but just part of the Mains.

  • Main course - a selection of three of various meats. Sometimes there was also a Grill to order of one thing.

  • Vegetables - a choice of two - well you could probably have both

  • Potatoes - always shown separately and coming in three different aspects

  • Cold buffet - generally three cold meats and two slightly different kinds of cold meat - for example on the one I'm looking at, at the moment, Pressed Beef and Oxford Brawn - so very old-fashioned British

  • Salads - a couple of different options with a couple of options for Dressings

  • Sweets - at least five here plus a trolley of sweets

  • Cheese - five - on the menu I am looking at one of these was Kraft! - right alongside Gorgonzola, Gruyère and Wensleydale

  • Biscuits - five different kinds

  • Fresh Fruit

  • and to finish up Beverages - Coffee, Indian, Ceylon and China tea and Instant Coffee plus After Dinner Mints. Would anyone willingly and preferably choose instant coffee I wonder?

So very Fawlty Towers - I mean there are some promising things in there, as well as the truly awful, and I don't know how much one was actually allowed to have. I assume it was all included in your fare as there are no prices. Though I think that wine was extra. I also have no idea how good their chefs were.

These days of course their cruise ships have several different restaurants, so I checked one out and came up with an Italian restaurant on one of the boats - below is a picture of one of their dishes and also the menu - again click on it to be able to read.

You will see that after the name of each dish there is a description, mostly listing the ingredients, but they can't resist a bit of hyperbole such as: "Crumbed rice balls with fontina cheese, pumpkin and fiery tomato sugo." Relatively restrained I have to say but words such as melted, crusty, fresh, wilted appear here and there.

I also looked for something modern and 'posh' to compare and found this Vue de Monde sample menu on their website. Very, very different. (If you click on the picture you will be able to read it.)

It's actually fairly simple and having found a couple of articles in The Guardian, they seem to think that this is a trend. Less fancy verbiage these days, just a list of ingredients at the most. Which is a bit of a contrast to the P&O menu which sometimes had dishes with 'fancy names' - e.g Crème Pierre-le-Grand - with no explanation as to what it was. Although sometimes they did list ingredients when the name was unfamiliar perhaps. I did see a comment on one of those Guardian articles that some restaurateurs deliberately give no explanation, so as to encourage dialogue between the waiter and the customer. Let's not forget too, that the waiter sometimes delivers the flowery stuff - particularly when describing specials, or when bringing the dish to the table. Interesting that they should encourage dialogue. Why? You would think that this would slow down service and the kitchen.

My second stimulus was the framed Paul Bocuse menu we have on our wall, together with the bill, from my long ago fiftieth birthday treat.

Apologies for the really poor photos, and apologies also for the fact that you cannot actually see the menu which is inside the beautiful cover on the left. You can see what we chose though, on the bill. The menu was a huge and beautiful thing and they gave it to us free of charge. A wonderful souvenir. I doubt that there are many restaurants that do that these days.

A menu reflects the spirit of a restaurant, its beliefs, presumptions and pretensions. Typeface, style and structure communicate the values." Oliver Thring - The Guardian

And certainly the Paul Bocuse menu does that, as does the Vue de Monde one. I have to say, that on the whole menus from the middle echelons of restaurants tend to be not that interesting in format. I guest they are aiming at looking refined and restrained. Last night we dined at Paris Go again - a real treat - but I have to say that their menu is a fairly standard and boring thing in the standard leather or pseudo leather cover.

Then there are the ethnic, and the trendy which tend to produce their menus on a large plasticised sheet. Take our lovely lunch at Ho Chi Mama the other day. I guess it has a fun vibe with lots of little symbols, whose meaning is somewhat unclear. There's no fancy verbiage, just lists of ingredients where they feel it is necessary. The box on the right though is significant. People do research on menu design. Well they would wouldn't they? And it seems that if something is in a box then we will be drawn to it - which, of course, is what the restaurant wants.

"If something is in a box on a menu, it's a reasonable bet that the restaurant makes a decent profit on that dish – or at least that the kitchen is particularly proud of the product." The Guardian

The researchers used to think that we read menus by starting in the top right-hand corner and then zig-zagging around the rest. Which is why, for a while, what restaurants wanted you to choose was in the top right-hand corner.

"Stylised, heavily designed efforts covered in logos and pictures are not conceived with change in mind, whereas a stark, single typeface on flimsy A5 shows not laziness or amateurism, but a restaurant planning to alter what it serves in response to the best produce." The Guardian

Oliver Thring wrote an interesting article on all of this, although it is now rather old - 2012 was when it was written - so time and COVID have changed things perhaps.

Then there's the dégustation menu which is merely informative because you have no choice here. This is our local fine diner - Mercer's - current menu. They used to do à la carte as well but no more. It's probably easier to offer no choice (unless you have dietary requirements and you tell them about it in advance) as it must surely produce less wastage. Incidentally that note about change that implied that a good restaurant responds to what is seasonal and good, here runs up against the signature dish that customers will not let the chef ignore. In this instance at Mercer's the signature dish is the Malaysian dancing prawns and long may they stay there as far as I am concerned because they are sublime. Certainly the best prawns I have tasted.

I don't quite know who started the whole dégustation menu thing - another time I shall look into it - but it is certainly designed to show off the skill of the chef. And the ultimate in the restaurant menu - is no menu. We sometimes had this experience in France, although not so much these days. And I suppose when I think about it, it was most usually in a small hotel's restaurant, where you just got what they were serving that night. I suppose it was a bit of a lucky dip, but we were never disappointed. And no decisions had to be made. I guess these days restaurants have so many food allergies and diets to deal with. It must be a nightmare.

I was also going to write about cookbooks and menus - which I am pretty sure I have covered before, but I spent some time rooting through my collection and found more of this type than I thought I had. So perhaps next week some time.


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