20 July 2012


JoAnn Stougaard, featured with Jitlada's dishes for article by Betty Hallock, "Food Blogger's Extreme Eating Challenge," Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2011. Photo by Anne Cusack.

From a variety of food media, I gather that the expansive restaurant menu arouses starkly opposing responses.

Admirers of the restaurant Jitlada, arguably the most celebrated Thai place in Los Angeles, gush on at least as much about the astonishing breadth of the menu as they do about the quality of the food it begets. In this case, the long menu is taken as a sign of ambition and skill. More astounding still, this wealth of offerings comes from a kitchen so small that the owners were compelled to put signs up in the restaurant warning diners that their food will take a while. Some, like the always-on-trend blogger JoAnn Stougaard, mylastbite.com, have declared a desire to try everything on Jitlada's menu as if to do so might garner a gourmet prize (see Betty Hallock, "Food Blogger's Extreme Eating Challenge," LA Times, January 27, 2011).

At the same time, short menus are all the rage at trendy restaurants born of creative chefs that the food bloggerati also seem to enjoy. Apart from the separate beer and wine lists at these places, a single page on fine stock presenting a smartly limited list is the preferred solution, giving the suave impression of judicious "focus."

The small menu also gets support from other quarters. Take, for example, Gordon Ramsay's BBC show Kitchen Nightmares. Time after time, Ramsay excoriates the failing restaurateur for clinging to his long menus. Ramsay gives us plenty of justification for his wrath, repeatedly revealing the myriad horrors lurking behind long menus. On his show, they are the most dubious of documents, shields hiding scoundrels--undeservedly proud restaurateurs and cowardly cooks keeping molding herbs in undated containers in back cupboards, trays of long forgotten fish, and other soggy hashes that await their turn to be ordered but never will so long as the menu is...so long. Ramsay invariably rescues these establishments by making over their menus into something a lot more manageable--meaning, brief. 

Based on the above, I'm going to guess that there's no one answer to the question of whether long menus are a good or bad sign. I imagine it might depend on the management skills of the kitchen, including the ability to buy one ingredient and generate at least ten distinct dishes from it. I suspect this kind of smart shopping might be the case with Jitlada. Giang Nan in the San Gabriel Valley is a personal favorite I like to think, based on the delicious results, belongs in this category. Examine the long menus of these establishments and you might notice plenty of repeating ingredients, used in seemingly endless combinations.

But a mystery remains. I appeal to the restaurant-kitchen savvy to answer this: Is there a reliable way for diners to tell (without a full-scale investigation of the back of the house) when a large menu is a good or bad sign?