My various non-parent ramblings…
Understanding Restaurant and Menu Terms – 50 Explained
You’re lucky enough to be at a fine restaurant; maybe you are with your boss, perhaps you are trying to impress on a first date or are pushing the boat out with the in-laws.
Ok, so you’re not out of your depth like Julia Roberts in the restaurant scene in Pretty Woman, but when you’re presented with the menu, you won’t want to admit that you don’t understand half of the terms on there, or want to ask the waiter a load of questions. What follows is a quick guide and jargon buster of some of the things that can mystify. I hope you find this useful as opposed to patronising!
Depending on region, some of these terms may be very familiar or totally unfamiliar. There are so many variations from country to country, village to village and even restaurant to restaurant in the same village that it is impossible to give a definitive definition.
Before even looking at the food
First things first, you’ll probably be welcomed by the maître d’ (in full maître d’hôtel), who is essentially the ‘front of house’ and manages the waiting staff. They can range from wonderfully helpful and pleasant to slightly snooty.
Next up you’ll probably be asked if you want an aperitif. Though fashions for types of aperitifs change, what remains the same is that it is an alcoholic drink intended to stimulate the appetite. Classic choices include: Champagne, vermouth, Campari, Kir (crème de cassis – aka blackcurrant liqueur – topped up with white wine), Kir Royale (as before but using Champagne instead of white wine) and dry sherry. It is usually accompanied by humble nibbles such as nuts, olives and crisps but also in better establishments more substantial canapés such as savoury pastries, bruschetta (Italian toasted bread rubbed with garlic, – and in its most classic form – drizzled with olive oil and topped with chopped tomatoes and herbs), cold meats or even small pieces of frittata.
You’ll probably have to select which type of menu you’re going for. Below, some of the main variations are ordered by ascending price.
A Set lunch/menu in the best establishments is going to be the cheapest option. There will be very limited choices, and when I say cheap, somewhere like Gordon Ramsay’s will still set you back £45 a head for three courses.
A La Carte, literally translated from the French means ‘according to the card’. Each dish will be listed separately and individually priced.
Menu Prestige/Tasting menu – a tasting menu offers a number (quite often six) of smaller courses at a fixed price. In nearly all restaurants, a tasting menu must be selected by the whole table. Sometimes there is a special seasonal tasting menu or a tasting menu that surpasses the ‘standard’ tasting menu. Again, the price will be higher.
You might also be asked if you want to pair your food. This means matching a type of wine to a particular food with the aim of enhancing the flavours. Usually the sommelier – the person who is responsible for the selection of and serving of the wines – will select a different wine to complement each course, or give a couple of options for each course. The menu should indicate the cost of this per person so you don’t get any nasty surprises.
Terms and definitions
Al dente – this usually refers to pasta or rice and means that it is still firm to the bit. It literally means ‘to the tooth’ in Italian.
Amuse bouche – a bite-sized offering that is provided free of charge at the beginning of a meal.
Blue – Steak cooked less than very rare; has a cold raw centre and is just seared (for about 10 seconds) on both sides.
Bouillon – A broth of celery, onions and carrots (mirepoix); herbs, vegetables and veal, beef or chicken bones.
Cannon – The eye of the loin with all the fat removed. It’s the leanest and tenderest cut of lamb or venison.
Carpaccio – originally this referred to a dish of thinly sliced raw beef dressed with a mustard sauce, which is thought to have been invented atHarry’s Bar in Venice. The term carpaccio has now been broadened and can refer to anything that is sliced very thinly including fish and vegetables.
Ceviche – A South American dish of raw fish or seafood marinated in a citrus juice, with salt and chillies
Chateaubriand – various definitions exist, but generally considered to be a thick cut from the tenderloin. Usually served for two people.
Compote – fruit stewed in a syrup, usually served as a dessert.
Confit – Meat that has been slowly cooked in its own fat; most commonly duck.
Consommé – A clarified broth ie it has no food particles in it.
Coulis – A thick, smooth sauce of fruit or vegetables that have been pureed and sieved. Extremely popular in the late 80s.
Digestif – An alcoholic drink served after a meal to aid digestion. Common examples include: brandy, armagnac, cognac, limoncello, whisky and grappa.
