What’s in a Menu

he great food writer M.F.K. Fisher frequently referred to menus as “intelligent” or “playful.” In my early twenties I admired that insight immensely, chiefly because I had no idea what she was talking about. Why was serving one soup smarter than serving another? What was playful about a trout?

Recently I set out to discover what really makes a menu, be it charming, wise or impudent. I asked local chefs dozens of questions about what Madison loves and what it snubs, prodded them about the business side of menu writing, requested a few trade secrets and unsuccessfully lobbied Shinji Muramoto for a ramen joint. A menu seems so simple, but in truth it is part business plan, part efficiency expertise, part artistry, part culture vulture and part psychological tug-of-war.

Once a chef has determined her demographic, she needs to evaluate the skills of her staff and potential equipment limitations, and determine product availability. Sarah Minasian, a culinary consultant and food journalist who teaches menu planning at MATC, adds, “And let’s not forget that variety and the balancing act of sensory stimulation all perform the same theme song. From color and texture to taste and cooking methods–the entire menu needs to dance to the overall theme of the restaurant. And ideally, the menu itself should visually support the theme as well.”

A restaurant menu announces its intentions in a variety of ways, balancing practicality and desire right down to the paper. A higher-end restaurant menu may be literally more substantial: heavier paper and broader dimensions seem to prepare the eye for double-digit prices. Capitol ChopHouse, for instance, presents its guests with a simple two-color printout at lunch but an oversize cardstock version at dinner. Harvest began its tenure with menus in handmade books featuring photos of local products. Each book took owner Tami Lax about two hours to produce–which was fine until they needed to be replaced. A company makes the simplified linen-wrapped holders Harvest uses now, less cumbersome than books but still telegraphing the same upscale message as heavy silver and whisper-thin stemware.

For places like Restaurant Muramoto and Harvest, pared down descriptions imply elegance and simplicity that speak for themselves (“Roasted Grouper, Shiitake and Oyster Mushrooms, Spinach”) without so much as a “with” or “and.” L’Etoile, on the other hand, lavishes as much menu space on producers as on the dish components. Whatever a restaurant chooses, a perfect description hinges on clarity, concision and the ability to paint an accurate picture in the guest’s mind.

“I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that when I read a menu, I don’t want to work, and I don’t want to feel foolish by not understanding the copy,” says Minasian. “I want to understand what the main ingredients in the dish are, and basically (not every single step, mind you) how it is prepared.” For Minasian, ultra-abbreviated menu copy is missing a marketing opportunity. “Smart menu planners make you want to order (and pay) more than you’re hungry for–already psychologically locking you in on a return trip back.”

While most of the chefs I spoke to insist mere wording isn’t important, those choices can expose a certain whimsy in the dining public. Prentice Berge noted that Natt Spil’s delicious but sparsely sold antipasto pizza became a sales juggernaut under the tongue-in-cheek name “Greek Goddess Love Nest Pizza.” Menu phrasings also may expose more tender sensibilities: I once watched an acquaintance consider an entrée but stop cold at the server’s juxtaposition of “shredded” and “rabbit.” And sometimes words alone are not enough: Faced with a series of distraught vegetarians who had accidentally ordered pork, Lombardino’s gave up and added little pig icons.

Pigs and paper aside, perhaps nothing marks a Madison menu as clearly as the mention of local ingredients, a culinary emphasis that has helped lure transplants and returning Madisonians alike. Marcia and Patrick O’Halloran, owners of Lombardino’s and partners at The Old-Fashioned, were drawn to the farmers’ market philosophy they felt Milwaukee’s dining scene, where they worked for a time, lacked. Upon returning from New York City, Harvest chef Derek Rowe realized the approach was more of the norm in Madison high-end restaurants than perhaps it was back East. “Here we remember that there are still optimal seasons to produce,” he says. Flip over a menu at L’Etoile, which has been emphasizing seasonal and local the longest of all, and one finds a densely packed list of ingredients, producers and locales, including my personal favorite, “Raspberries from Maggie.”

The significance of Madison’s frequent, easily accessible farmers’ markets, where chefs can pop out, meet farmers and buy product, may be impossible to overstate. I think it’s fair to say it has made us much of who we are as a dining city, drawing new chefs to the area and inspiring the ones we have. When Craig Summers, executive chef at the Capitol ChopHouse, arrived from Chicago three years ago, he could be forgiven for having expected more relaxed competition in a small city. “I was really surprised by the competition of it, and the culinary creativity,” he says. “I thought it would be easier, but it’s not, because of the buy local [idea], and how serious everyone is about it.” The solution was clear, and one way the ChopHouse has distinguished itself among a sea of nearby steakhouses is its use of as much as sixty percent local products.

