The ST Guide To... decoding restaurant menus

After writing about food and reviewing restaurants for more than 30 years, I have learnt to read between the lines when it comes to menus.

Reading a menu is not as easy as it seems. Sometimes it is so bare that you have no idea what you will be getting. Dishes are described with just one word - Beef, for example - and you are left with no clue how it is cooked and what it comes with.

The good thing is, restaurants that do this are usually fine-dining establishments with very skilful chefs confident enough to ask you to leave everything in their hands. These are also often omakase menus, so you do not need to choose anyway, other than to ask for things you do not eat to be swopped.

At the other extreme are menus with such convoluted descriptions that you have no idea how the dishes would turn out. And don't think that the more ingredients listed, the more substantial the dish. It is often the opposite. Some ingredients may appear as just a few specks on the plate.

In between are the more comprehensible ones, but even then, you may have to be careful navigating a menu if you do not want to get a shock when you receive the bill. Or feel like you have been made a fool of.

Here are just a few things to look out for.

1. Market prices


If a menu says market price for seafood, don't be afraid to ask for the price of the dish. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

When you see these two words on the menu, do not be too shy to ask what the price is. And not just the price per 100g or kg, but also the actual price of the dish.

When it comes to seafood especially, the weight is important. The star garoupa you are ordering can weigh more than 1kg and cost more than $100, and the Alaskan king crab that weighs more than 3kg can be priced at a few hundred dollars.

Remember the incident some years ago when someone wrote in to The Straits Times forum page to complain about being overcharged for a $1,224 steamed sultan fish at Resorts World Sentosa.

He had not asked the price beforehand and got a shock because he did not know a fish could cost so much. But sultan fish does cost a few thousand dollars a kilogram, so he was actually not overcharged.

Do not make the same mistake.

2. Don't believe what the menu says


A lot of the time, freshly squeezed juices are anything but. PHOTO: ST FILE

Not everything you read on menus is true.

A lot of the time, freshly squeezed juices are anything but. They may have been poured out of a carton that reads "freshly squeezed" on the packaging. Some cafes and restaurants also get their juices from suppliers that prepare the drinks hours ahead.

Ask if the juices are squeezed on the premises. My experience is that servers are usually honest enough to tell you if they aren't.

Another term to look out for is hand-chopped burgers. Not many restaurants can afford to hire a kitchen hand to chop meat, which is tiring work. So "hand-chopped" may just mean the meat is coarsely ground to resemble the texture you get from hand-chopping.

It doesn't mean the burger is not good, but you should know what you are actually getting.

3. Vegetables


A vegetable seller attending to a customer at a wet market in Singapore. PHOTO: ST FILE

I usually do not order vegetable dishes, especially in a Chinese restaurant. If you do your own marketing, you would know too that the $18 plate of stir-fried vegetables with minced garlic would cost less than $2 if you cook it at home. And how hard is it to stir-fry vegetables?

So I'd rather spend my money on the other dishes and eat my vegetables at home.

Western restaurants often profiteer less because the imported vegetables they use are generally more expensive in the market.

Instances where I do not mind paying are when more creative thought is put into coming up with vegetarian dishes.

4. Locally sourced ingredients


Eat local for the right reason - to support local industries and to encourage restaurants to cultivate their own backyard gardens. PHOTO: ST FILE

These words conjure up images of fresh food delivered to the table with little carbon footprint - images to make you feel good thinking you are saving the earth while eating wholesome, freshly harvested food.

The problem is, the food grown and farmed here really do not taste that good. The vegetables often have little flavour and the farmed fish and frogs turn out tough or stringy after being cooked.

There are exceptions of course, such as locally farmed barramundi that is pretty decent.

So eat local for the right reason - to support local industries and to encourage restaurants to cultivate their own backyard gardens. And not because you expect the food to taste better.

5. Wagyu beef


Wagyu beef is graded differently in each country. PHOTO: ST FILE

There is wagyu and then there is Japanese wagyu. It may be a Japanese word but not all wagyu comes from Japan.

The word has been appropriated by farms in countries such as the United States and Australia that rear Japanese cattle breeds that are selected for their well-marbled meat.

But the flavour and marbling can differ vastly from farm to farm and country to country.

Also, wagyu beef is graded differently in each country.

In Japan, the highest grade is A5, whereas in the United States, the top grade is labelled USDA Prime. And in Australia, the grades go up to 9. So a grade 5 for Australian wagyu is not the same as a grade 5 for the Japanese beef.

In fact, even a grade 9 Australian wagyu is nowhere near the quality of Japanese A5 wagyu.

6. Still or sparkling


Do not mistake still water for tap, like some people do. PHOTO: ST FILE

This is not in a menu, but do not be browbeaten by the server taking down your order when he asks you: "Would you like still or sparkling water?"

Unless you really like bottled water and do not mind paying an inflated price for it, just say tap or ice water. Do not mistake still water for tap, like some people do.

You will help to cut down the use of bottles and do your bit for the environment.

Also, don't be bullied into paying for tap water if you are against the idea. Some restaurants charge for tap water to nudge customers to pay for bottled water or a soft drink instead.

They may try to justify it by saying that the charge is to pay for the effort by the server to bring you the water and to wash the glass afterwards. I don't buy that. It is a basic service restaurants should provide - like laying the table and clearing the plates. And you are paying a 10 per cent service charge, right?