En Papillote (Italian: Al cartoccio) – A method of cooking where food is baked inside a sealed pouch of greaseproof paper, which means the food is steamed in its own juices.
Entrecôte – A premium cut of beef that comes from the rib area of the animal.
Filet mignon – A cut of beef taken from the smaller end of the tenderloin. It is very tender.
Florentine steak – A top quality T-bone steak taken from a Chianina calf and hung for 5-6 days. It is grilled over a charcoal fire and seasoned with just salt. Olive oil is added strictly after the meat comes off the fire. It is thick cut, big and usually rare.
Flambé – A way of cooking where alcohol – such as brandy or cognac – is added to a hot pan and ignited to create a burst of flames. Steaks, bananas and pancakes all lend themselves to this cooking technique.
Foie gras – The specially fattened liver of a goose or duck. Foie gras can be served as a mousse, parfait or pâté and can be pan-seared.
Fricassée – Most commonly chicken or poultry, but also veal; the meat is cut into pieces, dusted in flour, sautéed in butter or oil and then cooked with vegetables in stock often including wine. Again, there are many variations. A fricassee is lighter than a stew.
Fusion – A real buzz word in restaurants. Essentially a dish which combines techniques or ingredients from two or more regional cuisines.
Ganache – A sauce/icing made from chocolate and cream.
Gremolata – An Italian garnish of raw, finely chopped garlic, parsley and lemon zest. There are quite a few variations/additions, but lemon zest is a constant. It is usually sprinkled over slow-cooked braised meats, such as osso bucco (see below), but also works well with grilled fish or chicken.
Julienne – This is French term for a method of cutting vegetables into thin strips/matchsticks.
Jus (Au jus) – Usually refers to roasted meat that’s served in it’s own juices. It is similar to gravy in the way that it uses pan-drippings and uses stock to de-glaze the pan, but is differentiated by the fact that it is un-thickened.
Millefeuille – Literally meaning 1000 leaves, in a cooking context refers to rectangular slices of puff pastry layered with pastry cream.
Noisette butter (Beurre noisette) –Unsalted butter that has been lightly browned (NOT burned!).
Osso bucco – A speciality from Milan, which literally translated means bone with a hole, this is a thick cut (about an inch and a half) veal shank. When cooked the marrow in the centre melts into the sauce leaving a hole in the middle; hence the name. It is usually braised with vegetables and one of the traditional accompaniments is risotto alla milanese. It is often garnished with Gremolata.
Parfait – Parfaits can be sweet or savoury and there are many varieties. In the traditional French sense they are smooth and involve a layering of ingredients. A sweet parfait in France tends to be a frozen dessert that consists of egg, whipped cream, sugar and flavouring, which is in a mould and can be sliced. An ‘American parfait’ resembles more of a sundae with layers of ice cream, syrup, cream and fruit. Common savoury parfaits include duck and rabbit liver.
Pavé – Actually meaning ‘cobblestone’, this term refers to a square (or rectangular) shaped – sweet or savoury – serving of food.
Petit fours – small cakes and biscuits served with coffee.
Provencale (a la) – a dish which includes garlic, tomatoes and olive oil and sometimes black olives.
Reduction – the process of thickening and intensifying the flavour of a liquid by rapidly boiling. It can be a stock, wine, cream or vinegar reduction; to name but a few.
Rémoulade – A mayonnaise-based sauce often flavoured with herbs, mustard and capers. Again there are 1000s of variations!
Sauce Vierge – This ‘Virgin sauce’ is made using olive oil, lemon juice and chopped tomatoes and basil.
Semifreddo – Literally translated from the Italian it means “half cold” and in culinarily terms refers to chilled or partially frozen desserts such as cake, ice cream and fruit and custard.
Shank – A cut of meat from the leg of a calf, sheep or lamb.
Sweetbreads – Often mistaken for being animal testicles, these are in fact the thymus gland (which is from the throat) and the pancreas gland (which is from the heart or stomach) of calves or lambs.
Tartare – A dish made from finely chopped raw meat or fish, such as steak, venison, tuna or salmon.
Tempura – The Japanese name for vegetables or fish deep fried in a light batter.
Terrine – A terrine is an earthenware dish with a lid in which food is cooked. When on a menu this refers to what has actually been cooked inside. A terrine is very similar to a pâté except that the latter is baked in a crust.
