A multitude of articles have been written about deciphering a restaurant menu, often from the combative stance that the restaurateur is trying to deceive or trick the unwitting diner into ordering the most expensive item or unload slow moving ingredients. The fundamental idea of a menu, however, is a combination of the esoteric and practical — a diner has to know what is being offered, after all, but a menu can also serve as a prompt for a savvy chef or restaurateur to be able to steer a diner in a specific direction or experience.
Sometimes, a bit of modesty can actually garner more attention for its sheer novelty. A seven year old Montreal restaurant went viral in January for its disarming frankness in its menu descriptions. “A lot of people want to be the best …and we are simply not the best. That’s a fact,” Aunt Dai restaurateur Feigang Fei, a former IT engineer, told The CBC. “We just try to be a little bit better every day. And that’s how I see it.”
The menu descriptions can veer from helpful tips, such as the instructions for Hot and sour soup (Suān Là Tāng) (“Spicy and tasty, no meat, drink slowly to avoid hiccups”) to setting expectations: “Singapore noodles (Xīng Zhōu Chǎo Fěn): It has curry flavour, don’t expect it to be SO tasty but it’s a safe choice and make you happy”. Others offer a peek behind the curtain as to the challenges of being a restaurateur and balancing out food and labour costs versus menu choice. “There are a lot of tasty Chinese dishes but to be honest, it’s a dilemma for restaurant owners to resist the desire to add all the good famous dishes,” reads the owner’s description explaining the similarity of a fried pork slices dish to General Tso chicken. “When you have a huge menu, you simply cannot keep up the quality. I have to fight off the idea of providing more choices, that’s the compromise I have to make in order to have the highest quality possible.”
In the description of a spareribs and bamboo shoots dish, Fei calls out the price of certain ingredients and their scarcity in the dish: “Also customers tell me there is very little dry bamboo shoots in this plate and I agree. But you never know how expensive those dry bamboo shoots are, I guess its presence is only for its flavor and naming purpose.” Other times, he mentions that ingredients were removed for convenience, such as the ground pork from the eggplant dish, so that the servers didn’t constantly have to remind customers that the dish contained meat.
Fei has written extensively and with great candor on his restaurant’s blog about some of these challenges, including an overly ambitious and ultimately ill-fated expansion in Anjou, the destruction of the original Cote-des-Neiges location due to a fire, and the mistakes made in following the initial rush of media exposure in the early days of the restaurant in 2015. “Right after that moment we had so many customers and I never saw that many customers for the first several days. I was too excited and I made a big mistake, being greedy,” he wrote, in a painful mea culpa that many new restaurateurs may recognize. “We seated all the customers but we could not handle the workload. A lot of customers were waiting for more than one hour and the food quality became less. Even when I hired new people, they were not trained and the kitchen was a total mess. I made a lot of customers mad.”
In some ways, Fei’s menu strategy today is inoculating the restaurant’s dishes from Yelp complaints written by amateur critics unfamiliar with the cuisine through education, and in other cases, anticipating the perceived issue and addressing it head on. He tackles the idea of authenticity, a word often casually and erroneously misapplied to Chinese Canadian cuisine in a multitude of ways, directly in the description off a Black Pepper (Hēi Jiāo) beef dish. “Don’t let the name fool you, this one is NOT authentic Chinese food. True story, one customer got really mad because it’s not so Chinese since he visited Sichuan China before,” Fei writes with studied understatement. “Note: we removed “Sichuan” from the name when we updated the menu to avoid confusion. Still this dish is very tasty according to a lot of customers.”