Let’s be clear: There are no guarantees when ordering off a restaurant menu. Eating out is always a crapshoot, especially at the high end. This accounts, in part, for the element of theater, of anticipation, in dining out. Will this be a meal of transporting brilliance, a meal of crushing disappointment, or, more typically, something in between?
The first option is wonderful; the last, bearable. The most frustrating situation, of course, is when our meals fail to satisfy—because we know we’re responsible for our own disappointment. Oh, sure, we reflexively blame the kitchen—a handy scapegoat as well as the direct perpetrator. But the depth of our disgust is telling: We’re disgusted with ourselves. We chose the overcooked duck breast. We opted for the fatty osso buco.
Being a critic does not inoculate you against disappointment—if anything, I probably eat many, many more bad meals than most, because I eat out so much more than most. But in the course of my weekly errands, I have arrived, of necessity, at some strategies to minimize the risks (and maximize the pleasures) of eating out at the high end.
Remember: A menu is like any other text—you’ll get more from it if you know how to read it.
Appetizers generally display a greater range of approaches than entrees. Read the list for tendencies, tip-offs that might help you when it comes to choosing an entree. Does seafood predominate? Does the chef’s style embrace rusticity, or does it favor cool refinement? Bright flavors or round, mellow flavors? Also: Are there telling repetitions? In Vidalia’s menu, sweet onions in one form or another are featured in a number of dishes—an indication of a kitchen favorite.
Paradigm-shift yourself away from the protein. You might focus exclusively on the meat or the fish in an entree, ordering up your dish in that common customer shorthand, “I’ll have the veal,” but guess what? A lot of good chefs regard meat as a mere starting point, an opportunity to explore a particular theme or idea by way of various saucings, purées, and accompanying veggies. Take, for example, the pan-seared tuna at Vidalia. Crusted with mustard seeds, it’s accompanied by, among other things, some mustard greens and a mustard-tarragon sauce. As the weekend grillmaster proves, meats (and fishes) are relatively easy to prepare. Vegetables require greater nuance. And remember: The most valued job on the line is that of the saucier.
Don’t be chicken. Many people assume that the chicken option is boring, the retreat of the unadventurous. But chefs will tell you: Putting a chicken on the menu is an expression of confidence and authority. It’s cheffy shorthand for: I am technically accomplished, a virtuoso of brining and roasting. So if you see a bird among the options at a high-end restaurant, order it. But only at a high-end restaurant. Ordering a bird that comes with a price tag that’s in the low- to midteens is only asking for disappointment.
The listing of every single ingredient in every single dish started out as a way of touting the honesty of a kitchen’s approach, the honoring of its treasured market sources. In recent years, it’s become a cliché, a bad joke—you half-expect to see a menu touting the fact that its meats have been salted and peppered before grilling. But don’t gloss over the fine print so fast. There are often clues in what sometimes reads like a grocery list. Look for a distinguishing ingredient (say, Pipe Dream goat cheese) or specific evidence of the kitchen’s sourcing. Salads, in particular, are all about shopping. If the kitchen hasn’t shopped wisely, it’s probably not worth taking a chance.
You know how at weddings or other family functions, there are certain people who absolutely must be invited, no matter how little enthusiasm you or anyone else might have for their coming? That’s how a lot of ambitious chefs regard steak and its dessert counterpart, chocolate. If there’s a single steak dish, and a single chocolate dessert, you know you’re at a place that’s simply doing its duty in heeding its bottom-line obligations. Steak’s role is what many people ascribe to chicken: a fail-safe for unadventurous, picky diners who won’t mind, or even notice, that what they’re eating has been prepared by cooks who are mailing it in.
Give preference to the rare, the unusual. The inclusion of heirloom meats, of hard-to-find cheeses, of exotic fruits and vegetables on a menu can usually be taken as a sign of engagement on the part of the chef. Chefs get bored cooking the same things week in and week out. Atypical ingredients keep them interested.
In general, beware clutter. More than four major ingredients in one dish should be taken as a warning. The busier the plate, the more unfocused. There are exceptions, of course. But, especially in peak times, a dish with many component parts is apt to taste like a hastily constructed hodgepodge, an incoherent assemblage of ingredients.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask the waiter or waitress: “What’s good?” (Do this only, of course, after you’ve had a chance to scrutinize the menu yourself.) This is the equivalent of kicking the tires or taking the car out for a spin, an essential testing of the system. Give weight to strong, knowledgeable opinions: A server who comes across as a passionate advocate of a particular dish is one whose opinion should be considered if not heeded. Think twice about dishes recommended as “popular.” “Popular” is not synonymous with “good.”
Often, this chirpy claim is indicative of something else: that the server has never eaten the dish in question. There are, of course, any number of explanations for such neglect: The server is new, or maybe the server is squeamish, or maybe the restaurant has recently instituted a slew of menu changes. But you know what? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter why the server doesn’t know the menu. An ignorant server is as sure a sign as any of rot at the top. —Todd Kliman
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