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