The Menu

****1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Menu
"This may become a cult movie."

Near a decade ago I was lucky enough to dine at L'Enclume. The occasion was a big birthday, not mine, at Simon Rogan's early outpost that put Cumbria firmly on Michelin's map.

My abiding memory is not wine (fine) or company (better) but a single dish. Crab, pea mousse, calamint. Ceramic simulacrum of paper bags filled with meat and textural contrast between fresh leaves and that airy other green. I recall them as mashed and minted peas, a memory of the mushy, the sharpness of their colour different resistances on the tongue.

Crustaceans crushed back into variously ersatz exoskeletons. In a tasting menu of some two dozen courses, with a bit of wiggle room for amuse(s) bouche(s) and petits fours, living gardens of herbal teas and tissanes, bread and other sundries it was and is this that I recall most clearly.

Mostly as it was not to the taste of my dining companions. Seven of us at dinner and I think I had all but one of those parcels. The lambent menthol note, contrast of freshness to the brine and umami of scattered strings of brown and white benthic flesh. Identically artful crumpled rigidity stacked along before me shells in succession, each scraped as clean of verdant bounty as spoon and surface tension and emulsive adhesion would allow. In a comprehensive experience this was a 12 inch remix, a beat breaking as the waves that had sheltered those delicious decapods. I remember little else, the details of the dishes themselves lost in other texts, the menu itself somewhere in one of my boxes of ephemera not cinema tickets. A profile in taste seared by repetition, an olfactory and chemical profile bound up in distaste like something early by The Fall.

In my memory the dishes had a flat bottom, sides that formed a concertina to suggest an origami eggcup found wanting by all objectives. Trawling through other evidence suggests that this awkwardness was greater, pinched at the bottom they must have been kiln cradled inverted, after glazing and for grazing they were presented to table held in verticality by a serrated slate, a suggestion of a staircase or a washboard doubly wanting for plates.

The Menu is perhaps as divisive, and as a fork lifting to my palate as pleasing to me.

A d├ębut feature for writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, both with multiple TV credits complicated by the evolving nature of TV, it is deliberately episodic, presented as a tasting menu itself. Both have plenty of what one might call 'web series' if one were trapped in a pedantry that no longer matters. Both involved also with Succession, which has had almost a season's worth of episodes directed by Mark Mylod. He too has plenty of other TV work, and a lot of comedy. Not his first feature, highlights include the similarly starry What's Your Number? and The Big White. The latter owes debts of a kind to Fargo and Weekend At Bernie's, the former with a cast that seems equally ludicrous now.

Good ingredients do not necessarily satisfying dishes make, but The Menu juxtaposes tone and texture to great effect. It is funnier than trailers suggest, but blackly comic, written with nero di seppia, the ink of squid. Meaty too, though at times harder to chew than the accents adopted by Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Nicholas Hoult. For all its parallels with Summerisle, Hawthorne is on a private island with shades of Chappaquiddick.

This may become a cult movie. At times it threatens it itself: there is within this opportunity for drinking games or dining along but in those pursuits is the risk of finding the tree for the forest face-first. These lucky diners are differently blessed than the competitors of Intacto. All is in the mix here, The Menu is meant to serve as a story itself, a searing, stabbing synecdoche, a syllabub whose acid is a syllabus in ironies.

There is high and low here. There are s'mores, that distinctly North American comfort food that channels frontier heritage and attendant genocides into puffed sugar and melted sour chocolate onto a sometimes honeyed or cinnamon-inflected biscuit eponymous but not otherwise indebted to a temperance preacher who hoped that vegetarianism would defeat masturbation. There is an emulsion, in its suspension both disbelief and other layers. On either side of the thermocline of dehomogenisation are sophistications, oleaginous adherence, cool separation. There are, and forewarned be, the sizzling of patties crushed against the flat-top in a way that will likely change your dinner plans towards cheeseburgers.

People die.

As Julian Slowik, Fiennes is napkin-ring master, or perhaps the caged lion to Elsa (Hong Chau) the maitre(sse) d'(hote). The kitchen is as gruesome a sideshow as any of Nightmare Alley. Though named for nature, The Hawthorne is a glass and concrete splinter of modernity, a prison of the primal forces of feast and fear and flame. The door is unhinged and unbalanced, a pivot between worlds as solid and symbolic as the line between kitchen and dining.

There are other staff, other diners, some personally invited and others at one remove. It's that last that brings Margot (Taylor-Joy) into Slowik's orbit, and from there that things start to spiral. Things that look like other things are a staple of this form of dining. That meal at L'Enclume had the oyster pebble, a macaron of sorts that was differently and not a rock cake. Lost in my memory, overwhelmed by that carcinal cavalcade, but there in the (tedious) photographs, camouflaged against a boxed beach. Things that look like other things are a staple of The Menu, and it is in that unfolding that its theme become clear.

The good ingredients mentioned earlier include a large cast in roles whose believability ranges from varietals of alcoholic mothers to editors who pick up the cheque. Transformations from the convincing cast but of context from the evolving menu. Presented in crisp typography, the courses create a sense of linked episodes. No great surprise given the pedigree of those behind the camera and at keyboard, less farm to table then form to playbill.

I laughed. I gasped. I hungered. Later I ate, and I'd advise making that part of your plan. Cheeseburger, specifically, there is a line between obsession and satisfaction that salt and fat and heat can bridge. The Menu is a delight but it is at a balance of creativity and capitalism. There are few necessities as enjoyable as dining, but in the company of the Hawthorne and its brigade there is more than a dash of danger. Salt to wounds, acid words, laser-etched masa memento-mori, it abounds with technical flair and obsessive attention to detail. Replication and repetition abounds. That balance of flavour. I'd eat it again.

Reviewed on: 30 Dec 2022
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The Menu packshot
A couple travels to a coastal island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises.

Director: Mark Mylod

Writer: Seth Reiss, Will Tracy

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Ralph Fiennes

Year: 2022

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: US


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