While local sourcing has its pitfalls (such as placing orders with dozens of different producers instead of one behemoth distributor) the direct contact between farmer and chef can have far-reaching effects. What begins with a stop at the Saturday market to buy tomatoes and ask how much are available and for how long may become a longer-term collaboration. After a successful but short run a few years ago, pumpkin risotto has returned to Lombardino’s menu now that Garden to Be has produced a five-hundred-pumpkin crop for the restaurant. Their customers’ menu standards may shift not only what a farmer grows, but how she grows it. That’s why local trumps organic for Lax, who points out, “If I can get somebody to supply me with something locally and then convince them that I would prefer that they do it in an organic fashion and I will pay you more for it, then it’s a way of educating a supplier also.”

But some places latch on to the marketing allure without seriously putting the principle into play, says Nancy Christy, former co-owner of Kennedy Manor and Wilson Street Grill and now owner of the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Those “abundant local ingredients” might turn out to consist of a sprinkling of Nueske’s bacon. “The negative is when the language has been hijacked as a marketing tool,” Christy says, “and you think you’ve been invited into this realm and you think, ‘Oh, good, can’t wait,’ and then you realize, ‘Hey, wait a second. I’ve been marketed.'” A tag on the menu about buying local is one thing, but a knowledgeable staff who can discuss a whole list of ingredients and origins is a whole other ballgame.

It goes without saying that indepen-dent restaurants are going to fare better in this realm than chains. “Ideas such as sustainability, organic, local are huge all the way across the board with independents. I think that’s the core of what Madison’s about and has been for fifteen years,” says Berge. “We’re like a secret society.”

Neighborhood matters too. Shinji Muramoto points out that one of Madison’s unique qualities, given its small size, is that each neighborhood has a personality. He designed each of his restaurants to speak to its locale: the Hilldale sushi restaurant stays more conservative while Restaurant Muramoto aims to meet the downtown demand for innovation and extensive drink menus, and Kushi Bar wants the adventurous nibblers and drinkers. So does Natt Spil, which offers an eclectic mix of inexpensive dishes–bar food for those bored with bar food. The campus end of Monroe Street thrives with diners and takeout joints, and where the houses get bigger and pricier a few blocks away, Brasserie V is casual enough for locals to walk to on a whim, but then order Belgian beer and truffled quail. And Willy Street is proudly Willy Street, potent cocktails, Bob’s bad breath burgers, moak pa and all. Like the relationship between farmer and chef, the one between neighborhood and restaurant is a two-way street. A prescient restaurant may not only reflect what characteristics are already present in a neighborhood, but lead the way. After all, how many years did L’Etoile anchor a sparse downtown until the dining scene began to blossom?

These varying neighborhoods call to mind a larger and perhaps more urban city than Madison truly is, and the city’s perception of itself may not always jibe with the view from the back of the house. “Madison is a tough crowd, because of the way that we view ourselves as a big city, and we always want to be innovative and moving forward,” says L’Etoile’s Tory Miller. “But then when we actually try to put that into practice here, Madisonians might not be down with that.”

Many chefs discussed the balancing act between culinary innovation and a largely steak-and-fries audience. Muramoto may have spent months learning serious Japanese cooking before he opened his first restaurant, but he returned from Japan certain he’d never be able to sell Midwesterners on its subtle, simple cuisine (for one thing, Japanese food relies heavily on pristine sea creatures, which don’t exactly swarm Lake Mendota). So he looked for what else the city lacked, and decided on small plates and a less traditional Asian approach. The good news is that most chefs find ways to stay engaged and inspired. They may sneak in a few innovations at a time and see how they fare, or wait till their next special event (say, an American Mulefoot Hog dinner, as Harvest offered) to truly unleash. Sometimes a restaurant’s changing menu eases the place into a whole new business. Lombardino’s slowly phased out the nods to the red-sauce Italian of the location’s previous incarnations and has cultivated an entirely new clientele.

For all our city’s closet conservatism, though, sometimes the guests surprise the owners. Miller was pleased to find that L’Etoile’s guests were happy to try poached foie gras and anything charcuterie. Restaurant Muramoto introduced the sakizuke menu of bite-sized, three-dollar dishes uncertain if it would catch on. But the menu hit a sweet spot between invention, which pleased the cooks, and the novelty, variety and affordability that whet the public’s appetite. Now the sakizuke, which allow those so inclined to enjoy bites like Kobe tartare with quail egg, are an integral part of the menu.

Most chefs end up playing a gentle push and pull between customers’ conservative dining habits and the chefs’ own love of both innovation and fidelity to their inspirations. Like a writer whose fans won’t let her kill off a character, many restaurants offer a dish or two that have long ago bored the staff silly but still tempt customers. Once Lombardino’s had tweaked a classic Puglian dish of orecchiette with rapini and sausage for its Old University Avenue neighborhood by eliminating the anchovies and indulging Wisconsinites’ love of the boozy and cow-based with dashes of brandy and cream, the dish became so popular that attempts to remove it met with insurrection. The Wilson Street Grill couldn’t remove a simple turkey baguette with herbed mayonnaise for many years. And though I admit to sighing a bit myself when I see flourless chocolate cake on a menu, I know it’s probably not there because it sets the pastry chef’s heart on fire, but because many diners will exchange their firstborn for molten chocolate.

