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Taste of the Town

Say what? A guide to menu-speak

Seattle Times restaurant critic

A helping of help

Don't know your ponzu from your yuzu or your burrata from your bottarga? Here's a handy handful of food reference books to set you straight:

"The New Food Lover's Companion (Third Edition)," by Sharon Tyler Herbst (Barron's)

"The Oxford Companion to Food," by Alan Davidson (Oxford University Press)

"Larousse Gastronomique," edited by Prosper Montagne (Clarkson N. Potter)

"The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink," by John Mariani (Broadway Books)

"Field Guide to Meat," "Field Guide to Produce," by Aliza Green (Quirk)

"Pocket Dictionary of Ethnic Foods," by Daniel G. Blum (Word Craft Publishing)

"Eating Your Words," by William Grimes (Oxford)

Nancy Leson on KPLU

Catch Nancy Leson's commentaries on food and restaurants on the third Wednesday of each month on KPLU (88.5 FM) at 6:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 4:45 p.m, and again the following Sunday at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. Listen to her commentaries.

Doris Mathews was not amused when she called to complain about one of my reviews: the one where I praised the chef's amuse-bouche and dissed his panna cotta. "Say what?" she exclaimed, explaining how she had pulled out her dictionary and — even then — had no idea what I was talking about.

Menu-speak. It's a foreign language: literally and figuratively. And Doris — an 80-year-old former home-ec major — holds no truck with high-falutin' food jabber. Neither does my friend Mariann Grady.

Last winter, Mariann, a self-described meat-and-potatoes gal and the most elegant woman in Palatine, Ill., joined me for dinner at Chicago's four-star Ambria. There, in a warmly lit room tended to by a fabulous fleet of fine-dining personnel, we were offered menus, cocktails and — hello, Doris! — amuse-bouche.

"I am so out of my element," whispered Mariann, whose venison-in-the-headlights expression made that all too clear. "Don't worry," I told her, "I am so very much in mine."

Taking me at my word, I soon had her paying homage to a gorgeous filet of Columbia River sturgeon à la plancha with braised oxtail lentils du puy and leek fondue. Yes, she loved it, though pointing to the tiny black orbs garnishing her sturgeon, she wondered, "What's this?" Taking my fork to her fish, I rendered a verdict: "Tapioca pearls dyed with squid ink."

At once fascinated, horrified and amazed, Mariann was duly impressed when my guess proved correct. As, apparently, was our waiter. "We call it 'faux caviar,' " he told us. "And no one, I mean no one has any idea what it's made of."

Feigning modesty and keeping mum regarding my profession, I answered: "I eat out a lot."

For those of you who don't, but who want to be up with the latest menu-speak when you do, here's a little lexicon: a culinary cheat sheet describing common "whatzats?" found on menus all over town.

Amuse-bouche (aka amuse-gueule)

French for "mouth amuser," an amuse-bouche is something to tantalize your taste buds: a little nosh often presented as "a gift from the chef" before the start of a meal. At Veil, Shannon Galusha woos his guests with the likes of tuna tartare moistened with parsley oil, or prosciutto crisps served with a mouthful of lentil salad.

Beluga lentils

When cooked, these tiny black legumes look much like Beluga caviar (which, by the way, comes from a sturgeon, not a whale). Also known as black lentils, they keep their "bite" better than the more easily overcooked common brown lentils, texturally enhancing salads and side dishes. And at Carmelita, they play sassy side to Kevin Fogarty's savory Five Vegetables in Crust.


Fresh buffalo-milk mozzarella takes a tantalizing turn as burrata: scraps of mozzarella and cream wrapped in a precious package of pulled curd. When sliced, the creaminess is next to godliness. Especially when served with heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and Umbrian olive oil, as Walter Pisano does at Tulio.


Though goose and duck define the classic confit, the word is used to describe most any meat cooked in its own fat, stored in a pot and covered in the same fat for preservation purposes. That said, "confit" also describes cooked fruits or vegetables that have reached a jamlike consistency. At Pair, Felix Penn's duck confit comes paired with blood orange, radicchio and nappa cabbage, while at the Harvest Vine, Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez's tapas menu might offer clams simmered with onion confit.