Velouté – A white sauce which is made from a ‘white stock’, such as chicken or seafood stock and a roux (flour and butter). Cream and seasoning is added once the velouté is ready to serve.
Cilantro vs. coriander; chips or fries, cupcake or fairy cake?
My husband was making an Asian salad and asked me what cilantro was. I had no idea. A quick Google search revealed that this was another word for what we would call coriander in the UK. This got me thinking about how many different terms are used in the English-speaking world for the same ingredients/food items. In this example, cilantro is the Spanish word and this is probably used in North America owing to the popularity of Mexican food. To make it more confusing this herb is sometimes referred to as Chinese Parsley.
Some of the terms where there are discrepancies are fairly commonly known. For example courgette, as used by Brits and French speakers (as it’s from the French), versus zucchini, which is used by North Americans and is Italian in origin; and eggplant versus aubergine, again where the latter is used by people in the UK and comes from French.
However, what about the less common ones, which may leave you scratching your head when you come across them in a cookery book…
Snow peas v mangetout – both snow peas and snap peas can be referred to as mangetout, which is French and literally means ‘eat all’. Indeed it’s a variety of pea that can be eaten whole in its pod.
Kiwifruit (kiwi) v Chinese gooseberry – the lesser known term Chinese gooseberry is what the kiwi or kiwifruit was known as before a rebrand by San Francisco fruit importers Ziel Company. Kiwifruit’s name
Prickly pear v Indian fig – English-speakers seem to use these two terms in equal measure. It is also known as opuntia and barbary fig.
Swede v rutabaga – hailing from England, I had NEVER heard of the word rutabaga! Americans and Canadians use this term and the word itself actually derives from an old Swedish word. Australians and New Zealanders, like the English and Welsh say swede. However the Scots often refer to them as ‘neeps’ and in the North East of England you may even hear the word snadger, though I doubt this would be found in many cookbooks!
Spring onions v salad onions v scallions – A quick Google reveals that this little onion with the long green leaves (pictured) has many names, some I have come across including: scallion, green onion, spring onion and salad onion; and quite a few I haven’t: green shallot, onion stick, long onion, baby onion, precious onion, yard onion, gibbon and syboe (Scottish). In the UK, they are referred to as spring onions and salad onions interchangeably.
Crisps v potato chips – this snack of crunchy deep fried (or baked) potato slice is almost unanimously known as chips in the English-speaking world. It appears that the Brits and Irish are alone in referring to them as crisps.
Chips v fries – confusingly, to a British English speaker, chips are what Americans would call fries. However, the traditional British chunky ‘chip’ doesn’t seem to exist in the States. In the UK, we often have the option of fries or chips when it comes to an accompaniment to a steak.
The rise of the cupcake
- BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine | The cupcake revival
After Carrie Bradshaw bit into a pastel-coloured cupcake on Sex and the City, it wasn’t long before exquisitely frosted fondants appeared on high streets around the world. What is it about these pretty little cakes?
The sweet stuff
Sweet items seem to throw up just as many differences.
Fairy cake v cupcake – Fairy cakes are not well known outside of the UK. They are a lot smaller, tend to be more delicate and have a lot less icing than the ubiquitous cupcake, and are more associated with being a child’s treat. Thanks to Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, the cupcake has had a meteoric rise and fairy cakes have fallen out of fashion.
Candy v sweets – Northern Americans say candy; Brits, The Irish, South African’s and others from the Commonwealth say sweets. Australians and New Zealanders call this type of confectionary lollies. Incidentally, US candy bars are chocolate bars in the UK.
Frosting v icing – The same thing; it goes on top of your cakes. Frosting is the American, icing is the British English and appears to be the term used in other English-speaking countries. However, frosting seems to be becoming a more common term outside of the US.
Cookies v biscuits – A ‘biscuit’ in the UK and Australia would be a cookie to an American English speaker. A savoury biscuit (as in the accompaniment for your cheese) would be a cracker in the US.
Scones v biscuits – An absolute minefield! On the surface they seem to be comparable. However, there doesn’t seem to be a true definition for either and every region seems to have a variation. In the UK it is a quick bread, which forms part of a cream tea.
Now we just have to work out if the measurements are imperial or metric…