Understanding Restaurant Lingo

Many restaurants, especially the upscale kind, pride themselves in having ornate menus filled with detailed descriptions of the meals they offer. The wording can be straight forward or it can be baroque. In any case, “restaurant lingo” is not always easy to decipher.

While no universal language has ever been established to describe culinary creations, a few terms are commonly used in reference to both ingredients and cooking techniques. Understanding these can help you identify the better choices and avoid the less desirable ones.

What You See on the Menu
May Not Always Be What You Get

When you open the pages of a restaurant menu, you typically find different sections, like appetizers or hors d’oeuvres, soups and salads, main courses and desserts. That’s the easy part. What you need to know before you place your order, however, is not so much what particular dishes are called – anybody can invent fancy names – but what goes into them. Sometimes, there is a detailed ingredients description included, often it is not. The wait staff may be able to help you with some of your questions, but its primary job is to sell, not to enlighten.

Equally as important as knowing about the ingredients is a sufficient understanding of cooking techniques. Here things tend to get much murkier. You may not easily find a waiter who can tell you the exact differences between “braised” and “broiled,” “grilled” and “roasted,” or the inner workings of “escalloping.”

Of course, you don’t want to be a difficult patron or embarrass your dinner partners with a snobbish attitude. But you also have the right to know what you are about to put in your body, and both ingredients and cooking methods can make a huge difference for your dietary well-being.  So, be polite but don’t be shy to get your needs met.

Here is a short list of items you may want to avoid, have omitted from the preparation of your meal or have served on the side:

Aioli, Alfredo, au gratin, batter fried, battered, breaded, buttery, cheese sauce, coconut milk, cream, cream sauce, crème, crispy, crusted, deep fried, escalloped, French fried, fried, fritter, ghee, hollandaise, in gravy, mayonnaise, pate, refried, sauté (sauteed), scampi- style, sizzling, stir-fried, tempura.

Also watch out for portion size descriptions and proceed with extra caution when you hear or read terms like “complete meal,” “super-sized” or “extra value.” “All you can eat” may sound like a great offer, but I don’t recommend that you take advantage of it, unless you really know how to control yourself.

Having done away with all the bad stuff, here are some leaner cooking techniques you want to look for:

Baked, braised, broiled, fresh, grilled, lean, poached, roasted, steamed and stewed.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but for the benefit of your good health, the smaller servings are often the better choices. Many restaurants offer two versions of their meals, one in regular and one in reduced portion sizes. They call the latter “junior,” “single,” “petite” or “small plates.”

A well-trained wait staff and kitchen personnel will be able and willing to accommodate your wishes. When you are ready to order, you should be perfectly comfortable in asking for reasonable modifications.

Request to hold or omit items you don’t want, whether they are an “essential” part of the chef’s creation or not.

Have salad dressings, sauce, toppings, etc. served separately, so you can decide how much of it you want to pour on.

Having the skin removed from a chicken- or duck dish before it’s cooked, let’s you cut back on fat. (Good choice!)

Substituting lighter items for heavier ones means you’re getting healthier ingredients in terms of calories, like baked potatoes instead of fries, or fresh lettuce instead of coleslaw, etc.

Fat content applies not only to milk and cheese but also to mayonnaise, dressings and dips. Some of these come in lighter versions too. Ask if they are available.

Ordering your egg dishes with “egg whites only” eliminates cholesterol, which is only found in the yolk. (Also a good idea!)

“Low-cal” (less calories) also applies to many condiments, toppings and sauces. You may never think about these, but they have calories too.

“Splitting” is a great idea when portions are too big for one person. Sharing appetizers, salads or desserts has become quite common and is accepted in most restaurants.

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