Food for Thought
The Soul of a Menu
Tips on ordering right from the Alibi’s restaurant critic
When dining out, sharing food at the table is fun. Passing dishes around or eating “family-style” are a beautiful ways to eat together. Except, it turns out, when you order better than your companions.
When I was 12 years old, eating a bowl of soup at an Italian restaurant in Boston, I noticed Julia Child sit down at an adjoining table, her back to me, and order the same soup I had.
This was a nice affirmation, but I was already aware of my powers. I’d learned early, and the hard way, dining with my parents. “Want some of my steak?” my dad would ask, as mom offered scampi, and both reached for my short ribs. I knew it wasn’t happening by accident. It was because I studied menus the way some people study stocks.
On the rare occasions that someone ordered better than me, I’d obsess about what went wrong, and these incorrect choices were some of my best teachers. Sometimes, after a deliberation went against me, I’d realize that the dish I should have ordered was the one I actually wanted, in my gut, but didn’t have the guts to order.
Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes you get unlucky. Sometimes you have so little information to work with, or such bad choices, you have to punt.
Reading the soul of a menu requires you to tune in to all sources of information--on and off the menu. Often what stands between you and the correct choice is no more than your own predictability. Are there dishes that you always order, reflexively, when given the chance?
If you play your hand straight you’re taking yourself out of the game because you aren’t really studying the menu. You’re throwing yourself at the mercy of the odds, doing simple arithmetic. But if you want to be a true menu black belt, you need to be doing a kind of instinctive calculus.
The menu black belt avoids the ruts of predictability like a vegetarian avoids raw liver. He’s feather-light in his spontaneity, senses open to all information in his inner and outer environments. Here’s how:
• Ask questions about where things are from. Local foods tend to be higher quality, and their presence on a menu speaks to the establishment as a whole. The more you can learn about the specific raw materials of which each menu item is composed, the better prediction you can make as to the quality of the finished product.
• Simply getting the server to talk about anything food-related can deliver all kinds of unexpected gems. I’m not above asking a question to which I already know the answer, so I can assess the response.
• The honorable menu black belt knows full well that foods whose production is light on the Earth will often be the tastiest morsels on the table, and considers the environmental sustainability of the methods by which the food is acquired. “Organic” labels, or other certifications of sustainable agriculture, are useful in these assessments.
• In the seafood department, the pocket guides to seafood produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program is a handy addition to any menu black belt’s library. Seafood Watch keeps tabs on how our choices of seafood consumption affect marine ecosystems. A sushi guide, introduced in October, provides information about the status and origins of seafood used in sushi.
The guides also include a “red list” of seafoods--such as freshwater eel, farmed salmon and bluefin tuna--which are either overfished or farmed unsustainably. Bluefin may taste great, but if it means your grandkids won’t ever get to try it, then eating it isn’t good. “The reality is simple,” says Sheila Bowman, Seafood Watch outreach manager. “If you care about the future of the oceans, you’ll avoid red-listed sushi.”
All the of guides, organized by what’s available in the part of the country you live in, are available for free at mbayaq.
So when you walk into the restaurant, you should already have answered questions like: Where am I? What season is it here? If seafood is an option, you have your Seafood Watch consumers guide in hand. Then you’re ready to look at the menu, grill the server and figure out what’s really for dinner.
• “Specials” and the “Specialties of the House” can be fruitful menu categories. But somehow, using all of your black belt powers of observation, you must ascertain if the daily special is a response to what’s fresh, or what needs to be used up in a hurry, or what’s just another day’s random offering. Is the specialty of the house a way to squeeze a few more pennies out of the kitchen, a hyped-up bad habit the cooks can’t break, or a highly evolved symbiosis of culture, place and art?
• If your dining companions are running out of patience, and you have it narrowed down to two dished but can’t decide, sometimes you can trick your gut into tipping its hand with the flip of a coin.
Tell yourself, Heads, I’m gonna order the A dish; tails, the B dish. If, at the coin’s decision, you’re like, Yes!, then there’s your answer. But if you feel a twinge of disappointment at the result, then you can disregard the coin toss because you no longer need it. Your gut has spoken.