The experience of finding a truly unexpected meal is not only far more fun, but also increasingly common in Madison. Those eye-catching dishes can be either calls to action or red flags, depending on how much you know and trust the chef. For instance, a chain restaurant’s “Tuscan” pizza with feta and chicken is indeed conspicuous, but not in a good way. Whereas the first time I saw whole roasted foie gras wrapped in banana leaves on the menu at Restaurant Muramoto, I literally sat up straight. I had recently returned to Madison from seven years in New York, delighted to be back but admittedly not expecting any shocks, and finding this dish on a local menu intrigued me and challenged my assumptions. What else was Madison whipping up? Whole foie gras may not sell frequently–Muramoto estimates once every couple of weeks–but it’s a signal that the restaurant is willing and able to go over the top. Such a dish doesn’t connect with every guest, but its presence is a powerful statement to the ones with whom it does, signaling innovation, luxury and–fine, I’ll say it–cool.

Other times a dish is worth ordering simply because the idea itself seems delightfully unhinged. Frequently these are the dishes the kitchen has made less to please the guests than to please themselves. We’re meant to notice a dish like the Spam and Pineapple Salad with Quinoa and Raisins, which Kushi Bar offered this fall. It’s funny, unexpected and a challenge to the guest to trust them enough to try it. And trust is no small question here. Could Muramoto have put Spam on the menu in the first restaurant he opened, even if it had been a casual place? I’d bet not. But by the third one, in a location expecting a younger, more flexible crowd and a good dose of restaurant industry people who appreciate the underlying message of such a dish, Spam serves as a shout-out. It tells you that someone is not only having fun but has the skills to win you over to almost anything, even lowly canned meat.

These innovative touches are notable and heartening, but they’re also still the exceptions. From steakhouses to taverns to pasta, comfy still abounds in the Madison dining scene. This isn’t necessarily a downer (hey, restaurants don’t sell what people won’t buy), but one does have to judge what’s classic and what’s stale. An item needs to fade away long enough for us to miss it. If, say, grilled chicken Caesar ever went on sabbatical, some enterprising chef might manage to make it exciting again, possibly after warming up with an easier task, like blotting out the sun. Sometimes you can define dated only because you know it when you see it. Imagine the words “raspberry vinaigrette” and you’ll see what I mean.

But there is a vibrant market for menus that play shrewdly and successfully into a nostalgia for foods that may have been close to fading from cultural memory altogether. Jim Schiavo’s family has owned restaurants in Madison for several generations, since the long-defunct Jimmy Schiavo’s on East Washington offered champagne ham and $2.75 lobster tails. When the family opened The Continental Fitchburg last year, they decided to re-create the old-school menu of Antonio’s (which itself had re-created old-school Italian in the eighties) and denote those dishes on the menu. “We weren’t sure if people were going to remember or receive the Antonio’s type of things very well,” Schiavo says, “and come to find out it’s been the thing that’s been keeping us rolling over the past six months.” The success of dishes like spiedini, chicken vesuvio and other “new traditional” dishes is certainly a function of a Fitchburg location replete with parents around Schiavo’s own age–who are re-creating their childhood traditions with young families of their own.

These memory-laden menus evoke just as strong a response downtown. For years Lax had pondered the idea for a place that was “capturing things from my childhood that sort of kind of got swept way, and were still part of my consciousness.” The Old Fashioned’s mix of down home and done right is exemplified for me in their transcendent fried cheese curds with the light, shattering crust. (Panko crumbs? Something tempura-related? My queries have been met with enigmatic smiles.) That mix of simplicity and quality is rarer than it should be, but maybe the deepest emotional appeal of The Old Fashioned menu is that it excels at the food that was served at home as much as in restaurants. Faced with some good pickled herring, summer sausage and rye bread, the whole city seemed to remember a powerful yearning for the Packer games of its youth. Even I did, and I grew up watching the Browns.

Perhaps the reason the culinary profession has come to enjoy Batman-like status in the United States is that a fine meal in a restaurant simplifies so many pressing considerations–skill, time, cost, locale, family, memory, health–into one solicitous query: what do you want? We want a lot: to be cosseted without being bored, to be challenged but not unnerved, to have a simple weeknight meal and a festive celebration, to eat what our parents once ate and what they never dreamed of, to have the option of healthful fresh food while at the same time being fully prepared to eat our weight in dairy. Madison’s restaurant scene can serve as a kind of collective id that went to culinary school–restaurants figure out what we have always wanted, forgot we wanted and didn’t know we wanted until we saw it. But then–graciously–they allow us blissful unawareness of everything except what’s on the plate.

Michelle Wildgen is a Madison-based writer and senior editor at Tin House literary magazine. Her books include the novel You’re Not You, the anthology Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast, and the forthcoming novel A Little Light, to be published in October.