Select a ‘reference Dish’ to Evaluate New Restaurants

When dining out or ordering, I rarely order the same dish every time. There is a whole menu here, and I consider myself a flavor researcher. But when trying a new establishment, I often get what I have tried many times in other similar establishments. I call these “reference dishes” and they are very important.

My reference dishes are usually cult dishes that represent their own genre and can give me some insight into the philosophy and style of a restaurant or bar. For example, here in Portland there are a lot of fancy donuts, and – even if they’re famous for their maple bacon bar or glazed hibiscus – my first order will always be a simple glazed convex surface.

A simple glazed donut reveals it all. You can’t hide a stale donut or bad technique with a plain glazed donut. From the first bite, I can tell if this particular donut vendor will like me. This is why I am not interested in one expensive donut place that everyone who visits seems to adore – they add cinnamon to their frosting, which is not needed, and which informs (me) that they do not consider them their combination of yeast dough and sugar “enough”.

Likewise, I know I love Pinolo Gelateria . Their fior di latte (milk flower) is even simpler than vanilla – it’s just sweetened dairy products – and that absolutely reigns. With fior di latte, there is nothing to hide behind, so your technique and recipe must be perfect.

My other reference dishes include Italian sandwiches (whatever they call them), fried catfish and martinis. If they come out great, I know I can probably expand and not be disappointed.

Is this the perfect system? No. You need to be on the lookout for a weird restaurant / food cart / bar that holds secret treasures. A cocktail bar that makes terrible drinks but has great wings, a pizzeria with great fries, etc. But most of the time, the reference dish will tell you what you need to know, allowing you to explore the rest of the menu with confidence. …

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