Food

How to Read a Menu Like a Food Critic: The Riggsby

How to Read a Menu Like a Food Critic: The Riggsby
The Riggsby's rich, juicy burger with bacon jam and fries. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Everyone knows how to read a menu, right? What could be simpler?

But do you know how to find the menu-within-the-menu? Do you know how to spot tendencies that might reveal a chef’s strengths? Can you identify slot-fillers?

In the inaugural installment of How to Read a Menu, I took apart the menu at the farm-to-table mom ’n’ pop Preserve, showing you the various codes that chef Jeremy Hoffman speaks in and why, and helping you to make more informed decisions as a result.

This week I want to try to deconstruct an entirely different menu—the one for The Riggsby, the second venture in the city for Boston-based, James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schlow. Housed in the Art Deco-style Carlyle Hotel off Dupont Circle, the place is making a bold and interesting bid to separate itself from the hordes of loud, trendy, small plates spots (including Schlow’s own Tico).

The cooking emphasizes technique and coherence over novelty and flash. The waiters wear vests. The tables are set with white cloth. With more juice (and juice may yet come—The Riggsby has been open only since mid-summer), it’s not hard to imagine people invoking comparison to April Broomfield’s the Breslin and Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn in New York, both of which are intended to evoke the glory days of Toots Shor, the iconic Manhattan saloon and restaurant beloved in the ‘40s and ‘50s by such drink-slinging swells as Sinatra, Dimaggio, and Gleason.

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

BAR SNACKS

HOMEMADE POTATO CHIPS
with green onion dip 6

Do you detect a theme? Throwback food. The kind of dishes that hip urbanites at one time might have sneered at, dishes that hailed from a time before the food revolution, before arugula and portobello were widely available in grocery stores and even your not-very-with-it aunt knew what a banh mi is. But now these unhip dishes have become cool, because guess what? They taste good. Food isn’t like fashion; a dish doesn’t become ridiculous simply because no one eats it anymore; you don’t look back at memorable plates you ate 10 years ago and think, in horror—'I can’t believe I ate that!'
In the first installment, I wrote about the notion of a menu-within-a-menu—a roster of dishes with which the chef hammers home his or her style or theme. In this case, a theme: the chef’s fondness for the sort of middle-class cocktail nibbles that were ubiquitous at dinner parties throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. The greatest concentration of dishes from this menu-within-a-menu is to be found in the first half of the menu—actually, within the first six listed dishes, a sly and business-savvy move on the part of the chef, incentivizing you to order a “snack” before your appetizer and thus jack up the cost of your meal. The likelihood of finding something great is higher when you order from the menu-within-a-menu, and that would appear to be the case here: the deviled eggs with crisped chicken skin and the classic Caesar salad, in particular, are superb.

MARINATED OLIVES & ALMONDS 5

CHEESE & CRACKERS 7

Do you detect a theme? Throwback food. The kind of dishes that hip urbanites at one time might have sneered at, dishes that hailed from a time before the food revolution, before arugula and portobello were widely available in grocery stores and even your not-very-with-it aunt knew what a banh mi is. But now these unhip dishes have become cool, because guess what? They taste good.
Food isn’t like fashion; a dish doesn’t become ridiculous simply because no one eats it anymore; you don’t look back at memorable plates you ate 10 years ago and think, in horror—'I can’t believe I ate that!'
In the first installment, I wrote about the notion of a menu-within-a-menu—a roster of dishes with which the chef hammers home his or her style or theme. In this case, a theme: the chef’s fondness for the sort of middle-class cocktail nibbles that were ubiquitous at dinner parties throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. The greatest concentration of dishes from this menu-within-a-menu is to be found in the first half of the menu—actually, within the first six listed dishes, a sly and business-savvy move on the part of the chef, incentivizing you to order a “snack” before your appetizer and thus jack up the cost of your meal. The likelihood of finding something great is higher when you order from the menu-within-a-menu, and that would appear to be the case here: the deviled eggs with crisped chicken skin and the classic Caesar salad, in particular, are superb.

