In theory, a restaurant menu is like a road map: Study it carefully, and you won’t have to ask anyone for directions—least of all that theatric waiter in the white apron. But sometimes you make a wrong turn. In Venice, you could confidently order a steaming bowl of the local mussels (cozze), and accidentally instruct the server to bring you his engorged genitals (cazzo).
These days, you don’t have to travel far to get lost in a menu. In any American city, even modest neighborhood bistros feature enough foodie slanguage to induce terror—which is not to be confused with terroir, a highbrow menu word that literally means “soil” but is supposed to signify the inherent goodness of locally-sourced food.
If only the descriptions were as down-to-earth as the soil-caked carrots. Tim Zagat, founder of the Zagat restaurant guides, says that as more chefs seek out high-quality ingredients, the desire to boast is understandable but misplaced. “If the menu says ‘charbroiled porterhouse steak,’ I understand that,” explains Zagat. “But if it says ‘porterhouse seared over 5-year-old hickory branches and served with a caramel sauce infused with basil from Tamarack Farm,’ that doesn’t do much for my dining pleasure.”
Here, then, is a menu for us nonfoodies—an A-to-Z decoder of today’s trendiest food lingo. Use it for those moments when the words fail you. The waiter will take your order now. And for more great restaurant advice, brush up on the 7 Mistakes You’re Making In Fine-Dining Establishments.
Handmade by someone who cares a lot, as in artisanal cheese (say, a pungent Putney Tomme from Vermont) or artisanal bread (like an apple-wood-fired focaccia). If you’re ever eating Putney Tomme on apple-wood-fired focaccia, consider pairing it with one of these 20 amazing wines under $30.
Nothing more than a sauce of milk, butter, and flour. Got it? And for more great food trivia, here’s why bananas are curved.
Any type of fish that is “cooked” in an acidic marinade, such as lime juice.
A clarified broth. Chefs like it because it is simple and elegant, which means they can make it cheap and charge a lot. For more on top chefs, read up on what the world’s best chefs really think about those Michelin stars.
A puree of vegetables or fruit used to dress up ordinary dishes.
What restaurants used to call “catch of the day” before that became a meaningless cliché. It’s seafood caught from boats that return to port every evening rather than stay out for days with the catch on ice. It signifies fresher, more expensive seafood.
Scallops that are hand-gathered by scuba divers, making them less gritty than those harvested by boats that drag huge chains along the ocean floor.
A vintage variety of a fruit or vegetable that is passed down through seeds and cuttings, as opposed to more modern hybrid plants. Many heirlooms, like the Black Krim tomato, are noted for unusual flavor, color, and shape. Lately, the term has been applied on menus to rare breeds of livestock.
Often confused with the French word for eyelid (paupiere) but, thankfully, refers to a small rolled fillet of meat or, more typically, mild nonfatty fish, such as sole, often steamed.
A homey French peasant stew now seen on upscale menus.
Trendy, yes, but the wild leek is anything but new to the scene. It was a food staple for Native Americans and early European settlers, who relied on the spring vegetable to stave off hunger and vitamin deficiency after a long winter. “This is the ingredient par excellence for a forager’s French Onion Soup,” wrote wild-food master Euell Gibbons in his 1962 book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. (Intimate knowledge of this classic is a blind-date double-word score, demonstrating whole-earth sensitivity as well as manly survival skills.)
A highly concentrated sauce made by boiling stock and wine for hours until it is reduced to a glaze. Bordelaise is a notable reduction.
Shredded pieces of cooked duck, goose, or pork pounded into a paste and mixed with massive amounts of fat and spices. You spread it on bread.
A classic example of comfort food gone to town. This prosaic root vegetable, native to the Mediterranean region, is similar to a carrot but white in color and more delicate. Lately, salsify leaves have gained favor with trendy chefs as the more desirable part of the plant. During growth, the young shoots are mounded in soil, and the lack of sunlight makes them white like Belgian endive. It’s a tender addition to expensive composed salads.
Flavorful cuts of beef from the edge of the rib section. They are popular in French bistros, where hanger steak is called onglet. (Skirt steak is often grilled and thinly sliced.)
A Japanese method of partially cooking fish or meat so that the outside is seared and the inside is still raw. It involves coating the meat in thick, sweet soy sauce.
An elevated version of meat loaf, generally made with a variety of high-quality meats (or even seafood) and served at room temperature. Savor a good terrine with some crusty French bread, a crock of grainy mustard, and miniature pickles called cornichons.
An impressive, cylindrical construction of food arranged in careful layers and baked in a mold. Towering food “sculptures” were the rage in the ’80s and, like purple spiked hair, will take a long time to die down in the suburbs.
Not the hooved animal, although zebra meat is a succulent game dish in Africa. In the context of high-end restaurant vegetables, “zebra” refers to many heirloom varieties noted for distinctive stripes, including some beans, eggplants, and tomatoes. The Green Zebra tomato is an heirloom that is much favored by chefs.
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