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Fall Harvests

Seasonal Menus Necessitate Kitchens Describing Their Fare Clearly And Accurately

Mel Guapo

By Anisha Jagtap | Posted 10/10/2007

Fall has arrived, and with it new produce. And for many restaurants, fall produce means new seasonal menus. Selecting a meal from a well-written, limited menu is simple, but you can't always get so lucky--there is nothing more frustrating than obsfucating menus with descriptions written in foreign languages. A menu reflects a restaurant's concept and style, the prime communication between the chef and patrons. From Frisee aux Lardons to the Schnauzer, restaurants in Baltimore offer a wide range of seasonal menu items covering a plethora of cuisines and traditions. Local chefs put time and thought into creating dishes and writing comprehensive menus to keep their guests coming back for more.

Michael Costas, executive chef at Pazo, develops a new menu with the inspiration of "what the local farmers are doing, and what is nice and fresh." Early fall brings winter squash to its peak, along with fragrant garlic, shallots, and hearty root vegetables. Chard, collard, and other dark greens are also in season. Apples and pears will be ripe and ready for warm winter ciders.

Aware of seasonal ingredients, Chef Costas "hits on the dominant flavors" of the dish when writing the descriptions: "a simple, straightforward menu that can be read in less than five minutes," he says. Pazo's Mediterranean-influenced menu includes traditional Spanish and Italian terms. The foreign words are briefly explained to clear up any confusion. Carpaccio, an Italian dish of raw meat sliced thin, and Romescu--a Catalan sauce made with garlic, red peppers, almonds, hazelnuts, olive oil, and sometimes tomato--can be found on the menu.

Brasserie Tatin houses a menu full of French terminology. Dishes such as "Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinee" (onion soup) and "Cour de Laitue et Rouleau de Brie aux Noix" (baby butter lettuce and walnut crusted brie salad with balsamic vinaigrette) create a bistro café feel in a modern setting. Chef Stephen Blaser embraces French cooking styles in his elaborate yet traditional menu. The restaurant offers a rotating prix fixe option of a multi-course meal selection of seasonal and house favorites. For the winter, dishes such as the Cuisses de Grenouilles Provencales--frog legs sautéed in garlic, butter, and parsley--are served with spaghetti squash instead of julienned spring vegetables.

"Our menu changes seasonally, so some of the items have changed," Marc Dettori, Tatin's sommelier says. "We have updated our menu so you will see in the descriptions."

Brasserie Tatin isn't the only kitchen tapping into French cooking traditions. "Duck confit at Iggie's is duck slowly cooked in its own liquid and fat until tender and moist," says owner Lisa Heckman of Iggie's Neapolitan pizzeria in Mount Vernon, talking about its Antara pizza with duck confit. "It is then shredded and served with bleu cheese and caramelized onions."

For the fall/winter season, three new pizzas are added to the menu, including a pizza made with potatoes, pancetta (Italian bacon), and rosemary. "The pizzas are all named in Italian, but have descriptions that list all the ingredients," Heckman says. "If there is any confusion, customers usually ask the cashiers, who are very well informed about the menu."

Chef Joe Herbick of Sobo Café offers Federal Hill a new menu almost every day. He often cooks food that he or his staff wants to eat or dreamt about the night before. Popular dishes such as the chicken pot pie and mac n'cheese remain house favorites and stay on the list. The trademark handwritten menu "has a sense of humor," Herbick says. "The more academic [it is], the more questions there are."

Herbick adds his personal touch to the menu by renaming traditional dishes such as the Irish sheppard's pie to "Cowboy Pie" although coq au vin--the French poultry dish made with seasoned wine, lardons, and mushroom--is called just that. This fall and winter brings heartier soups, thicker sauces, and heavier entrées. Herbick tries to emphasize simplicity. "A dish is a dish," he says. "The owner will bring me the fresh product and I will create something."

Vegetarian cuisine includes a variety of meatless options with sometimes unusual terminology. Chef Susan Novak of One World Café created a glossary at the back of the menu to define these terms. "There are a lot of items on the menu, and many starting vegetarians are not familiar with what is available," she says.

The reference page gives the customer a chance to understand the dishes--e.g., tempeh (fermented soybean cake) and seitan (wheat gluten) are alternatives to tofu. Novak gauges customer demand by creating specials that use unique vegan and vegetarian ingredients. "You may find spicier things for specials this fall," Novak says.

Spicy udon noodle and vegetable soup has recently received rave reviews from customers. If the dish is well-received then it becomes a menu item. She always uses main ingredient in the title and adds a symbol for dishes suitable for vegans. The house burger changes almost every other day and the specials are constantly updated.

"I like to use catch phrases like `organic,' `local-grown,' and `house made,'" Novak says.

Hampden's Dogwood Gourmet plans its menu using exclusively regionally grown and procured items, and meaning its rotating menu changes frequently. "We try to be generally descriptive with our menu so that everyone can understand it," Dogwood chef Galen Sampson says. "You're starting to see some fall vegetables coming back and we are also at the end of tomato season, so there are some menu items utilizing the last of their season. Our menu changes weekly, so it's kinda neat for people."

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A Spring Greens Primer

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A Guide to Enjoying Prime Oyster Season

Top Chef (12/12/2007)
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