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 weekly anonymous restaurant reviews, published in Maine’s largest newspaper.
I ate about 750 professional meals and published about 360 reviews. I must have learned something. I’ll do last-Friday restaurant posts until I run out of things to say.
In Menu Clues, Part One, at the end of July, we talked about what the menu tells me about the restaurant I’m in, long before I even think about what food to order. If you missed that post and want to read it, it’s in July 2017 in the blog sub-category Life.
So here’s a question I got from people who knew my secret identity. “Should I order the nightly special, or is that just something the chef wants to get rid of?”
There is a definitive answer.
The definitive answer is…maybe.
When I was cooking, my specials were things I wanted to try out, not to get rid of. Specials showed my creativity. If I wanted to get rid of something, it became staff supper.
Therefore, probably a special is a good dinner choice.
Here are three reasons why--
To invent it, the chef is feeling creative. The dish ought to have been prepared three or four times, with tweaks to make sure it is good before it gets talked about by wait staff.
The special is officially off the menu, so probably the food-cost rule for regular menu items does not apply to this dish—generally I was more lavish with what I used in specials than when the rules applied.
Sometimes specials are deliberately under-priced, to draw attention. A special appetizer can be valuable because the quantities of food are small, and all the more the food-cost rules may not apply.
Here is one reason why not--
It might not be any good.
But how can you, as a diner, get a hint of the likelihood between creative excellence and no good?
Ask your server.
Perhaps your server has said, “Our special tonight is a slow-roasted pork loin with mushrooms and cream.”
Think about that sentence and take it apart in your mind.
“That sounds good. Tell me more. Do you mean a cream sauce, or just cream?”
“Oh, cream sauce. Sure.”
“And what about the mushrooms? How are they done? Are they part of the sauce, or are they sautéed on the side, or what?”
“Our chef sautes them with sage and pepper and scallions and some brandy. They’re served on top of the pork, and the cream sauce—which the chef does with more pepper and thins with veal stock, is underneath. And there’s fresh rosemary, too. And slivers of red onion. It’s great!”
“You tasted it?”
“Yes! I loved it.”
“I might order it, thanks.”
“It would be a good choice for you.”
The server turns away. You ask, “Wait, how much is the special?”
Oh, oh. Potential crisis.
So far, everything has gone well. You’ve noticed that the menu (and therefore the kitchen) is mostly baked, roasted, braised, with an a la carte menu.
You received a friendly welcome by the host and by the server.
Good homemade bread.
The special sounds as though it might be a creative winner for this type of kitchen—imagination seems to have been applied. The veal stock is the question mark.
You ask your companion (which is how your wife Channa will be termed in your review), “How would cream sauce thinned with veal stock taste, do you think?”
“I don’t know. Try it.”
“I think I will.”
You scan the menu again. For what other dishes do they need veal stock? Oh, yeah, with that braised and breaded veal chop in the light tomato sauce. Okay, so they need to prep the veal stock regularly, not just make it for this pork special. That’s good. Presumably they know how to make a veal stock, but let’s see if they’ve blanched the veal first to keep the stock from clouding.
On closer observation of the menu items, it appears that the special is really a variation on some other dishes they already do. That being so, the special is not a new statement by the chef, out of desire to change the culinary ambition of the kitchen. That’s good, also.
And this particular special’s combination of flavors and textures and the architecture of the plating might be good.
Worth the order.
The server’s open enthusiasm helps move service toward 4 or 5 stars.
But, you realize, there’s a demerit.
The only other pork dish on the menu is two chops for $16.95. Chops and loin cost about the same. What makes this special worth $13.00 more than the single other pork item?
And the server did not offer the price; you needed to ask for it.
Your companion asks, “What going on?”
“Either they’re gouging for the special, or there’s something about the preparation—maybe related to the cost of the veal—that justifies it. But I can’t really think what. The worst would be if they don’t make the veal stock right. Maybe they justify that because each dish that uses it masks it, one with the tomato sauce and the special with the cream sauce. Maybe they don’t bother to make the stock right but they charge for it anyway.”
“Are you still going to order it?”
“If it were our money, no. Since it isn’t, yes. Critical responsibility. I need to find out more about how this restaurant works. I’ve liked it up to now. I hope I don’t need to write them down.”
A lot of readers want to be restaurant critics and get paid to eat.
But--poor us!—it’s hard work, too.
Please come back at the end of September, for more!