Day-boat scallops/Diver's scallops

Commercial trawlers regularly spend many days at sea to secure a full load of scallops, often using preservatives to keep their shucked catch "fresh." Day-boat scallops, by contrast, are harvested and unloaded daily, which brings the sweet catch swiftly from sea to table. Pristine diver's scallops are harvested by hand and come anchored to the plate with celery-root puree at Rover's as part of Thierry Rautureau's multicourse menu degustation.


Salted, cured and hung to air-dry, guanciale is made from pig's jowl and cheek and used like pancetta (Italian bacon). At La Medusa, chefs Julie Andres and Earl Hook thin-slice Armandino Batali's guanciale and layer it over the crisp skin of paprika-roasted chicken till it melts like butter.

Hanger steak

A staple in French bistros where it's known as onglet, this hanging tender — a flap of beef that supports a steer's diaphragm — has made its mark in Seattle thanks to its chewy-good texture and gamey "here's the beef" taste. At Restaurant Zoë, Scott Staples pairs Kobe beef hanger steak with braised beef cheek, smokes the meat and scents it with rosemary.

Kurobuta pork

Kurobuta (black pig), beloved in Japan, dates back hundreds of years to the Shire of Berks, in England, hence its Anglo name: Berkshire pork. Now raised in the U.S. — where pork producers have sadly engineered the flavor out their product — kurobuta's beloved oinkiness is catching on locally. Catch it at Madoka on Bainbridge, where Alvin Binuya's apple-wood-smoked pork chop proves that point.

Mâche (aka lamb's lettuce, field salad, corn salad)

A tender winter salad green widely cultivated in Europe, this plant has bright-green leaves that grow in pretty posies and make a glorious salad. Those leaves are said to resemble lamb's tongues, hence the alternate name lamb's lettuce — one of many. At Café Juanita, Holly Smith grows her own.

Marcona almonds

The cuisine of Spain is the hottest thing since, well, Marcona almonds. The plump Spanish nut is famous for its creamy texture. Found fried, salted and available by the little tubful at specialty markets everywhere, it's also a favorite among chefs like Maria Hines at Earth & Ocean, who pairs Marconas with baby lettuces tossed with mustard vinaigrette.

Paddlefish caviar

For those with Champagne tastes and Freixenet pockets, this American caviar does a convincing country-cousin impression of Caspian sevruga — at a fraction of the cost. When pulled from Montana's Yellowstone River, this is one ugly fish (one also known as a spoonbill) that looks much prettier in its undeveloped stage, garnishing everything from John Sundstrom's rosti potatoes at Lark to Jerry Traunfeld's chive flan at the Herbfarm.

Panna cotta

Italian for "cooked cream," panna cotta is an eggless custard served chilled and often gussied up with fresh berries. Chefs like Philip Mihalski at Nell's tweak the classic recipe to create buttermilk Meyer lemon panna cotta served with lemon tuile (a crisp lacy cookie).


Order saba at a Japanese restaurant and you'll soon be eating mackerel. But there's nothing fishy about the saba-glazed bacon served at Fork or the saba-kissed vegetables at Sitka and Spruce. That sweet Italian condiment, with a flavor reminiscent of pomegranate molasses, is made from a careful reduction of concentrated fresh grape juice.

Squid ink

Jet-black and Halloween-scary, squid ink is the substance extracted from the "ink sack" of an ocean squid or its relative, the cuttlefish. Those cephalopods use their ink as a defense mechanism against predators. Tamara Murphy uses it to add color — and an earthy flavor — to a wonderful teeth-staining risotto at Brasa.


The small, hot, red Japanese chilies are available fresh but widely used in dried form and combined with ingredients like seaweed, sesame seeds and orange peel (among others). Though used primarily as a table condiment, Red Fin's Drew Watson employs it to fire up his togarashi-seared day-boat scallops with buckwheat soba noodles, mango and soy vinaigrette.

Wagyu beef

This breed of Japanese cattle offers meat that's highly prized (and highly priced) due to its rich flavor and intense marbling. When raised in Japan's Kobe region, Wagyu is sold under the name Kobe beef. Wagyu cattle raised in the U.S. don't get the beer diet or stress-relieving massage that traditional Kobe Beef famously receives. Overheard while dining at Canlis: "Wagyu give me this luscious slice of Wagyu rib-eye?"

"Because it's so rich, I can't eat another bite."

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or

More columns are available at

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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