DEVILED EGGS
with calabrian chilies and crispy chicken skin 5

Do you detect a theme? Throwback food. The kind of dishes that hip urbanites at one time might have sneered at, dishes that hailed from a time before the food revolution, before arugula and portobello were widely available in grocery stores and even your not-very-with-it aunt knew what a banh mi is. But now these unhip dishes have become cool, because guess what? They taste good.
Food isn’t like fashion; a dish doesn’t become ridiculous simply because no one eats it anymore; you don’t look back at memorable plates you ate 10 years ago and think, in horror—'I can’t believe I ate that!'
In the first installment, I wrote about the notion of a menu-within-a-menu—a roster of dishes with which the chef hammers home his or her style or theme. In this case, a theme: the chef’s fondness for the sort of middle-class cocktail nibbles that were ubiquitous at dinner parties throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. The greatest concentration of dishes from this menu-within-a-menu is to be found in the first half of the menu—actually, within the first six listed dishes, a sly and business-savvy move on the part of the chef, incentivizing you to order a “snack” before your appetizer and thus jack up the cost of your meal. The likelihood of finding something great is higher when you order from the menu-within-a-menu, and that would appear to be the case here: the deviled eggs with crisped chicken skin and the classic Caesar salad, in particular, are superb.

JALAPENO TATOR TOTS 6

Do you detect a theme? Throwback food. The kind of dishes that hip urbanites at one time might have sneered at, dishes that hailed from a time before the food revolution, before arugula and portobello were widely available in grocery stores and even your not-very-with-it aunt knew what a banh mi is. But now these unhip dishes have become cool, because guess what? They taste good.
Food isn’t like fashion; a dish doesn’t become ridiculous simply because no one eats it anymore; you don’t look back at memorable plates you ate 10 years ago and think, in horror—'I can’t believe I ate that!'
In the first installment, I wrote about the notion of a menu-within-a-menu—a roster of dishes with which the chef hammers home his or her style or theme. In this case, a theme: the chef’s fondness for the sort of middle-class cocktail nibbles that were ubiquitous at dinner parties throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. The greatest concentration of dishes from this menu-within-a-menu is to be found in the first half of the menu—actually, within the first six listed dishes, a sly and business-savvy move on the part of the chef, incentivizing you to order a “snack” before your appetizer and thus jack up the cost of your meal. The likelihood of finding something great is higher when you order from the menu-within-a-menu, and that would appear to be the case here: the deviled eggs with crisped chicken skin and the classic Caesar salad, in particular, are superb.

CHORIZO STUFFED MUSHROOMS 7

Do you detect a theme? Throwback food. The kind of dishes that hip urbanites at one time might have sneered at, dishes that hailed from a time before the food revolution, before arugula and portobello were widely available in grocery stores and even your not-very-with-it aunt knew what a banh mi is. But now these unhip dishes have become cool, because guess what? They taste good.
Food isn’t like fashion; a dish doesn’t become ridiculous simply because no one eats it anymore; you don’t look back at memorable plates you ate 10 years ago and think, in horror—'I can’t believe I ate that!'
In the first installment, I wrote about the notion of a menu-within-a-menu—a roster of dishes with which the chef hammers home his or her style or theme. In this case, a theme: the chef’s fondness for the sort of middle-class cocktail nibbles that were ubiquitous at dinner parties throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. The greatest concentration of dishes from this menu-within-a-menu is to be found in the first half of the menu—actually, within the first six listed dishes, a sly and business-savvy move on the part of the chef, incentivizing you to order a “snack” before your appetizer and thus jack up the cost of your meal. The likelihood of finding something great is higher when you order from the menu-within-a-menu, and that would appear to be the case here: the deviled eggs with crisped chicken skin and the classic Caesar salad, in particular, are superb.

FIRST COURSES

Among the 11 “first courses,” you have five fish or seafood items (six, if you count the shrimp & cucumber gazpacho) and only one meat. That’s not to say the one meat dish isn’t good; it is to say, however, that if you’re gambling (and you are, every time you eat somewhere you don’t know) you’d be wise to pick from among the five fish and seafood items. The chef, in this section of the menu, is laying down clues for you. Don’t assume, however, that he is laying clues for the entire menu. Don’t conclude, in other words: The kitchen is telling me that what it loves to cook best is fish and seafood. The clue-laying is specific to this section of the menu. What the chef is telling you is that when it comes to the kinds of dishes that ought to inaugurate a meallight, bright, cleanthe menu's unannounced strength is in fish and seafood. My pick: the sardines. Spectacularly fresh, they arrive butterflied and lightly grilled (note the subtle char and smoke), and dressed with a fine dice of pickled fennel and red pepper, pine nuts, golden raisins, and parsley; a garnish of tiny, knife-thin slices of crisped bread add crunch.

