In an earlier post, I revealed that I spent four-and-a-half years as Maine’s primary restaurant critic, filing an anonymous review weekly in the Sunday edition of Maine’s principle newspaper. I reviewed about 360 restaurants and ate about 750 professional meals in order to do it.
It’s fun to be paid to eat!
In that earlier post, I wrote about wine price mark-ups and about how to get the most bang for your wine-
buying buck in terms of quality.
See that post -- May 25, 2017, under this same post heading of LIFE. Just scroll down from where you are now.
Readers wrote asking me to follow up with other restaurant tips.
I’ll do these posts on the last Friday of each month…until I run out of things to say on the subject.
Read the menu. It’s like a book—fewer words, but each word, and the design, was picked by the restaurant’s owner, manager, and chef—for a purpose.
If you want to feel like a critic, it’s incumbent on you to read the restaurant’s book carefully and to notice as many clues as you can.
If you were a detective, and this was a murder story, you’d be doing the same thing.
With its menu, a restaurant announces its design style, its market niche, its concept of food preparation, its fiscal expectations, its marketing techniques and goals, where it wants to challenge itself and where it does not, and—most indicatively—its sense of its own importance.
So I go in. Almost always, I’m with someone else—the person who will be spoken of in the review as my companion (usually my wife Channa). I notice the general décor and the vibration, and I certainly notice how we are greeted and seated. Then I’m eager to encounter the culinary creativity behind this establishment—I read its menu.
My review will be based on the interaction of two judgments.
One, given the way the restaurant presented itself to me, what standard do I understand that it sets for itself?
Two, how well does it meet that standard?
(FYI, I’ve awarded more stars to a fried fish place on the beach that perfectly performed its fried fish menu than I have to a saute bistro in the mall whose Hollandaise sauce was stabilized with cornstarch and was certainly made by the gallon in mid-afternoon before the dinner rush began.
(And mine was not a prostitution column; I dealt sternly with some of our heaviest advertisers when I needed to, much to their objection! On two occasions heavy advertisers tried to have me fired; didn’t work.)
Concerning its menu—what is this restaurant saying to me?
For example, these two items, from different menus, are exactly the same food.
Grilled sirloin with Bearnaise, $18.95.
USDA Prime New York Strip Sirloin, Grilled to Perfection, Seared in its own Juices, and Finished with a Bearnaise Sauce Created by Our Own Chef, Featuring Clarified Butter from Free Range Cows, Local Farm-Grown Organic Shallots, Fresh Virginia Organic Tarragon, and Aged Italian Balsamic Vinegar, $26.95.
What’s being said?
When studying a menu, here are signals I take in, in the order they impact me.
Note: in this post, I am not considering restaurants that provide a menu with photographs of their food. If that’s where you are, in some plastic eatery, I suggest instead that you go get a pizza and drink some beer.
A la carte. The most frequent type. This restaurant has developed a number of entrees it prepares every day, which sell steadily, which return an acceptable profit, and for which the suppliers can almost always deliver ingredients in a timely way. The menu may change on a seasonal basis and is probably supported by evening specials.
The diner should be able to expect the same preparation quality whichever chef is working that night.
Table d’hote. This restaurant is in control of your menu, though you may be able to choose between two or three items for an appetizer or a dessert. The restaurant controls its food cost narrowly, and generally offers the public two seatings per night. It is showing you specific skills, and it often bases its menu on themes – the wine night, the bison night, the Valentine night, etc.
I’ve had excellent meals in these restaurants, but they are not necessarily adequate trials of the kitchen from a critical standpoint. I wonder how successful this chef would be preparing 200 “covers” (meals, in restaurant jargon) off a twenty item saute menu changed daily.
On the other hand, this chef, like a caterer, has a different problem than the busy saute chef. This kitchen must solve the problem of serving fifty people that same dish, hot, all at the same time.
If you’re a critic, observe how they do it.
Menu de jour. This is the most challenging kind of menu and therefore shows the most ambitious kitchen, which does entirely new preparations each day. In practice, of course, certain dishes re-appear on a regular rotation, but this kitchen stretches its prep cooks, its sous-chefs, its line chefs, and its chef—as well as its suppliers—all the time.
Servers have a challenge also. They must accurately describe all items on a constantly changing menu sometimes without the chance to taste the newest dishes first. And--obviously--it’s important for the diner to know who’s cooking that night.
There can be big rewards for the critic in this restaurant, but the level of risk the kitchen is willing to undertake is high as well.
The next thing I focus on is the preparations—before I notice much about the foods themselves. What kind of a kitchen is this? Focus your eye on the ways this kitchen cooks food. You’ll see some combination of baked, roasted, sauteed, grilled, braised, and fried items.
Each item suggests a certain style for the kitchen.
Baked, roasted, braised. These dishes allow the kitchen to do a good deal of its work before the rush and to perform less hand finishing. Individual servings may be put up before the kitchen opens for the evening, then sit in the walk-in refrigerator until ordered, at which time they are zapped or slid under the broiler.
Sauces will usually be added afterwards—such as a caper sauce for salmon—or they will be made in the dish itself—such as a lasagna—or they are reductions of the original braining liquid which has been kept warm at the back of the stove until needed. Or they’ll have a prime rib under heat lamps. Dishes of this type can be tasty and hearty. You’re unlikely to leave hungry, but the dishes are usually not very subtle.
Sauteed, grilled. These are more up-scale techniques because they force the sous-chef or the chef to interact with the food at the last minute before you eat it. Sauteing offers lots of creative opportunity (when I cooked professionally, I was primarily a saute chef), and there is a dance-like balance and delight when you are working fast in a synchronized kitchen on what is turning out to be a very good night.
Many of the classic saute sauces can only be produced while actually cooking the dish, usually at the finish, and grill sauces are often added at the end to enhance the original margination. The strength of these two preparations is their spontaneity; their weakness is just that…when the chef’s replacement is on hand.
Fried. Almost anyone can deep fry a piece of haddock, but few do it well. It’s harder than one might expect. There are lots of variables—the protein count (or lack of it) of the batter, the temperature of the oil, the fry cook’s ability quickly and effectively to regulate the oil’s temperature, the size of the fry basket in relation to the number of items being fried, the temperature of the food before breading, etc.
In a kitchen with lots of cooking techniques at work at the same time, the fry station is usually given to the least experienced of the cooks. This can be unfortunate.
Even when the critic ordered the Scallopini alla Perugina done on the range and found that it married its veal wonderfully with its prosciutto, capers, chicken liver, anchovy, and garlic, the fried scallops ordered by “my companion” may have arrived from the fry station watery, too heavy, and dense.
Then what does this critic do?
Often this critic had to go back a second time, with perhaps four companions. Start over. Give the fry cook another chance—one companion would be instructed to order the scallops again. Another would need to order something else fried.
Having suffered before, Channa would be invited to have the very-likely-to-be-excellent brined veal chop stuffed with sun-dried tomato, chevre, slivers of bacon, and rosemary…which was the special of the evening.
Because they did the Scallopini so well.
See if they can do veal again, grilled this time.
Figure out what this kitchen means by a special.
How did they set that special’s price-point, and what does that say?
And, reader, you can come back again at the end of August—to hear about
And other things of culinary importance.
It’s good to have you around! Write me and tell me if you like this sort of post. I do; it’s fun.
May you be blessed!