Food

How to Read a Menu Like a Food Critic

The ABCs of scoping out deliciousness.
How to Read a Menu Like a Food Critic
Pork and sauerkraut at Preserve.

Everyone knows how to read a menu, right? What could be simpler? But do you know how to look for tendencies that might suggest a chef’s potential strengths? Do you know the ways that chefs reveal their hand, intentionally and unintentionally? Do you know how to spot slot-fillers? Can you identify the menus-within-the-menu?

In this inaugural installment of How to Read a Menu Like a Food Critic, we’ll look at Preserve, in Annapolis, a first-time effort from Jeremy Hoffman and Michelle Hoffman.

I hope to illuminate the many decisions that go into writing a menu and bring you closer to the mind of the chef—making you a savvier, more critically informed diner and maximizing the potential of your every meal out.

Note: Click on the highlighted menu items below to learn more about each item.

Preserve

SNACK

It sounds obvious to say start at the top, but many people go straight to the entrees, then work their way back up. If you want to get the best meal possible, though, you have to understand what styles inform the chef’s cooking and identify any tendencies. The opening section of a menu teaches you how to read everything that follows.

DEVILED EGGS 5
SPICED NUTS 4
CHARCUTERIE 17

The word that is missing is: housemade. If it doesn’t say it, chances are good that it isn’t, and in this case it isn’t. Hoffman sources his product from quality suppliers both locally and nationally, but the smart investment, as a diner, is in those things the chef makes or personally oversees.

QUICK PICKLES 9
BREAD AND BUTTER 5
CHEESE BOARD 16

STARTER

What’s the difference between Starters and Snacks? Snacks, in this context, means small, simple dishes for nibbling, usually with a companion or a group. Starters are more involved compositions, intended for lingering over. The crucial takeaway is that Hoffman has set his menu up to appeal to a broad range of diners—from those looking for a light bite to those who want a full meal, from groups who are looking mainly to drink and share something to foodie couples seeking excitement in a menu of appetizers. He’s telling you, essentially, how to dine at his restaurant. In other words, don’t come in search of a conventional meal, app to main to dessert. Pick a snack, pick a starter or two, order a vegetable or two, maybe a main course, maybe a dessert. Any other way, and you’re going against his design.

CHARBROILED BAY OYSTERS 15
bay oysters, worchestershire-garlic butter, crispy bread

Specificity. These days, with provenance such a thing, it would be nice to see the item pinned to a specific supplier, but okay. Hoffman is not just telling you the oysters and the fish are local; he’s telling you that they’re local and fresh and good. He’s also saying he’s willing to be judged by these two dishes—see how I shop, see what I care about, see how I treat this esteemed micro-regional food.

BREAD & BUTTERED GREEN TOMATOES 10
goat cheese, grilled bread, shaved onion

DRIED CORN & SWISS DIP 10
dad's dried corn, swiss cheese, crispy bread

Menu-within-a-menu, part I: sauerkraut, pierogies, pork and sauerkraut, dried corn, Tandy Cake. What do all those foods have in common? They’re all things you’d find in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. This tells you either that the chef or his wife or someone near and dear to him is from that part of the world, or he has a deep interest in that culinary tradition. (As it happens, he is from Schnecksville, Pennsylvania.) Either way, this is a point of emphasis, and that means that it’s probably a smart bet to order from this menu-within-a-menu.

CHICKEN POT PIE 7
PA Dutch style

PIEROGIES 9
caramelized onions and sour cream

Menu-within-a-menu, part I: sauerkraut, pierogies, pork and sauerkraut, dried corn, Tandy Cake. What do all those foods have in common? They’re all things you’d find in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. This tells you either that the chef or his wife or someone near and dear to him is from that part of the world, or he has a deep interest in that culinary tradition. (As it happens, he is from Schnecksville, Pennsylvania.) Either way, this is a point of emphasis, and that means that it’s probably a smart bet to order from this menu-within-a-menu.

