Check, Please

Typos a la Carte, Ever A Specialty of the House

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

First in an occasional series of rants about dining out.

Most people have a superhero fantasy. Some want superior strength, plus tights and a cape, to fight crime. Others imagine being able to fly, become invisible or see through walls.

Mine has always been tamer. No costume. No drama. In my fantasy, I enter a restaurant, order and sweetly ask the waiter if I can "hold on to the menu" during dinner. Then, using a distinctive purple pen, I discreetly copy-edit the descriptions of the dishes.

Caesar, not "caeser." Shiitake, not "shitake." Riesling, not "reisling" (though I'd quietly applaud restaurants that spell it wrong as long as the misspelling was consistent.)

"Who was that anonymous proofreader?" chefs would whisper to one another. Correct-a-girl strikes again! Eliminating menu mistakes, one restaurant at a time.

Given the state of the world, I know this fantasy is a bit of an embarrassment. Even in restaurants, there are far greater calamities than the occasional menu mistake. Skyrocketing food costs are squeezing already-slim margins. Soaring gas prices are keeping diners at home. And anyone watching the long-fought election campaign knows that it's anything but fashionable to be an elitist.

Still, my fantasy was revived a few weeks ago after I had dinner at Hank's Oyster Bar in Northwest Washington. As our party left the restaurant, we looked up to see an enormous banner that had recently been mounted above the door. It read: "HANK'SOYSTER BAR. Nominated for Best Neighborhood Restuarant." When my friend politely pointed out the errors, the pleasant maitre d' was appropriately horrified. (By the next day, the sign had been replaced.)

It got me wondering: How does that happen? Can restaurant folks not spell? Do they just not care? "Restaurant people are not writers. For a chef, doing a menu is like writing a term paper," says Gregg Rapp, a California menu engineer for large restaurant chains.

I don't expect chefs to be writers, just as they don't expect me to make my own puff pastry. But given the existence of spell-checkers (the writing equivalent of frozen puff pastry dough), the number of errors is surprising.

I'm not talking about ethnic restaurants where the chef might not speak English, though the Chinese dish "vegetarian with tofu" I once spotted had a certain appeal. Nor would I pick on restaurants overseas, such as the one in Baghdad favored by foreign journalists that serves Chicken Gordon Blue.

What I'm talking about are the common, easily avoidable mistakes: "Deserts," "marscapone" and "pizza's." In the past few weeks, I've seen "angnolotti" at Charlie Palmer Steak, "avocadoes" at Kinkead's, "molton chocolate cake" at Dupont Circle's Darlington House and a "carrot mouseline" at Belga Cafe. At Zola, they warn on the online menu that "consuming raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodbourne illness." But my recent favorite remains the "mescaline salad served with satay grilled shrimp, cucumbers, tomatoes and avocado" at Arlington's Yorktown Bistro.

Talk about your psychedelic flavor combinations.

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