It’s the last Friday of the month! Yay! Time for another restaurant post!
I’m writing out of my four-and-a-half years of publishing weekly anonymous restaurant reviews in Maine’s largest newspaper.
I ate about 750 professional meals and published about 360 reviews. I had cooked before at a combination country French and Chinese restaurant. Not a fusion thing; two distinct kitchens.
That restaurant’s greatest difficulty fell upon the wait staff—what to recommend as a wine for a couple who are having Veal Rive Gauche and also General Tso’s Chicken?
I’ll do last-Friday restaurant posts until I run out of restaurant things to say.
If you’re a critic, you’re paid to eat. You’re paid to critique. You’re required to eat everything—appetizer, salad, entree, dessert, wine or beer. In other words, you’re paid to get fat!
So what should you order?
Tip One—understand how menu design impacts you
With a 3-fold menu, you’ll tend to focus on dishes in the following sequence--
Restaurants with this type of menu usually place items that are frequently ordered, profitable sellers in the upper center.
At the restaurant where I cooked, we could increase the sales of a dish sometimes by 25% by shifting its positon from, say, lower left side to upper center—same dish, different location.
As a critic, should you order the restaurant’s best seller? Maybe…but be aware that you are doing so, and that you have therefore limited your understanding of this kitchen. Instruct your companion to order from some other spot on the menu.
Notice price order. On a single sheet menu, some restaurants list dishes from least expensive to most expensive. Instead, I advocated that we mix our dishes up, price-wise.
If the dishes are listed by price, a budget conscious diner is encouraged to read down to the highest priced dish, per his or her budget, and no farther. A menu that mixes prices encourages the diner to think more about the food than about the dollars, and that diner may end up with a more interesting dining experience.
Sometimes you’ll find a menu on which, irrespective of the ingredients in the dishes, all the prices are within a dollar or two of one another. This is a restaurant that insists on a certain dollar return from every diner, and it is unlikely to have an interesting kitchen from the critical point of view.
So…what is this restaurant trying to bring to your attention?
As a critic, how do you feel about that? Do you feel manipulated, or, do you feel grateful that the restaurant has pointed you in the direction it wants you to go?
How are you going to write about this experience?
Tip Two—ask questions
As a critic, you are serious about food. Some people feel uncomfortable when asking detailed questions of a server, but get over that. Worse—some servers discourage questions because they worry that they might not know the answers. If you encounter a recalcitrant server, consider it a demerit and be prepared to mark service down.
The server should be able to answer detailed questions.
You ask, “This scallop and venison-apple sausage dish. That’s an unlikely combination. Have you tasted it?”
“Yes. It’s very good.”
“Do you sell much of it?”
“Oh, yes. It’s popular.”
“Can you describe it to me? I should think the sausage flavor would compete against the scallops, and the scallops would lose.”
“I understand, but the way our chef does it works differently. He builds the dish a la Provencal and finishes it in our wood-fired oven. The scallops go in at the very last minute. Just last night a man who ordered it said the scallops remain limpid. That’s the kind of la-di-da word like a critic might use, but it’s true.”
“Great! I’ll have that. Now let’s talk about the wine.”
Tip three—be a cook
Bring your own experience to the table.
You need to know what happens to a mushroom when you sauté it, so you know when you taste it in the restaurant whether it’s been too long in the pan.
Once I marked a very good kitchen down by half a star because the sautéed chicken had been allowed to sit just too long and had begun to render its clear liquid into the sauce before being served. It was a small matter, but this kitchen was an excellent one with the highest standards. I should not have noticed the error had I not sautéed hundreds of chicken breasts over many years and learned to judge their chemistry almost by instinct.
Look for dishes on the menu you know how to cook.
Examine the menu description and ask questions of the server. Does the restaurant do this dish as you cook it? If so, consider ordering it for your review. You know how it should turn out. Does this kitchen do it well, indifferently, or badly?
On the other hand, look for dishes you don’t know how to cook but are curious about. Order them and then taste them as a cook does.
As a cook, you taste slowly, piece by piece, smaller flavors and textures before larger ones. You allow each mouthful to meld its flavors on your tongue and only then to provide you with its whole experience. As you taste, breathe slowly through your nose. Now and then, take a little sip of air while your mouth is still full. Notice how the mouthful’s flavor changes from the first, hotter experience to a later, cooler experience of the same mouthful.
How does this culinary experience suit you?
Remember, you’ll need to write it up and to provide a fair judgement.
By its atmosphere, its service standard, its menu details, its culinary ambition, and its results—how does this restaurant measure up to excellence?