OLD BAY SHRIMP TOAST 11
chesapeake dim sum

Menu-within-a-menu, part II: Asian flavors. You don’t have to know that chef Hoffman worked in the kitchen at Nobu 57 in New York City to see a lover of Asian cooking. Shrimp toast. Minced pork lettuce wraps, a Vietnamese dish. Kimchi. Hozon, a miso-like seasoning developed by chef David Chang. The dish I had doubts about, when I first scanned the menu, was this last dish: gnocchi in chickpea hozon. On my second visit I ordered it. The hozon broth had been fortified further with what I took to be ground chickpeas, with tiny gnocchi set to bobbing in the liquid, along with bits of kale and crispy onions. As it turned out, it was one of the weaker dishes on the menu—the only instance in which chef Hoffman had attempted to cross the wires, blending one cuisine with another. This is not to say that you shouldn’t order fusion. It’s to say that you probably shouldn’t be ordering fusion from a chef who otherwise does not fuse.

MINCED PORK LETTUCE WRAPS 8
bibb lettuce, peanut, red onion, cilantro

Menu-within-a-menu, part II: Asian flavors. You don’t have to know that chef Hoffman worked in the kitchen at Nobu 57 in New York City to see a lover of Asian cooking. Shrimp toast. Minced pork lettuce wraps, a Vietnamese dish. Kimchi. Hozon, a miso-like seasoning developed by chef David Chang. The dish I had doubts about, when I first scanned the menu, was this last dish: gnocchi in chickpea hozon. On my second visit I ordered it. The hozon broth had been fortified further with what I took to be ground chickpeas, with tiny gnocchi set to bobbing in the liquid, along with bits of kale and crispy onions. As it turned out, it was one of the weaker dishes on the menu—the only instance in which chef Hoffman had attempted to cross the wires, blending one cuisine with another. This is not to say that you shouldn’t order fusion. It’s to say that you probably shouldn’t be ordering fusion from a chef who otherwise does not fuse.

VEG OUT

GRILLED ASPARAGUS 8
whipped feta, smoked mustard vinaigrette

CAST IRON MUSHROOMS 8
preserved lemon and herbs

HAND CUT FRIES 5
smoked hot mayonnaise

QUINOA & KALE 9
spicy pickled scallion

SAUERKRAUT SALAD 5
kraut, bulgur wheat, parsley, grain mustard

Menu-within-a-menu, part I: sauerkraut, pierogies, pork and sauerkraut, dried corn, Tandy Cake. What do all those foods have in common? They’re all things you’d find in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. This tells you either that the chef or his wife or someone near and dear to him is from that part of the world, or he has a deep interest in that culinary tradition. (As it happens, he is from Schnecksville, Pennsylvania.) Either way, this is a point of emphasis, and that means that it’s probably a smart bet to order from this menu-within-a-menu.

KIMCHI 6
spicy cabbage

Menu-within-a-menu, part II: Asian flavors. You don’t have to know that chef Hoffman worked in the kitchen at Nobu 57 in New York City to see a lover of Asian cooking. Shrimp toast. Minced pork lettuce wraps, a Vietnamese dish. Kimchi. Hozon, a miso-like seasoning developed by chef David Chang. The dish I had doubts about, when I first scanned the menu, was this last dish: gnocchi in chickpea hozon. On my second visit I ordered it. The hozon broth had been fortified further with what I took to be ground chickpeas, with tiny gnocchi set to bobbing in the liquid, along with bits of kale and crispy onions. As it turned out, it was one of the weaker dishes on the menu—the only instance in which chef Hoffman had attempted to cross the wires, blending one cuisine with another. This is not to say that you shouldn’t order fusion. It’s to say that you probably shouldn’t be ordering fusion from a chef who otherwise does not fuse.

