If you want to unlock the secrets of a restaurant menu, you have to know how to read it. Even the most straightforward-looking menu abounds in telling detail, with codes to be deciphered and patterns to be unraveled.
That’s not to say that, armed with such knowledge, you can inoculate yourself from a disappointing dish. Eating out is always a gamble—and at the high end, an expensive gamble.
But it is possible to make informed guesses. Years of eating out an average of nine times a week have taught me how to scan a menu for tendencies, how to winnow out a slot-filling dish from one that commands the chef’s full attention, how to know when a plateful of greens is going to have any taste at all, how to identify the recurring themes that are meant to nudge you in the direction of an unlikely-sounding but rewarding dish.
In the mock menu that follows, I’ll show you how to minimize the risks, and maximize the pleasures, of fine dining.
Soups are often little more than vehicles for filling up a bowl with heavy cream, seldom showing off the vegetable that's supposedly being featured. How to tell a promising soup from a pedestrian one? Look for mention in the description of a balancing force or competing effect–a swirl of tart yogurt, a drizzle of strong, herby oil, a dollop of sweet, briny caviar.
Cream of Rutabaga Soup With Shallot Confit and Croutons $8
Cream of Cauliflower Soup $7
Roasted Beets, Walnuts, and Aged Goat Cheese With Mixed Lettuces $9
Mixed Greens With Maytag Bleu Cheese, Walnuts, and Sherry Vinaigrette $9
Look for sources of ingredients, often the names of local providers. Salads, in particular, are all about shopping. If the kitchen hasn't shopped conscientiously, it's probably not worth taking the chance.
Caesar Salad With Fresh Anchovies and Quail Egg $10
Hail Caesar? Unless it's been prepared tableside in the grand old manner or unless you see some crucial detail–like the unexpected use of fresh anchovies here–don't bite on the Caesar salad. This is a slot set aside for dieters or picky eaters.
Oyster-Mushroom-and-Cauliflower Ravioli With Robiolo Cheese, Basil and Herbed Mushroom Shallot Broth $10
Think this dish is all about the ravioli? Think again. The entire plate has been conceived around the mushroom–it's there in the stuffing of the noodle and again in the broth. A lot of good chefs regarda protein or a pasta as a vehicle to explore a theme or idea by way of various saucings, purees, and accompanying vegetables.
Tartare of Smoked Rainbow Trout With Avocado, Grapes, and Wasabi $9
Beware clutter. Here you have four different sensations occuring at once: smokiness, creaminess, sweetness, and spicy heat. That's a palate-ful, and it's going to take expert execution to give it coherence. And remember: At peak times, a dish with many parts is apt to taste like a hastily constructed hodgepodge.
Cornmeal Fried Oysters $11
In a kitchen that doesn't do a lot of frying–and from the looks of it, this one doesn't–fried things are always suspect. Ideally the fry basket should be constantly going, a sign that the oil is always super-hot. A super-hot oil produces a crisp, crunchy shell that retains little of the super-hot oil. Unless there's high-volume frying, each time a batch of calamari or potatoes is plunged into the fry basket it's going to lower the temperature, increasing your chances of getting something greasy.
Beet Carpaccio With Aged Goat Cheese and Basil Oil $8
The carpaccio trap. At one time, it meant shavings of intensely flavored raw beef or duck or venison–slices that lost none of their oomph for being sliced razor-thin. Today it's evolved into a catchall preparation in which experimenting chefs pass off the likes of beets, mushrooms, and even fennel in tasteless slivers.
Mussels Steamed With Cherry Tomatoes, Shallots, Olives, and Preserved Lemon $9
Seared Diver Scallops With Summer Ratatouille, Rapini, and Tapenade $10
Of late, the quality of these plump, pearly medallions at many good restaurants has been better than ever.
Pan-Seared Foie Gras With Blackberries $12
Inexpensive foie gras. If it's listing for less than $14 or $15, think twice. Chances are it's going to be a Grade B lobe as opposed to the firmer, silkier Grade A.
Grilled Asparagus, Tomato, Portobello Mushroom, and Eggplant With Feta and Lemon-Mint Vinaigrette $17
A single vegetarian dish is the menu equivalent of it's-the-thought-that-counts. Often a hodgepodge of vegetables, with so little imagination in conception that you have to doubt the execution. How to tell a hodgepodge? Do you see asparagus, portobellos, and eggplant getting any play in other dishes?
Crispy Wild Rockfish With Oyster Mushroom and Corn Cakes $26
The reason rockfish turns up on a lot of menus, chefs say, is because it’s so abundant in the region. So is bluefish—which happens to be a lot tastier though less pretty to look at. No, the reason rockfish is ubiquitous is because it’s thick and white and flaky: the presumed holy trinity of fish-eating for restaurantgoers. It takes a smart chef to turn a dull fish into a tasty plate.
Wild or line-caught fish are always preferable to farm-raised fish. How do you know if your fish is wild or line-caught? Oh, you’ll know, because you’ll see those words in the description, an opportunity for a chef to tout his sourcing. It’s when you don’t see them that you should take notice. That means you’re eating something that’s been brought to maturity in an artificial environment. Convenience trumps nature. It also often trumps flavor.
Whole Fried Snapper With Salsa Veracruz and Pickled Onions $23
A Latino-accented dish on the menu of a place known for its Modern American cuisine sounds like a dubious proposition. In fact, it’s often a good bet because many of the cooks in the kitchens—the guys doing the actual work of assembling the dishes—are from Latin America. A cook may learn to master the intricacies of French food, but a knack for grilling a whole snapper or imbuing a green salsa with punch and tartness—that belongs to memory.
