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Go Tell It on the Menu

July 9, 2010

I’ve been having an interesting conversation with Steve Barnes on his Table Hopping blog recently.  It’s about local and seasonal produce along with other high quality ingredients, and whether or not it is news when they earn a place on a restaurant’s menu.

My contention is that this is certainly news.
Mr. Barnes is less convinced.

He believes that there are plenty of restaurants with local produce on their menus, but I think he is only partially right.  This is what he said:

Without doing any research whatsoever, I can say that New World Bistro, Dale Miller, Yono’s, Jake Moon, The Beekman Street Bistro, Max London’s, Black Watch and Marche are all currently using local produce to some degree on their menus. That’s common knowledge, because they list the farms. And I assume Andrew Plummer at Creo is busy growing and foraging, because that’s his thing.

I, on the other hand, believe in doing some research.  Perhaps that last statement was “predictably snide” as well.  Click through, and you can follow along at home.

Here are the links to the dinner menus for the restaurants Steve listed.

New World Bistro Bar
Dale Miller
Jake Moon
The Beekman Street Bistro
Max London’s
Black Watch

Now here is the thing.  It is all fine and good for restaurants to buy local, seasonal produce when available and use it in preparing their menu items.  It is another thing entirely to recognize the ingredients as something truly special, highlight them on the menu, and build dishes that prominently feature our local bounty.

Here’s a pizza from Creo’s menu:
Caramelized Onions and Figs 13
Topped with truffled arugula greens and balsamic syrup

Maybe these ingredients are local, chef grown or foraged.  Maybe they are not.  What I am suggesting is that it would be much more notable if the menu read:
Caramelized Roxbury Farm Onions and Fresh Kadota Figs 14
Topped with wild arugula and twelve year old balsamico

The problem is that by and large local restaurant menus, even at many of the high-end establishments on Steve’s list, are written in stone.  Their menu is their menu.  Yes, some will add some seasonal specials, but even those specials aren’t necessarily indicative of the season.

So when summer rolls around, and the mud and ice has yielded fields of vibrant and tasty produce, these better restaurants start incorporating local fruits and vegetables in their cooking.  But how is the customer to know if it is not written on the menu?  How is the food-loving public going to know which restaurant was actually able to get the tomatoes that were just picked from the vine, bursting with sunshine, that are so juicy they couldn’t possibly have been shipped?

For example New World Bistro Bar has this printed on their menu:

We are committed to serving our take on Global Neighborhood fare that utilizes regional, seasonal, sustainable and artisan ingredients. Help us support the little guys in all of their endeavors…Our seasonal produce is as local as possible.

Jake Moon and Marché offer similar commitments, but since their menus are unchanging, one never knows which produce is coming from which farm, or if any of it is actually local at all.  A few restaurants actually go so far as to list their farm partners.  Now according to Steve NWBB has local broccoli, wax beans and Kirby pickles this week.  But he does not see that information as newsworthy.

Of the remaining restaurants Steve listed, only Beekman Street Bistro, Max London’s, and Black Watch actually credit the specific farms adjacent to the specific produce on the menu items in which they are used.  In the case of Black Watch they only specifically mention Little Field Farm greens, but they do list two different varieties from the producer.  At least it’s a start.

Honestly, I am surprised to learn that Andrew Plumber is into growing and foraging.  As far as I can tell, there isn’t a thing about his menu that points to this passion.  Perhaps someone can show me.

So I submit to you that perhaps there are plenty of restaurants that buy and use local produce.  But there are precious few that actually mention it on their menus.

And I believe that matters.  A lot.

Chefs or cooks who take the time to build relationships with farmers should tell it loud and proud when they are able to provide the good stuff.  If that means they need to change or just fine tune their menus more frequently, so be it.  It would be a significant and meaningful step toward improving the overall quality of restaurant food in the Capital Region.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2010 9:28 am

    I agree 1000%. Just because a chef/business owner/menu says, “We are committed to supporting local agriculture,” does not make it so. To the best of my knowledge there aren’t any Albany-area restaurants that truly change their menus often enough to adapt to what’s being harvested that week. Swoon in Hudson is the only place that immediately comes to mind, but that’s a bit of a schlep. So I guess we have to be content with creativity from our own kitchens until someone truly makes that commitment.

    Roxbury, itself, should find a space, hire a chef and say, “Have at it.” Imagine how great that would be!

  2. July 9, 2010 9:48 am

    Dan, why not bother to get the chef’s take on these issues?

  3. July 9, 2010 10:04 am

    Have you checked out Chez Mike? I am going tonight and their menu seems extremely seasonal, it is constantly changing.

  4. July 9, 2010 11:02 am

    I was just going to say “What about Chez Mike?” they change their menu seasonally and every meal I have had there has been exceptionally done. Have you been there yet? You really need to go if you haven’t.

  5. Kerosena permalink
    July 9, 2010 12:01 pm

    “…but since their menus are unchanging…”

    Please check into this assumption. I’m not sure if you are referring to NWBB, Jake Moon and Marche collectively in that statement. I can absolutely assure you that NWBB has changed their menu at least twice in 2010 (January and May).