OYSTER OF THE DAY
with spicy cucumber mignonette p/a

BUTTER LETTUCE
with shaved radish, walnuts, goat cheese & tarragon 11

CREAMY BURRATA
with summer tomatoes, good olive oil & bottarga 13

It’s summer; it won’t be for much longer. Not many dishes here depend on seasonality—the two obvious exceptions are the burrata with summer tomatoes and the gazpacho. Both will be gone from the menu before long. If seasonal eating matters to you, or if it excites you, then these are smart calls to make (I’d take the gazpacho over the burrata; the soup is sharp with the tang of sherry vinegar, but not stinging, and is one of the best expressions of the kind of casual elegance that the restaurant wants to deliver.)

SHRIMP & CUCUMBER GAZPACHO
with jalapeño, cilantro & tiny croutons 11

It’s summer; it won’t be for much longer. Not many dishes here depend on seasonality—the two obvious exceptions are the burrata with summer tomatoes and the gazpacho. Both will be gone from the menu before long. If seasonal eating matters to you, or if it excites you, then these are smart calls to make (I’d take the gazpacho over the burrata; the soup is sharp with the tang of sherry vinegar, but not stinging, and is one of the best expressions of the kind of casual elegance that the restaurant wants to deliver.)

SAUTEED CALAMARI
with tomato, olives, cranberry beans & parsley 12

CLASSIC CAESAR SALAD
with anchovies & shaved parm 11

Do you detect a theme? Throwback food. The kind of dishes that hip urbanites at one time might have sneered at, dishes that hailed from a time before the food revolution, before arugula and portobello were widely available in grocery stores and even your not-very-with-it aunt knew what a banh mi is. But now these unhip dishes have become cool, because guess what? They taste good.
Food isn’t like fashion; a dish doesn’t become ridiculous simply because no one eats it anymore; you don’t look back at memorable plates you ate 10 years ago and think, in horror—'I can’t believe I ate that!'
In the first installment, I wrote about the notion of a menu-within-a-menu—a roster of dishes with which the chef hammers home his or her style or theme. In this case, a theme: the chef’s fondness for the sort of middle-class cocktail nibbles that were ubiquitous at dinner parties throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. The greatest concentration of dishes from this menu-within-a-menu is to be found in the first half of the menu—actually, within the first six listed dishes, a sly and business-savvy move on the part of the chef, incentivizing you to order a “snack” before your appetizer and thus jack up the cost of your meal. The likelihood of finding something great is higher when you order from the menu-within-a-menu, and that would appear to be the case here: the deviled eggs with crisped chicken skin and the classic Caesar salad, in particular, are superb.

SARDINES
with fennel, pine nuts, golden raisins & crispy bread 15

JIMMY'S SPECIAL "CHOPPED" HOUSE SALAD
with homemade thousand island dressing 12

Do you detect a theme? Throwback food. The kind of dishes that hip urbanites at one time might have sneered at, dishes that hailed from a time before the food revolution, before arugula and portobello were widely available in grocery stores and even your not-very-with-it aunt knew what a banh mi is. But now these unhip dishes have become cool, because guess what? They taste good.
Food isn’t like fashion; a dish doesn’t become ridiculous simply because no one eats it anymore; you don’t look back at memorable plates you ate 10 years ago and think, in horror—'I can’t believe I ate that!'
In the first installment, I wrote about the notion of a menu-within-a-menu—a roster of dishes with which the chef hammers home his or her style or theme. In this case, a theme: the chef’s fondness for the sort of middle-class cocktail nibbles that were ubiquitous at dinner parties throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. The greatest concentration of dishes from this menu-within-a-menu is to be found in the first half of the menu—actually, within the first six listed dishes, a sly and business-savvy move on the part of the chef, incentivizing you to order a “snack” before your appetizer and thus jack up the cost of your meal. The likelihood of finding something great is higher when you order from the menu-within-a-menu, and that would appear to be the case here: the deviled eggs with crisped chicken skin and the classic Caesar salad, in particular, are superb.
To call a dish “special”—to say, in effect, “this is great and memorable”—before you, the diner, have had a chance to render a judgment one way or another is a pretty gutsy move. I admire the chef’s risk-taking. The dish, though, sounds like the opposite of bold: a chopped salad with crisped bacon, hardboiled egg, green beans, and Thousand Island dressing. Is this a case of a chef trying to hype a modest dish, to draw attention to an item that you might otherwise miss? Or of a chef telling you that this is a legitimately knock-out preparation, a stunning example of salad-making craft? Even before sampling the dish for purposes of this review, I was inclined to think that it was unlikely to meet my elevated expectations: Tasting only confirmed my suspicions. Pass. (Note that this dish is not a “special.” That’s a different category altogether. Most specials are not special; most are about the kitchen getting in a product it doesn’t ordinarily use and turning that into a dish, which can sometimes be good, but generally the kitchen staff hasn’t had the repetitions necessary to nail it every time during the heat of dinner rush.)

