Can you order wrong at a good restaurant?
Last week I got into a bit of a heated Twitter conversation about just that very subject with local social media maven Cassie Cramer. I’ll spare you the gory details. But suffice it to say she is on one side of the argument, and I am squarely on the other.
Instead I’ll give you the summary. She had a bad experience at a BBQ joint, where she decided to order the fish. Her argument is that if it’s on the menu, it should be good. My argument is that if you go to a BBQ restaurant and order fish, you get what you deserve.
Actually, like many things, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. She admits that she ordered wrong. But because her food was just so bad, she’s written off the restaurant entirely. Her threshold was even lower than good, she just expected that it should be edible. And I understand her point of view. It even seems fair.
Still I find to be fascinating, because in my mind all a restaurant has to do is one thing brilliantly – just one thing – and I will sing its praises from coast to coast.
It just so happened that I’ve been to that BBQ restaurant, and they make surprisingly good ribs. Ribs aren’t my go-to BBQ item by any stretch of the imagination, but not only do I appreciate good ones, but I know then when I see them.
Apparently so does the new critic at the Albany Times Union who sang the praises and echoed some of my comments about the bones this place produces.
But there is a bigger point here.
Every menu has its knockout dishes, and every menu has its flops. Even at rarefied places like The French Laundry in Yountville, California. I had their “coffee and doughnuts” dessert, and it was fine, but nothing special. Whereas their rack and loin of rabbit was a stunning dish that I’ll never forget.
The question is, how do you judge a restaurant? And how do you know what to order?
In my mind, the answer to the first part is easy. You judge a restaurant based on how well it does the things it does best. This was my major criticism of Steve Barnes’ review of Hiro and his evaluation of Buffalo Wagon.
One is decidedly a teppanyaki place where the reviewer didn’t order any food prepared in this style. And the other, despite being billed as a “pan-Asian” restaurant, was clearly a Chinese establishment that included offerings from other regional cuisines.
I have no doubt that both of these were underwhelming experiences, but I would argue that our local critic ordered wrong. Naturally, he would disagree, and I would assert that he falls on Cassie Cramer’s side of this philosophical divide. I’m not trying to pick a fight, but merely illustrate two different views.
So, how do you know what to order?
It’s a combination of research, detective work, general food knowledge and intuition. And now that you can carry the Internet in your pocket, it’s possible to do some of the research on the fly. Sites like Yelp and Chow are populated with the food-obsessed. They can provide some insight as to what the knockout dishes are at a restaurant.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of figuring out what kind of restaurant you are in, or if they have some kind of special piece of equipment. Ask yourself, “Is this primarily a Chinese, Japanese or Thai restaurant?”, and then order based on that determination. If you see a woodfired oven, it’s probably a good bet to get something made in there. And should the place turn out to be a tavern, it’s probably a safe bet to get something fried with a beer to wash it down.
General food knowledge helps. Don’t get the Caprese salad in winter. Be mindful of proteins that may not have a high turnover rate. For example, if a restaurant has a 60-item menu and only one of those items uses duck breast, what are the chances that it’s fresh? True risotto takes constant stirring for over thirty minutes to break down the arborio’s outer starch layer and have it combine with the other ingredients to create a unified dish. It is a rare exception for a restaurant to make a truly knockout risotto.
But just Monday I went against all of this, and followed my gut instinct at Kinnaree, a predominantly Thai restaurant. While a few Japanese dishes are sprinkled about the menu, Korean dishes were given their own special section. I went with one of these, the tteokbokki, and I found it to be one of the highlights of the meal.
Had this lustrous dish of chewy rice cakes coated with red chili paste not worked out, given the strength of everything else at the restaurant, I would have contritely declared that I had ordered wrong. But it would not have quelled my enthusiasm for this new restaurant, although it might have crushed my hopes for good Korean food in Albany.
Instead, I can’t wait to get back for their jajangmyeon.