You who have been paid to eat in and to opine about more than 300 restaurants in the state during the past few years, is this place a
As the waters ascended, the media descended.
‘You’ve lost everything. You are a victim. Why aren’t you resentful? What’s wrong with you? Can’t you understand that you need to be resentful?’
The media was resentful. The media knew how to run the big hurricane story, but it wasn’t getting the quotes.
It had perfected the big hurricane story twelve years before. The public was supposed to be pounded day after day by hopelessness, helplessness, and anguish. The back story was to become the underlying theme of the week—people in America are powerless to affect their own lives, and blame must be attached. Plenty of face time for talking heads attaching blame.
No Cajun Navy wanted around here, thank you very much.
What the media was baffled continually to experience was--
Thumbs Up for Texas!
We can take care of ourselves and our own!
Now, a person who has lost his or her house and all its contents is in a bad position and will be under stress for a long time to come. It’s even worse, of course, in the case of injury or death.
It’s the attitude.
It’s the people whom the talking heads pit against one another helping one another instead. That’s what it is.
That’s what heartened us in other parts of the nation while we sympathized with those who were flooded, and while we prayed, and while we did whatever else we felt called upon to do.
All this takes me back twelve years to the Eberhart’s own personal Thanksgiving freight train. Back then, our family lived way out a peninsula into the ocean, off the coast of Maine.
Three of our children were home that year for Thanksgiving, which is all of them except our oldest son who was in Bulgaria. One of our daughters had brought a friend home from college. The friend lived in New Orleans, where three months before that Thanksgiving, Hurricane Katrina had landed. That friend was eager for a calming Maine Thanksgiving experience.
She did get an experience, that’s for sure.
As a family, we took a cold, beach, night-walk the evening before Thanksgiving. It was cold to us; it was frigid to the young woman from New Orleans.
Pink and rosy we all returned to the house and bedded down. Maybe snow tomorrow, we suggested—it smelled like snow out there, and there was a ring around the moon.
“Does snow have a smell?” the New Orleans friend asked, amazed.
“Come back outside,” said our daughter, “I’ll teach you to smell it on the air.”
Sure enough, dawn came on Thanksgiving Day with lovely, fat snowflakes sifting slowly down the sky and piling up wherever the surface was not bare earth—the ground hadn’t frozen yet.
For the entertainment of our New Orleans guest, we were happy that a flock of twenty wild turkeys came into our meadow, scratching away at the snow, searching for windfall apples from our trees and for the cracked corn the jays scatter widely from the feeders.
The New Orleans friend’s own family’s experience of Katrina had been relatively minor, but destruction had been all around them. By contrast, so short a time later, the comfort and the easiness of this Maine holiday for her, she said, was soothing.
About midday on Thanksgiving, the sky began to darken, and the snow came more heavily. I was in the office, which was the converted loft of our barn. I was writing. The girls and my wife were in the kitchen preparing the creamed onions which are my wife’s specialty. We always brought the onions—traveling about twenty miles inland to admire that family’s alpacas and sheep and then to dig in at a splendid meal, with children, friends, and family.
Suddenly, from nowhere, there came a calamitous boom.
It was not a single clap of a boom but a rolling, swelling, reverberating roar, as though a vast freight train were passing by—and passing very closely. Its madcap passage lasted less than a minute but it shook the entire barn and the house.
I leapt up and dashed outside to see. Frantically, I looked this way and that. What was destroyed? The barn? The house? The roofs? The trees? All were as before.
Something massive had just happened—but what was it? And even now there suddenly came a sharp fall of icy, battering hail.
We were stunned. What had happened?
What had happened was this--
Within two miles from us a type F-1 tornado (100 mph winds) whipped across our peninsula. For 30 seconds it careened across the landscape, uprooting entire trees, snapping trunks more than a foot thick as though they were sticks, shifting two summer cottages off their moorings—one of them by seven feet—tearing dirt off the rocks, and wrecking a degree of havoc that was astounding to see when we explored it a day later.
Then, as a waterspout, it rollicked off across the bay.
Almost never do we even get tornados on the Maine coast.
A few days later, our daughter and her New Orleans friend flew back to college, in Virginia, having had a very unusual Thanksgiving experience in Maine, especially after New Orleans’ exposure to a massive hurricane shortly before.
No one was physically hurt by our tornado. It was miniscule as compared with the havoc of Katrina and more lately of Harvey.
But I think of the experience of our Thanksgiving freight train when I contemplate the gargantuan power of nature unleashed. Nature is more powerful than we are, and there’s not a single thing we can do about it.
We should know our place.
The universe is not about us.
That’s why I admire the spirit of Texas.