BEEF CARPACCIO
with shaved mushrooms, frico chips, lemon & arugula 16

MUSSELS "MARINIERE"
with shallots, butter & chives 13

LIGHTLY SMOKED TROUT
with beets, horseradish & mache 12

ENTREES

ALL AMERICAN TAVERN BURGER
with bacon-onion jam, cheese & french fries 15

Notice the price on the burger. Notice it relative to the prices on the other dishes here. This is the chef saying: I want you to think of this as a place you don’t have to save up for, a place you can pop by before or after a movie or show. It’s of course not that kind of place, but the chef’s desire to try to frame The Riggsby as a “neighborhood restaurant” means that he has to have a couple of powerful inducements on his menu. (The fresh spaghetti is priced at $19 for the same reason.) By the standards of most people who work for a living and don’t go out to eat three, four times a week, a $15 burger is not an inducement, much less a powerful one. But everything in context. You can bet that a love of care and thought and effort has gone into this burger. You can bet—and I can guarantee—that it will offer an excellent ROI. (And yes, the fresh spaghetti—note the weight and chew of the hand-rolled noodle—is just as good.)

SEARED SCALLOPS
with mushrooms, onions & peas 28

GRILLED SHRIMP
with sardinian cous cous, green olives, almonds & red pepper-harissa broth 25

BARREL CUT NY STRIP FILET
with Phillipe's "super frenchy" bearnaise and homemade french fries 38

Who is Phillipe? That would be chef de cuisine Philippe Reininger, who last was seen cooking in the same role—basically, running the kitchen, while the boss takes the credit (and, yes, the blame, too)—for Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the now-shuttered J&G Steakhouse. The use of personalization (a form of credit-giving on the part of the chef, it should be pointed out) and the cheeky tone both stand out; nothing else on the menu reads like this. In our inaugural installment, I warned you away from ordering a steak when that steak is the only steak or only hefty cut of meat on the menu—a sure sign that a dish is what I called a slot-filler, there only to satisfy a culinary special interest group. This isn’t; there’s also the herb and pepper-crusted cote de boeuf. Of nearly equal importance is the fact that the description sounds teasingly affectionate, which would seem to suggest that this is a preparation that the kitchen team has fun with. Pay attention to fun. Fun is good. ROI potential: high.

WILD STRIPED BASS
with summer corn, bacon and pickled onions 28

If you were trying to decide between two fish dishes, the one to pick is the wild striped bass. Why? Because the “slow cooked salmon” doesn’t tell you anything about where the salmon has come from—probably because it’s farm-raised, Atlantic salmon. I’m guessing in saying that, yes, but most restaurant salmon on the East Coast, unless the menu tells you otherwise, is farm-raised. Bad? No, by no means bad. Just not special.

HERITAGE FARMS PORK CHOP
with hot cherry peppers, sausage, onions & potatoes 26

Heritage Farms. Take note: the only farm mentioned in the entree section. To be fair, The Riggsby isn’t a farm-to-table restaurant like the new Garrison, which sometimes seems to want nothing more than to be a showcase for the exquisite bounty of local producers. That’s not to say that the quality of ingredients at The Riggsby isn’t high; I can confirm, after a couple of meals there, that a concerted effort is being made to acquire great, fresh product. So why is almost no mention made of farms or farmers in the dish descriptions? Perhaps because it doesn’t fit with the throwback approach—even ten years ago, aside from several notable exceptions like Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, you simply didn’t see the names of suppliers on a menu. Schlow is saying, in effect, that he wants you to think of The Riggsby in a way that is not a foodie way. But although the reluctance to name-check every farmer or farm is refreshing now that some chefs seem to want credit for doing their homework, it raises questions in the case of, say, the chicken. Why would you order a roasted chicken when roasting one at home is so relatively easy? Because, presumably, the chef has procured a high-quality bird—a bird you, the diner, would never sniff the likes of at a store or farmers market. If the chef isn’t going to share his source, then I’m inclined to look elsewhere on the menu.