PICKLED BEET EGGS 7
lightly pickled beats and eggs with salmon roe

MAIN

PORK & SAUERKRAUT 24
mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, ketchup

Menu-within-a-menu, part I: sauerkraut, pierogies, pork and sauerkraut, dried corn, Tandy Cake. What do all those foods have in common? They’re all things you’d find in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. This tells you either that the chef or his wife or someone near and dear to him is from that part of the world, or he has a deep interest in that culinary tradition. (As it happens, he is from Schnecksville, Pennsylvania.) Either way, this is a point of emphasis, and that means that it’s probably a smart bet to order from this menu-within-a-menu.

GNOCCHI 19
kale, chickpea hozon broth, crispy onions

Menu-within-a-menu, part II: Asian flavors. You don’t have to know that chef Hoffman worked in the kitchen at Nobu 57 in New York City to see a lover of Asian cooking. Shrimp toast. Minced pork lettuce wraps, a Vietnamese dish. Kimchi. Hozon, a miso-like seasoning developed by chef David Chang. The dish I had doubts about, when I first scanned the menu, was this last dish: gnocchi in chickpea hozon. On my second visit I ordered it. The hozon broth had been fortified further with what I took to be ground chickpeas, with tiny gnocchi set to bobbing in the liquid, along with bits of kale and crispy onions. As it turned out, it was one of the weaker dishes on the menu—the only instance in which chef Hoffman had attempted to cross the wires, blending one cuisine with another. This is not to say that you shouldn’t order fusion. It’s to say that you probably shouldn’t be ordering fusion from a chef who otherwise does not fuse.

THE LOCAL FISH 28
grilled celeriac, pickled jalapeno relish, pea shoots

Specificity. These days, with provenance such a thing, it would be nice to see the item pinned to a specific supplier, but okay. Hoffman is not just telling you the oysters and the fish are local; he’s telling you that they’re local and fresh and good. He’s also saying he’s willing to be judged by these two dishes—see how I shop, see what I care about, see how I treat this esteemed micro-regional food.

GRIDDLED RICE CAKES 20
fried sunchokes, harissa, yogurt, chickweed**

In many restaurants, there’s usually one entree set aside for the vegetarian diner. And usually only one. Almost without exception, this is a dish that does not resemble the other items on the menu, either in conception, ambition or level of embellishment. This particular dish would seem to occupy the veg-head slot, coming as it does, especially, in its position just before the other slot-filler, the steak dish. But look at the rest of the menu. Grilled asparagus. Cast iron mushrooms. Quinoa and kale. Sauekraut salad. Kimchi. An entire section of the menu devoted to vegetables. This means that you can order a dish like this with confidence, knowing that the chef isn’t just performing the restaurant equivalent of CYA. **Ever eaten chickweed? Yeah, join the club. Hoffman knows this. The entire reason he lists this relatively minor ingredient, a wild herb consumed by chickens, is to make you go: Huh. Some, the few, will say: Hm, interesting. He’s saying, in effect: This is a dish that will surprise you. This is where the adventure lies. (It just so happens to be one of the best dishes on the menu.)

RIBEYE 29
beef fat potato salad, steak sauce

This is a slot-filler. Does that mean it’s a bad dish? Not necessarily. But if you don’t see other, similar preparations like it on the menu, that usually means that the chef has included it on his menu mostly to give the timid diner he’s not really cooking for something to eat. What you’re looking for are dishes that the chef has put on there to demonstrate his talents or his point of view.

SWEET

TANDY CAKE 5

Menu-within-a-menu, part I: sauerkraut, pierogies, pork and sauerkraut, dried corn, Tandy Cake. What do all those foods have in common? They’re all things you’d find in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. This tells you either that the chef or his wife or someone near and dear to him is from that part of the world, or he has a deep interest in that culinary tradition. (As it happens, he is from Schnecksville, Pennsylvania.) Either way, this is a point of emphasis, and that means that it’s probably a smart bet to order from this menu-within-a-menu.

BREAD PUDDING 5
LEMON BAR 5

Otherwise is Washingtonian food critic Todd Kliman’s weekly column. Sometimes, it's about food.

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