  6. Raf permalink
    July 9, 2010 2:20 pm

    Reading menus online ≠ research. Call them and ask. You don’t even have to put on pants to make a phone call.

    Also, FWIW, I find cluttering up the menu with lots of source info about the food to be pretty tiresome. It just doesn’t read well. I’d rather see a mission statement about local sourcing, a list of farms, and info from the server about specials or extra good stuff that local/seasonal/etc.

    • July 9, 2010 2:47 pm

      “Also, FWIW, I find cluttering up the menu with lots of source info about the food to be pretty tiresome.”

      Agreed, I almost said the same thing. It also look pretentious, and it was my understanding that most finer restaurants were moving to simpler menus with more approachable titles for dishes. I’m actually turned off by Dan’s edit in his pizza example.

      But really, this entire post is wild presumption; what we need to hear is, from the chefs, why they do or do not mention these things on the menus.

  7. July 9, 2010 3:40 pm

    So we want the restaurant to update menus (daily?) to reflect which farm supplied the arugula?
    Being a little fussy, don’t you think?

  8. July 10, 2010 7:45 pm

    I could not agree with you more! Especially after my girlfriend (who worked at one of the said establishments) said that 99.9% of the food comes from Sysco and .1% comes from a local source. Now I hate it when people make unattributable statements like that (damn myself), but she still works in food service and I can’t call her out. So anyway…local, organic ingredients mean the world to some consumers, like me, and I’d be more than happy to pay a premium for them. But I’m not interested in some vague promise. There are lots of places in other cities that will specifically note the producer of an ingredient and that rocks. All we can do as consumers, I guess, is put our money where our mouths are. Unfortunately, that leaves people with my mentality cooking at home with farmer’s market ingredients versus spending my dough at local restaurants. It’s a shame really.

  9. enoughalready! permalink
    July 11, 2010 6:32 pm

    i agree that listing all those places is tedious on a menu – if a restaurant states it uses local ingredients when possible i’ll try to believe it. however when they state they grow their own but only serve salad and cole slaw and offer no (local) vegetable sides, such as one of the places cited, i start to wonder. one of reasons i love nwbb is there veggie offerings, whether or not they have been locally obtained.

  10. wendalicious permalink
    July 12, 2010 8:02 pm

    Daniel: you need – and I mean NEED – to get yourself over to Canajoharie and have dinner at Church and Main (address easily deciphered from the last sentence). Their menu changes WEEKLY, and they source much of their food from local sources (except the coffee, ‘natch).

    Here’s a blurb from their website:
    “…the seasonal foods featured in Chef Michael Lapi’s dishes are grown in the immediate area surrounding the restaurant. Natural and organic meats, produce and more are featured
    on a limited, weekly changing menu.”

    Anywho, I had the pleasure in 2008 of hosting James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith (authors/creators of “The 100-Mile Diet”) for an event in Schenectady, and they specifically requested a side trip to this restaurant because they’d read about it. We got there towards the end of their dinner service on a Sunday, coincidentally at the end of their business week as well, and were told that there were three portions of chicken left, and one portion of their dinner salad (they start all over again with a new menu on Thursdays). We got all of it, and shared amongst the four of us. It was outstanding – locally grown food, prepared simply. You would adore this place, I think.

    Oh, and tangentially, hanging on the wall in the restaurant was an article about James and Alisa, who apparently were an inspiration to the restaurant’s owners. The owners were thrilled to pieces that they were actually there, eating their food. A very meta experience for all.

  11. July 13, 2010 11:08 pm

    It may not have been obvious from the title “Lessons From a Salad Bar” but Tuesday’s post was really a response to some of the above comments. I was surprised that it did not get a reaction from B or Raf, but they may simply be exasperated.

    • anonymous permalink
      July 14, 2010 12:59 pm

      You sir are a restaurant owner’s nightmare. Given how CHEAP you are, you only deserve the crapiest fast food available. Having read your blog for over a year, it is disingenuous of you to suggest that you would be willing to pay the reasonable amount required for local farmers to earn a living. I once saw a comment of yours complaining that more that six dollars for a chicken dish was too much to pay at a local restaurant. You don’t give food, or the resources required to prepare and serve it the respect it deserves. Don’t be a lame ass, johnny come lately blogger requesting locally sourced food. You dont deserve it.

      • Cindy permalink
        July 15, 2010 9:37 pm

        Wow, what an exceedingly harsh comment. You sound like a restaurant worker who was recently laid off, or a local farmer whose mortgage was just taken over by the bank. Either way, I’m sorry for you.

  12. December 12, 2011 2:26 pm

    Daniel has written about us (All Good Bakers) before, so some of you may know how we operate. We prepare 3-4 *different* vegan and vegetarian lunch specials every weekend BASED on what we get fresh from our farming partners on Wednesdays. On every menu, we publish most ingredients and which farms they came from, which changes depending on availability. Although it is extremely tedious to keep up with the details and write them out every week, we think it’s important to note, for example, that the arugula came from Farmer Jon’s one week, Miller’s Crossing the next. In my opinion we strengthen the credibility of our message by doing so, and we remain transparent. We are going to find a way to streamline noting this info in the menu & in the shop though, as we also find it cumbersome to read.

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