10 January 2009


Did it begin in the 1990s or as recently as this decade? Perhaps you remember the first time you noticed that some restaurant menus had taken to describing dishes with the disjunctive brevity of concrete poetry. On one Los Angeles evening in August 2008, in the trend-conscious, casual shoebox Animal, a couple of lines from the mains section read:

niman flat iron, bordelaise, creamed leaks, potato, corn, sweetbreads
quail fry, anson mills grits, long cooked greens, slab bacon.

The more formal and far more expensive gastronomic destination, Alinea, in Chicago, offered a twenty-five-course "tasting tour" in December 2008 with a program of dishes described with a similar syntax. It began:

TROUT ROE parsnip, licorice, ginger
LEMONGRASS oyster, sesame, yuzu
CAULIFLOWER five coatings, three gels, cider.

Meals at Animal and Alinea differ wildly in cost. For the former, for one person, with wine, before tip, dinner might amount to $50-60. For the latter, the "tasting tour" for one with wine pairings, pre-tip, came out to--how could I forget--$466. So the similarity in the style of menu language is not strongly tied to cost. It is, however, a style I have seen only in restaurants with gourmet ambition. Would you agree?

Not all gourmet-forward restaurants, however, do what I'll call menu minimalism. More often one sees the longer-lived syntax of dishes described with conjunctions. In August 2008, a starter on the lunch menu of Los Angeles institution Lucques was described as "slow-roasted king salmon salad with avocado and green goddess dressing," and a main as "ricotta gnocchi with braised beef shortrib, cherry tomatoes and feta salsa verde." The special-occasion tour-de-force Ortolan, also in Los Angeles, offered for dinner in the same period, among other things,

Marinated Hamachi with Blood Orange
Osetra Caviar, Red Bell Pepper, and Ginger.

(In menu quotes, I've represented any distinctions of display type that may impact perceptions of syntax. I've reproduced lower-case, bolded, and capitalized words and words on separate lines.)

I conclude that menu minimalism is a recent sub-trend in the gourmet restaurant world. But it is an identifiable trend, a pronounced style. What are its elements? What are its effects? And, finally, what are their implications? Some brief thoughts for discussion:

The elimination of conjunctions suggests an anti-hierarchical attitude. All components of a dish are accorded equal status. This contrasts with the more traditional style of prioritizing elements of a dish, which conjunctions such as "and" and "with" facilitate. The linguistic reductionism of menu minimalists also projects straightforwardness.

The aesthetic features of menu minimalism have a precedent in 1960s Minimalism in art. Three-dimensional art moved away from the tendency of traditional figurative sculpture to prioritize a particular angle of view, as in the authoritarian form of monuments. Monumentality in art parallels the more traditional menu's linguistic emphasis on the meat or other most luxurious ingredient. Just as the sculpture tradition depended on the unification of body parts essential to likeness of the human figure, which has a top and bottom, so the use of conjunctions in menus upholds a hierarchy with which a diner apprehends the components of a dish.

When the Minimalists challenged hierarchy in sculpture, they severed conjunctions. No longer welding parts, they produced modular, nonfigurative "structures," and displayed them detached, side by side. The menu minimalists have done the same, producing blunt sequences of separated ingredients--taking a similarly modular, and thus arguably anti-hierarchical, approach to describing cuisine.

But are anti-hierarchy and bluntness actual functions of the new minimalistic menus within the total context of the dining experience?

Listing a dish by ingredients alone, a practice broken only occasionally when a poetic note must rescue a mundane-sounding ingredient (e.g., "long cooked greens"), conceals the methods of ingredients' preparation, and avoids reference to the cooks' labor. So this style is not straightforward but rather mystifying. It contributes to the diner's sense of surprise as the diner, when finally presented with the dish, finds ingredients transformed in unanticipated ways. Menu minimalism is thus a dramatic device that depends on, rather than debunks, obfuscation.

Understood this way, it makes sense that menu minimalism has emerged in the gourmet sector. There, the most complex and skilled transformations of ingredients, and the greatest need to wow the diner with such skill, may be found.

Describing a dish by ingredients alone also calls attention to the nature of the ingredients themselves, and the art of their combination. In the hyper-competitive arena of chefs and restaurants, the use of novel ingredients and the novel use of ingredients in unlikely combinations have become marks of distinction. The chef's skills as a creative and worldly consumer, not just producer, of foods are highlighted in the menu-minimalist style.

As reductive as that style is, there has been plenty of room for name-dropping prized producers--e.g., "niman flat iron," "anson mills grits"--showing off the chef's savvy or social conscience in sourcing fine, politically correct, or novel ingredients.

The laundry-listing of ingredients also draws diners' attention to the chef's ability to steer clear of overused ingredient combinations, a skill increasingly impressive, and his or her inclusion of items even well-traveled diners don't yet know of. Togarachi, anyone?

So menu minimalism may have undermined the older hierarchy of ingredients, but has introduced new markers of status: obscurantism, novelty, and derivation from designer sources. Meanwhile, this style, while withholding information for dramatic impact, is anything but straightforward.

Copyright Alison Pearlman 2009. All rights reserved. 

Bookmark and Share