It’s the moment I dread when I eat out with friends and family: Everyone opens their menu, and then they pepper me with questions: What’s that dish? What’s that ingredient? What does that phrase mean?
It’s not that I don’t know the words. I can usually make at least an educated guess. The problem is that I don’t know what the chef plans to do with those words.
Example: Fonduta is the Italian word for fondue, a cheese dip or sauce often made with fontina instead of the Swiss version with gruyere. But a plate of roasted salmon at Vivace that includes cauliflower fonduta arrives with the fish on top of a pile of browned – but bare – cauliflower.
Where’s the cheese dip? Ah, it’s not a dip here. It’s the small pool of white cheese-based sauce under the fish. (And it’s lovely, by the way, with the peppery crust on the salmon complemented by the sweet/sour golden raisin agrodolce on top. Agrodolce: Sour/sweet, often fruit cooked with a little sugar and vinegar. Here, it means exactly that.)
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What’s a diner to do? Even keeping an international food dictionary loaded on your smartphone won’t help you when chefs cut loose in the kitchen.
Since she opened Comida, her high-end Mexican restaurant, in March, Alesha Sin Vanata has struggled with guiding people through the restaurant’s contemporary takes on traditional Mexican food.
“There have definitely been guests who were very intimidated by our menu,” she says. Her solution: Training servers so they can help guests through unfamiliar words or dishes that might be different from what they expect.
“It forces the server to become more than an order-taker,” she says. While Comida’s food comes from Mexican cuisine, she also gives her two chefs, Hector Gonzales and Willie Belen, a lot of leeway to take it in unexpected directions.
“It’s very much Mexican food. It’s just not Tex-Mex or the border food people are used to.”
One popular item on the menu are totopos – chewy chips, served with salsa or guacamole. The word totopos comes from Aztec, “tlaxcaltotopochtl,” a combination of words that mean “tortilla” and “thunder.” The rough translation is “tortillas that are noisy to chew.” But Comida’s version is chewy and soft in spots, not crunchy.
Vanata got the idea at an L.A. restaurant, Mas Malo. Their chips are half-fried and served with refried beans. She fell in love at first bite: “I said, ‘I can’t believe I’ve gone my entire existence without knowing these chips. They’re instantly addictive.’” But she thought if she put “tortilla chips” on the menu in Charlotte, people would expect crispy chips. She used a different word so people would expect something different.
“I feel like I have to take it out of, ‘oh, we’re just throwing down chips and salsa.’ So much of my job is managing expectation.”
Sometimes thinking you know what a word means can lead you astray, too. Take chien, the French word for dog. When you see “com chien” on the menu at Co, the stylish Asian restaurant at Park Road Shopping Center, you might be startled.
Nope, no dog: In Vietnamese, chien means “fried” and com means “rice.” Co’s com chien is a great bowl of fried rice – sticky, garlicky and studded with edamame and bits of chewy/sweet Shanghai sausage, chicken, pork and shrimp. (A fried egg on top is optional. But it’s not, really: You should definitely spend the extra $1.50 for the egg.)
Cookbook author Nancie McDermott, who lives in Chapel Hill, travels extensively in Southeast Asia and has written books on Vietnamese cooking. She explains that in Vietnamese, the word has an accent mark over the E.
“It’s a coincidence that the words look alike to us, since we know the French and don’t know the Vietnamese,” she says. “It’s the old-time, long-time Viet way to say ‘fried rice.’ ”
What’s that supposed to mean?
Tuck these in your smartphone when you’re hitting a few Charlotte restaurants:
Tonkotsu Ramen, Futo Buta: If you know the Japanese dish tonkatsu, you might expect a fried breaded pork cutlet. But tonkotsu is the word for a pork bone, used to make broth. New York chef David Chang says tonkotsu ramen is to regular ramen what Chicago deep-dish pizza is to pizza: “It’s a food group of its own.” Pork stock is simmered as long as 48 hours, and the fat is worked back in instead of strained out. The result is unctuous and rich, almost slick with fat.
Conchinita Pibil, Comida: Usually a Yucatan dish of pork shoulder marinated in citrus and achiote (an orange-red seed known for its vivid color), then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in a pit of stones and coals. “Pibil” is Mayan for “buried.” Here, it’s pork belly marinated (still in citrus and achiote), then rolled, roasted and flash-fried. It’s served in a circle standing up on the plate in a pool of brick-red sauce made from the marinade and drippings. It’s soft and fatty inside and crispy outside.
Canelones, Malabar: Canelone is related to a lot of words, including cannoli (long crispy tubes filled with cream) and cannelloni (round tubes of pasta filled with ground meat). In Spain, canelones are sheets of pasta wrapped around a meat filling, usually pork and veal or leftover roasted meat at holidays, then topped with bechamel (white sauce). At Malabar, they’re long, skinny pasta rolls filled with chicken and spinach, covered with bechamel and topped with a thick, furry coat of finely grated Parmesan. A little bland, but comforting.
Paris-Brest, Aix En Provence: Nope, Brest isn’t chicken, it’s a town, part of the route of a famous bicycle race, Paris-Brest-Paris. The dessert was created in 1910 to commemorate it: It looks like a bicycle tire. Aix En Provence’s version is true to the classic, a circle of airy choux pastry, sliced in half and filled with a ruffle of chocolate-hazelnut buttercream.
Where to find them
Aix En Provence: 545-B Providence Road, 704-332-1886, www.aixenprovenceclt.com.
Co: 4201 Park Road, 980-237-4655, eatatco.com/charlotte.
Comida: 1205 Thomas Ave., 980-498-6576, comidaclt.com (although the site doesn’t have much information).
Futo Buta: 222 E. Bland St., 704-376-8400, www.futobuta.com.
Malabar: 214 N. Tryon St., 704-344-8878, www.conterestaurantgroup.com/malabar.
Vivace: 1100 Metropolitan Ave., 704-370-7755, www.vivacecharlotte.com.