Menu Design

[by Naveen]

A set of coincidences has made me more aware of the confluence of design, psychology, and the restaurant industry. Inspired by the release of Presentation Zen Design, I started listening to Glimmer from audible.com (a great way to make the time pass faster in the line at the RMV), to try to understand what exactly is meant by the term "design." I still don't have a concise definition, but some combination of engineering and psychology seems to be a common thread. That reminded me of a couple articles in the New York Times and New York Magazine about menu design. Both articles mentioned restaurant consultants who teach where to place items on a page, which format to use for numbers, and how to utilize descriptive language (a trend in supermarkets, too), among other techniques. Many of these same skills are involved in creating efficient, elegant slides for presentations, so I wonder if my renewed interest in slide design could eventually lead to some freelance work for menu consulting.

Deck The Halls

[by Mike]

If people hung meat instead of lights (or boughs of holly for the more classical amongst us), would anyone complain about decorations being left up all year?


atmosphere: case studies

[by john]

bottled ingredients are not the only constituents of a cocktail that can make it good. there's also that x-factor; the sixth man (for basketball); a je ne sais quoi; the twelfth man (for soccer and football); the indefinable (except, perhaps, via sports metaphors). the atmosphere of a bar can leave just as sour a taste as that careless extra barspoon of lemon juice, or it can bring together a drink as well as a dash of bitters. (for those scoring at home, if you thought 'ice' was the sixth man, you get half credit.)

music, lighting, warmth, menu fonts, cloth napkins...the courtesy of the staff, the obnoxiousness of the patrons, the flare of the bartender...the number of variables to control would drive me half mad if i were a bar manager.

i've already written about the likes of drink, craigie, and eastern standard with their great reverential, hospitable, and belle époque atmospheres. these three new case studies, however, serve average drinks with the equivalent of a flamed orange peel for atmosphere, reaching them out of the depths of one-visit-only bars.

the manderley - as a temporary bar in the immersive theatrical installation 'sleep no more', just the notion of a transient classy oasis amidst a mansion of murder and the supernatural delights the exegetical corner of my mind to no end. after wandering through the play, i got to sit down at one of the tiny tables (flickering candles and all) in front of the jazz band and pick apart this new interpretation of shakespeare with a friend, cocktails in hand. a gin and tonic could have tasted just as good...but it didn't hurt that they were at least classically inspired (but nothing to write home to dunsinane about).

delux - i coudln't stop grinning once i got $9 in change after exchanging my $20 bill for the manhattan and guiness. nevermind the lack of rye or the presence of the scarily red cherry...deluxe was already decidedly awesome. plus, the records on the walls, the santa and xmas tree out months early, the regulars quietly sipping schlitzes, grilled cheese on the menu, and the dr. seuss stories as wallpaper in the bathroom didn't really hurt its case, either.

beehive - cocktails at this south end establishment trespass on the uninspired region of the expensive cocktail landscape. most are bubbly ones mixed in the champagne flute. but - mon dieu - they know how to decorate a space. carpeted stairs, wooden banisters, tile floors, and thick red drapes against cliffs of exposed brick walls. very sippable, that atmosphere.


on barflies

[by john]

'bartender, there's a fly in my manhattan!'

'what, you think you're the only one with addictions here?'


Adding to the Toolbox

[by Mike]

A few years ago I started making a Good Eats inspired cranberry granita whenever November rolled around. This quick, easy dessert is great to have around not only for its convenience but for its luxurious mouthfeel. The large, pectin-infused ice crystals melt slowly and coat the tongue with the tart cranberries flavors cut by the sweetness of the sugar and brightness of the lime zest. As recommended on the show, the granita also makes a damned fine cocktail. Once the crystals melt they provide a complex cranberry flavor far exceeding that of any cranberry juice, not to mention the added body and texture.

But is there a compromise between the two service options? Tequila and Cointreau would play excellently with the flavors in the granita, but adding the spirits directly to the crystals would only accelerate the inevitable melting. I needed a way to contain the spirits, keeping them separated from the granita until service. A technique from the oft maligned molecular gastronomy offered a possibility; armed with some sodium alginate and calcium lactate samples from Jeff of Cooking For Geeks I started playing with spherification.

A derivative of seaweed, alginate doesn't do much more than thicken liquids. When the alginate solution comes in contact with the calcium lactate, however, the thickening is dramatically enhanced. Submerged in a calcium lactate solution, a weak alginate solution would form a thin skin around a liquid core. Made weak enough, the delicate skin is just strong enough to contain the liquid until popped in the mouth.

That's the theory, anyways. Use too much alginate and the liquid becomes too thick and the skin too tough, rendering the final pearls awkwardly chewy. Recipes trawled from the internet lack any consistency, so the final ratios had to be left to experimentation. Even with working proportions, forming the spheres themselves is nontrivial. Creating small caviar isn't too hard, but larger pearls takes some clever technique. The delicate membranes then require careful handling, lest they burst prematurely.

It took a few iterations, but I eventually settled into a successful recipe and developed sufficient technique that I could consistently produce large, fragile pearls well suited for the granita. I was using an old bottle of cheap blue curacao for testing, and the bright, contrasting color proved useful for illustrative purposes. Any real application would likely feature translucent pearls hiding within the red crystals.


Have Tools, Will Travel

[by Mike]

With holiday travel coming up I did not want to risk more cocktail disappointment. In order to guarantee a well made drink to accompany my meals at home and at relatives I would have to bring my own tools, and I would need something to carry them.

Following the recommendation of Robert Hess, I started looking for doctor bags but was quickly discouraged by the outrageous prices. If I wanted something amenable to the grad student budget I would have to abandon doctors and think students: nursing students. Bags designed for nursing students are cheap, rugged, and dense with storage possibilities. Comparing features and reviews I went with a model from American Diagnostics, and I could not be happier.

The bag is small enough to be unobtrusive but large enough to hold everything I'd ever need. A large outer pocket holds a towel, sponge, and gloves for keeping clean. The back features a thin sleeve perfectly sized for 8.5 by 11 sheets of paper, small books, notepads, or cutting boards. Deep pockets inside the bag hold small bottles, knives, and other tools, with the remaining space awaiting larger tools such as the imperative Boston shaker. There are even small zippered components just large enough to hold business cards, matches, or the like.

At the moment I've stocked the bag with everything I could possibly need,
  • A few small kitchen towels
  • Four small flexible cutting boards
  • Seven bottles of bitters plus a spray bottle of absinthe
  • Tasting straws
  • Channel and paring knives
  • Pens
  • Boston shaker, julep strainer, bar spoon, muddler
  • Mexican juicer
When traveling home I'll add my kitchen knives and a few more tools. Heading to a party I'd add freshly squeezed juices, a syrup or two, and small plastic cup for service. In the event a few of us cocktail snobs get together I could fit a few bottles of secondary liqueurs. Yes, the possibilities make me slightly giddy.

Oh, and if you're up for some drinks give me a call. I'll bring the bitters.