Grill Your Server
The art of decoding menus
By Ari LeVaux
Sharing food, when dining out, is a great way to bond with your table-mates. Unless you order better than they do, resulting in your plate being the most desirable on the table. This has been my plight for years.
“Want some steak?” my dad would ask, as mom offered me her scampi, while simultaneously they reached for my short ribs.
I studied menus the way investors study corporate earnings, the way a hunter scrutinizes tracks in the snow. I looked at a menu the way some people look at a Rubik’s Cube. When I failed, by ordering a clearly inferior dish, I obsessed upon my mistake and tried to learn the lesson it contained.
In addition to solving the menu to my personal satisfaction, I’d usually guess what my parents would order too. Luckily, the apple fell pretty far from the tree in this department, because the first rule of menuology is to not be predictable.
To play your hand predictably is to take yourself out of the game. You aren’t really studying the menu — you’re responding to cues, robot-like. To be a true menu black belt you must keep an open mind, trust your instincts, and indulge your curiosity.
Avoiding ruts, the menu black belt is feather-light and spontaneous. Corned beef hash or frittata? Daily special or specialty of the house? Which way will he go?
The menu is your in to the kitchen. It’s the beginning of a discussion between you and the chef. But it’s only part of the picture. Seeing the kitchen through a menu requires you to tune in to other sources of information as well.
Don’t be afraid to play into strengths. If a restaurant serves Chinese, Thai, and sushi, and is run by Thai people, order Thai. If it’s run by Chinese people, order from the Chinese menu. Many Asian cuisines seem to have a way with vegetables, treating them as more than second-class citizens to meat. So on Asian menus, I’m on the lookout for interesting looking vegetable dishes.
Don’t be afraid to grill your server, and don’t feel bad if they have to trudge to the kitchen for answers. Ask where the ingredients are from, what the dish looks like, if they’ve tried it, etc. If the waiter offers a recommendation, ask “why?” Study them as they respond. Getting the server to talk about what’s on the menu can deliver all kinds of unexpected insights. Assess how much you should care about their opinion.
If you are deliberating between two options and the server recommends the cheaper, that might suggest he or she truly has your back, making their opinion worth more. A server who suggests the more expensive item, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily out to fleece you. Sometimes the pricier option is pricier for good reason.
The more you can learn about the specific raw materials that go into each menu item, the better prediction you can make as to the quality of the finished dish. Locally sourced foods tend to be of higher quality, and their presence on a menu speaks well of the establishment as a whole. If you ask where something is from and the waiter knows without checking, that’s a good sign, even if it’s not local — it shows, at least, they’re even thinking about that stuff. If they go into the kitchen to check, that’s still better than a shrugged “from a can.”
Eating locally in winter, especially at restaurants, can be nearly impossible, but be on the lookout for menu items or condiments that were produced in-season with local ingredients and then preserved for year-round use. Perhaps it’s the apple chutney alongside the pork chop, or the mint jam with the lamb, or the pickles on the burger. The presence of such home-turf items signals a restaurant’s dedication to local foods, and that dedication pays dividends.
If it’s a run-of-the-mill restaurant you’re patronizing, be vigilant for menu offerings you haven’t seen before. These can be hidden gems, like family recipes or specialties the chef’s been perfecting for years.
“Specials” and “specialties of the house” can be fruitful menu categories as well, but they can also be disappointments. Is the daily special a response to what’s fresh, or just another random offering the cook is obligated to invent each day? Is the house specialty a symbiosis of culture, place and art evolved to perfection, or a dish popular 30 years ago that’s now just a hyped bad habit the cooks can’t break?
Sometimes you may feel that you’re close to decoding the menu, but can’t quite crack it. Perhaps you want an element of one dish combined with part of another; don’t be afraid to read between the lines and ask for what you want. If the menu offers both scallops in oyster sauce and green curry with chicken, and the chef is flexible, you may end up with deep-fried scallops in green curry.
But be warned: Success in such interactive ordering can depend on factors beyond your control, like restaurant politics, and who owes whom a favor, and who in the kitchen has the hots for your server.