Whole fish served simply, with a minimum of flash—like a roasted bronzino or a whole roasted snapper—is worth taking a chance on.
Kobe Burger With Maytag Bleu Cheese and Crispy Onions $15
Shredded Path Valley Farms Pork Shoulder With Chipotle BBQ and Celery-Root Slaw and Pickled Onion $17
Look out for evidence of culinary dilettantism: the need on the part of the chef to appear broad-minded and global or on the part of the restaurateur to be all things to all people. Both are bad. See only one Asian-themed dish? Not a good sign. It’s a little like seeing a barbecue-based dish turn up on an otherwise non-barbecue menu, or a handful of wood-fired pizzas in a place that doesn’t specialize in pizza or Italian food. Barbecue and pizza are good only when they’re the only thing a place does.
Maryland Crab Cakes With Celery-Root Remoulade $28
Buyer beware: These days, even crab labeled as being from Maryland is likely to be cut with meat imported from foreign shores. Does it mean the crab cakes will be terrible? No. But they will lack that familiar musky sweetness of Maryland blue crab—the distinctive taste that distinguishes this delicacy. It also means the restaurant isn’t being straight with you. Some places will say the crabmeat has come from Virginia, North Carolina, and Louisiana. It’s the reality of a changing marketplace that forces restaurants to seek new sources, and while the product from these states is preferable to the imported, that doesn’t mean you have to shell out top dollar for what is, in most instances, a comedown from the genuine article.
Seared Ahi Tuna With Lemon Couscous and Caramelized Shallots $24
If it’s seldom delicious raw anymore—arriving mushy or mealy in many of the top sushi bars in the country—why would a slab of red tuna benefit from time on a grill or in a pan, further drying it out?
Pan-Seared Tilapia With Avocado and Mango Salsas, With Plantains and Szechuan Beans $17
Cross-pollination of ideas. Culturally, it makes for interesting arrangements; on the plate, it’s often a mess of mismatched ideas. Only in the hands of a trusted talent.
Pork Rib Chop With Swiss Chard and Apple Chutney $25
An on-the-bone cut of meat (bone-in rib eye, bone-in pork chop, rack of lamb) is almost always better—juicier and tastier—than an off-the-bone cut like pork loin.
Roast Chicken With Fingerling Potatoes and Rapini $21
A lot of diners are inclined to give chicken a pass, thinking, “Heck, I can make that myself.” The fact is, most chefs will tell you that putting a chicken on the menu is tantamount to boasting. It’s their way of saying, “I invite you to see how great a technician I am.” So if you see a bird among the options at a high-end restaurant, call the chef on his claim and order it. But only at a high-end restaurant. And only if it’s a whole or half chicken. Chicken breast? Forget it. That’s almost always asking for disappointment.
New York Strip With Creamy Red Bliss Mashed Potatoes and Cabernet Jus $27
Only one steak dish on the menu? Chances are, the chef isn’t going to be all that interested. He’s simply filling a slot for the presumed unadventurous diner. The meat might be good, but unless the rest of the menu is meat-heavy, you’re almost always better off going this route in a steakhouse.
Coconut Custard “Pie” With Warm Caramel Sauce $8
When you see quotation marks on a menu, one of two things is going on: Either you will be treated to a brilliantly witty reinvention of a classic dish or—more likely—you’ll find yourself wondering why the chef was more interested in playing with the food than in making it taste good.
Warm Chocolate Tart With Raspberry Coulis $8
Though every menu has to include at least one chocolate dessert—just as it has to include at least one steak and one vegetarian dish—many pastry chefs are in love with the richness and versatility of chocolate, often employing it in a number of preparations. But if there’s only one chocolate dessert and no other instance in which chocolate comes into play—a sauce, a mousse, a cookie—that ought to raise your suspicion about the pastry chef’s dedication to the cocoa bean.
A sticky, too-sweet syrup that pastry chefs love to zigzag across the plate, raspberry sauce isn’t the flamboyant signature touch it’s presumed to be; it’s a sign of conventionality, the absence of imagination—and it’s sure to tarnish an otherwise tasty concoction.
Passion-Fruit Soup With Drizzle of Greek Yogurt $7
Dessert soups. In plain English: liquefied fruit. The dieter’s slot. If you know you’re in the hands of a genuine talent, it’s worth considering. Otherwise, pass.
Cheese Plate (selection of three aged cheeses with chestnut jam and walnut bread) $9
It’s becoming more and more common for cheese plates to turn up as a final course, and it’s almost always welcome—so long as the selection is varied and the cheeses are properly stored. Ask before ordering whether the cheeses are kept at room temperature. If the answer is no, or if there’s a hesitation on the part of your server, move on.
Cookie Plate $7
Trio of Sorbets: Lemon, Orange, Lavender-Vanilla $7
Are the ice creams and sorbets house-made? If you don’t see that all-important designation, don’t take it for granted—ask the server before ordering. Prepared in house, sorbets and ice creams often are some of the best choices on a dessert menu, if only because there are fewer elements for the kitchen hands to assemble before sending the dish out to the table, which means fewer opportunities for mistakes.
Beware odd, jarring combinations—herbs or aromatics in sorbets or ice creams, for example. Like savory dishes with sweet notes but worse.