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Wrong Order

January 19, 2011

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2011 10:38 am

    A lot of the point of the “if it’s on a menu, it should be good” argument that happened on twitter got lost in the 140 character translation. The D___s___ BBQ experience, taken as a whole was a poor one for Cassie and me. She’ll tell you, I actually made fun of her for ordering the fish from the second it came from her mouth. I personally wouldn’t order fish (aside from sushi after visually inspecting the sushi bar) anywhere, but that’s me.

    But even the overall impression of the two BBQ staples that I ordered (pulled pork and brisket) was poor. When you first commented on my story and mentioned the ribs, it registered in the back of my mind as a possibility the next time I end up there, which I’m sure will happen despite my stirring the pot and “writing the place off,” especially since I live 5 minutes away. The thing is, I never really order ribs anywhere, so even if I’d have gone to yelp in this case, I wouldn’t have listened and would have gone with my preference of pulled pork and brisket in hopes that the reviews were written as a result of “a bad night.”

    Sometimes you just never know. [but your common sense tips later in the post are valuable]

    Onto Buffalo wagon, their Chinese cuisine is phenomenal. I’ve eaten there many times, and I’ve sampled just about every type of dish they offer (except anything with intestines in the title). They know how to cook a Peking duck, and their weekend dim sum (although limited compared with other area “authentic” Chinese places) is also very good. Their sushi is terrible and nowhere near worth the price they pay for it, but, even the Asian people I work with admit they’d never order sushi there, and in fact think it’s a joke it’s even on the menu. House special pineapple rice, by the way…brilliant!

  2. January 19, 2011 11:21 am

    This is a tough one. I will go back again and again to a place that has that one dish that I absolutely *love.* But I couldn’t recommend it without that caveat to friends and family who ask. It’s a joy to find a place where I can say “Go, get anything on the menu, and it will be fantastic.” If 5 people sitting around a table have to order the same meal to enjoy a place, it’s not well-rounded. Unless it’s a chili cheese dog from Ben’s or ribs at Dinosaur BBQ–that seems sort of obvious. But if out of a large menu there’s only one dish (that may be seasonal) that’s delicious, then that’s a GREAT DISH, but not a great restaurant.

    My favorite thing to get at a well-known Washington steak joint is the blackened salmon. It is the best salmon I’ve ever had, and I get it every time.

  3. Bill permalink
    January 19, 2011 11:46 am

    I’m with you, Dan. I’m amazed how many people write off a restaurant based on one experience, and usually that experience is grounded in ordering the wrong thing. With the exception of macro-chain restaurants like Ruby Tuesday and such where food arrives pre-weighed, pre-trimmed, and even pre-prepared (bag o’ soup, yo), any local restaurant who’s been in business for more than a few years will have survived because they have their choice items that they prepare very well. They will certainly have a varied menu to appeal to a wider audience, but each and every one will have their “signature dishes”, whether labeled or not. Do yourself the favor of researching the place on your own, and if you go in cold, simply ask the waitstaff for recommendations. Put it right out there. “What should I order that would keep me coming back time and again?” More than not they’ll answer honestly.

  4. January 19, 2011 12:02 pm

    I’m glad that you wrote this post and we have a chance to explain our thinking in more detail than 140 characters allows. As I said on Twitter, although I disagreed, I respect your opinion.

    Reading your post, I now understand your point of view a little better and in a way I agree. While I still don’t agree that ordering anything on a restaurant’s menu is “wrong”; I do agree that every restaurant is going to have a best dish. Not everyone is going to want that dish, though. I don’t really like ribs. If it was call “XX’s Rib Shack” I wouldn’t go because it’s not the type of food I enjoy. Instead, in this specific instance, it’s billed as BBQ. Therefore, your BBQ should be good. The fish aside, the BBQ items I tried were not good. The kicker was that the fish was inedible.

    My main point was that, if you can’t make your menu items, they shouldn’t be on there and I believe we agree on this. I’m a pretty average person that just wanted to try a new place. I walked in and ordered what looked good to me. It was inedible and because I was pretty grossed out (for lack of a better phrase) I really have no desire to go back. In my mind, I’ve lost my trust in the quality of the restaurant and I don’t feel like spending my hard-earned money on trying them again. In the end, there are plenty of other places I can go. Maybe it’s more of a business way of thinking vs. a “foodie” way but, that’s how my brain works and I would venture a guess that many people would think that way as well.

    Again, I appreciate and respect your opinion and I also thank you for respecting mine. I think it’s a valuable conversation to have and I do apologize that the Twitter discussion may have gotten heated. The 140 character forum is not always best for a discussion especially when others are chiming in and mudding the waters.

  5. January 19, 2011 12:13 pm

    I’m the furthest thing from a foodie (I oftne joke that I have the palette of a toddler). Still, if recommending a restaurant, I’ll likely suggest a dish or two that I feel are the highlights of the place. One of my favorite regional restaurants is one that someone I know won’t go back to. But it’s because they ordered hideously; i.e. something Western that was clearly offered simply to satiate the pickiness of children.

    A more extreme example is going to a Chinese buffet and judging it on the pizza. An extreme, I know, but I think it holds up, particularly when preparing to make a public declaration (or damning statement) about a place.

  6. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    January 19, 2011 12:49 pm

    I agree with Daniel B. on this one, with some qualification. For example, Phila Fusion is a primarily Thai place in Saratoga, but IMO their Korena food is better than their Thai. And at one of my favorite BBQ places, the wonderful Redbone’s in Somerville, Mass., my son violated the rule and ordered catfish–it was the best, most beautiful piece of catfish he or I has ever had and I plan on ordering it the next time I’m there.

  7. January 19, 2011 2:18 pm

    @Cassie: I walked in and ordered what looked good to me.

    What do you mean?

  8. January 19, 2011 2:40 pm

    Good post, seems pretty common sense to me, there is always value in knowledge, doing your homework will pay off and maximize your experience. Not that I’m doing it, but not writing 650 words about it will prevent anyone from getting called out. I don’t think the ordering was necessarily wrong, it’s the conclusion that the restaurant should be written off that was. When you buy a music album, do you expect all songs to be good? It rarely happens. Discarding said album, or even a musician based on one song doesn’t seem quite right though. Same for an art show, a chapter of a book, etc. I think what happened here has a name, and that is faulty generalization.

  9. Raf permalink
    January 19, 2011 8:01 pm

    For fine dining, I expect everything to be good to excellent, and frankly if it’s mostly just good, I won’t return and wouldn’t recommend the place. I won’t tolerate hit or miss at those prices.

    I expect more extreme highs and lows at lower price points, especially at “ethnic” places, but also at non-chain regional spots (like BBQ joints).

  10. January 19, 2011 8:18 pm

    I would expect all of the dishes on a restaurant’s menu to be at least ho-hum, not bad but nothing special, even if some of them aren’t their specialties. But why would you go to a steakhouse and order fish, or a seafood joint and order chicken, etc.? If you’re in the mood for something other than what they specialize in, maybe you should pick somewhere else to eat that night.

  11. MiMi permalink
    January 21, 2011 5:11 pm

    I’m mostly with Cassie on this one. While I’d never pan a restaurant based on one visit, the food (if on the menu) should at least be edible. It doesn’t need to be the best dish on the menu but it should be good. I can assure you that if you went to BBQ joint down south and ordered the catfish it would be excellent. And besides, as Cassie and Jerry both stated, the BBQ items they did get were not very good also.

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