SCHNITZEL "A LA HOLSTEIN" 29

SLOW COOKED SALMON
with zucchini, artichokes, capers, lemon & chives 24

If you were trying to decide between two fish dishes, the one to pick is the wild striped bass. Why? Because the “slow cooked salmon” doesn’t tell you anything about where the salmon has come from—probably because it’s farm-raised, Atlantic salmon. I’m guessing in saying that, yes, but most restaurant salmon on the East Coast, unless the menu tells you otherwise, is farm-raised. Bad? No, by no means bad. Just not special.

ROASTED CHICKEN
with broccoli rabe, roasted potatoes & mustard 26

Heritage Farms. Take note: the only farm mentioned in the entree section. To be fair, The Riggsby isn’t a farm-to-table restaurant like the new Garrison, which sometimes seems to want nothing more than to be a showcase for the exquisite bounty of local producers. That’s not to say that the quality of ingredients at The Riggsby isn’t high; I can confirm, after a couple of meals there, that a concerted effort is being made to acquire great, fresh product. So why is almost no mention made of farms or farmers in the dish descriptions? Perhaps because it doesn’t fit with the throwback approach—even ten years ago, aside from several notable exceptions like Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, you simply didn’t see the names of suppliers on a menu. Schlow is saying, in effect, that he wants you to think of The Riggsby in a way that is not a foodie way. But although the reluctance to name-check every farmer or farm is refreshing now that some chefs seem to want credit for doing their homework, it raises questions in the case of, say, the chicken. Why would you order a roasted chicken when roasting one at home is so relatively easy? Because, presumably, the chef has procured a high-quality bird—a bird you, the diner, would never sniff the likes of at a store or farmers market. If the chef isn’t going to share his source, then I’m inclined to look elsewhere on the menu.

FRESH SPAGHETTI
with Italian bacon, onion, tomato & pecorino 19

Notice the price on the burger. Notice it relative to the prices on the other dishes here. This is the chef saying: I want you to think of this as a place you don’t have to save up for, a place you can pop by before or after a movie or show. It’s of course not that kind of place, but the chef’s desire to try to frame The Riggsby as a “neighborhood restaurant” means that he has to have a couple of powerful inducements on his menu. (The fresh spaghetti is priced at $19 for the same reason.) By the standards of most people who work for a living and don’t go out to eat three, four times a week, a $15 burger is not an inducement, much less a powerful one. But everything in context. You can bet that a love of care and thought and effort has gone into this burger. You can bet—and I can guarantee—that it will offer an excellent ROI. (And yes, the fresh spaghetti—note the weight and chew of the hand-rolled noodle—is just as good.)
One of the things that makes this menu unusual is that there aren’t any obvious slot-fillers. This may be attributable to the throwback theme; the restaurants of the Toots Shor era made few, if any, concessions to the dietary needs and whims of their customers. There is, for example, no clear reach-out to vegetarians—and this in an era when many restaurants have begun to emphasize vegetables and/or stud their menu with dishes that can easily be made meatless (cf., Rose’s Luxury). In all likelihood, the fresh spaghetti can be made without bacon, but the restaurant hasn’t thought to alert diners to that fact. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the chef has said, in effect: I have struck a reactionary blow for the dining of the past, the simpler, meat-centric, substitution-less past.

HERB AND PEPPER-CRUSTED COTE DE BOEUF (FOR 2)
with potatoes, asparagus & red wine sauce 89

SIDES

HOMEMADE FRENCH FRIES
with sea salt & herbs 6

CREAMY POTATO PUREE 7

HARICOT VERT
with shallots & butter

BROCCOLI RABE
with olive oil, garlic & chiles 8

GRILLED ASPARAGUS
with pecorino & black pepper 8

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

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