Since admitting recently I’m not so gaga for Domo, I’ve been thinking back on the sources of my discontent. Desultory service aside, I realized there weren’t as many as I thought—1 to be precise: the soba noodles with shrimp tempura & calamari teriyaki.
Looks pretty awesome, eh, those big fried spears of shellfish bobbing on the surface of a broth aswirl with buckwheat noodles. But the latter were mush; & so, soon enough, were the former—a mishap I should have foreseen. Batter & water, however flavored, don’t mix.
Thus did the light bulb go on: perhaps I just ordered wrong?
Except it was part of a twin pack: the next one illuminated the problematic nature of the question itself.
As I posed the dilemma to all my favorite food experts:
Sometimes, when we (the general we) are underwhelmed by a restaurant that others have praised, we wonder if we “ordered wrong”—implication being that a kitchen is bound to have strengths and weaknesses and we’ve overlooked the former. There may be truths to that, involving, say, our ignorance of a certain cuisine type or of the restaurant’s SOP. After all, we all have strengths and weaknesses in our professional lives.
But obviously, there are counterarguments: That a chef should recognize his weaknesses and thus shouldn’t put anything on a menu he can’t execute properly. Or that, say, a Chinese restaurant does itself an injustice by catering to the LCAmericanD with moo goo what have you if what it’s really all about is stellar regional fare.
There were indeed thoughts.
Per Joey Porcelli, author of Rise & Dine: Breakfast in Denver & Boulder, coauthor of The Gyros Journey: Affordable Ethnic Eateries Along the Front Range:
My initial reaction is to think about how I feel when I’m the only person to order salmon in a steakhouse. Should I expect the fish to be as top quality as the meat? I once ordered sake in a Chinese restaurant in London & was treated with disdain at the bar by our host. This, after all, was a Chinese restaurant, & I should not have expected good sake.
So, is it up to the patron to follow the menu and avoid pushing its boundaries, or is it up to the restaurant to accommodate our divergent tastes? Last night we went to a French restaurant where I ordered the ravioli stuffed with crab & pea shoots. There were no pea shoots inside the ravioli. I wanted that touch of vegetable to counteract the strong crabby flavor.
Is ravioli too big a departure for a French restaurant? Did I order wrong when everyone around me was enjoying the duck? I don’t think so. The waiter even guided me to this dish instead of another vegetarian entree. I ate it & enjoyed my hard cider, but left feeling a little let down.
From her tongue-clucking host to her misguiding server, Joey raises an interesting point about the role of the floor staff in negotiating between chef & customer to prevent potential disasters—one that her Gyros Journey coauthor, Boulder Weekly critic Clay Fong, addresses:
My expectation is that the probability of “ordering wrong” should decrease relative to the cost of dining at the restaurant. For example, I’m not terribly put off by the fact that lunch at Boulder’s Village Coffee Shop isn’t nearly as good as breakfast. If I have a so-so club sandwich there, I’m only out 6 bucks. On the other hand, if I’m going to a Frasca-level place, I expect that the chef has developed a menu to a uniformly high standard; there shouldn’t be a clunker in the bunch. I also expect that the servers have been trained so as to gently steer diners away from ordering poorly, whether it’s a particular item that’s substandard that night or a combination of items that’s suboptimum.
For MC Slim JB, who writes the Boston Phoenix’s On the Cheap column, Clay’s response brought an adage of longtime Phoenix critic Robert Nadeau to mind:
Nadeau likes to say that there are no great restaurants, only great dishes. My own feeling is that many places have weak dishes amid stellar line-ups, put in place for the inevitable unadventurous beef-and-potatoes diner or as a weak nod to vegetarians (ed: as Joey, a pescetarian, can attest). Can’t be helped.
Scott Kathan, senior editor at America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Country magazine, wonders if—contrary to the Nadeauism—a restaurant can be great, but only as great as its weakest dish, precisely as opposed to its specialties.
I work with a cook who always orders chicken when visiting a new restaurant; to her, it’s a litmus test, as she knows that most chefs hate having to include it on the menu. She also sees chicken as a blank canvas on which chefs can show their true worth.
With respect to contemporary American kitchens especially, I’d agree chicken reveals what Slim calls the “amount of conviction they can bring,” which is why I’ve given both Bistro One & Encore some props lately. My own litmus test for American restaurants—as I’ve said before—is the Caesar salad: no nearly raw egg, no anchovies, no dice, never mind packaged croutons. I’m still looking for an exemplar on the Front Range; Claire Walter of CulinaryColorado has suggested I try The Penrose Room at the Broadmoor, and so I shall if I can ever do it on someone else’s megadime.
Then again, Claire has had her own ill luck with Boulder’s DaGabi Cucina:
I always order wrong at DaGabi, a north Boulder Italian restaurant whose popularity is always a mystery to me. I’ve had stuck-together pasta, hot food that wasn’t, a bizarre dipping sauce that resembles gloppy salad dressing and is an affront their very good bread, flavorless squash soup that was just pureed squash that I likened to baby food, etc., etc., etc.
from Marin Magazine
See http://culinary-colorado.blogspot.com/2008/09/doing-dagabi.html and http://culinary-colorado.blogspot.com/2008/10/dagabi-redux.html for reports on my two most recent misadventures there.
When I pointed out that sounded less like the gray area that is the concept of ordering wrong & more like the black-&-white one of poor cooking, she demurred:
Those two posts tell it all. Especially at the friend’s birthday fest; with about a dozen women at the table, I ordered flavorless soup and lousy gnocchi, but others who ordered different dishes were not unhappy. The pizza especially has gotten compliments.
I nonetheless feel duly warned. Meanwhile, my friend MO—who doesn’t write about food professionally but easily could & should, having both the knowledge & the chops—considers the sheer range of contingencies that factor into both chefs’ decisionmaking & customers’ verdicts thereon:
I think chefs may feel compelled to offer a diverse menu to appeal to different dietary needs and personal preferences. It would be difficult to draw up a menu that is not only luscious and representative of your own overall culinary philosophy but that also contains items appealing to as many people as may walk through your door: carnivores, vegans, the lactose-intolerant, the gluten-sensitive, diabetics, children, disgruntled politicians, people with psychological aversions, etc.
There’s also the issue of the economic realities of running a restaurant, which understandably dictate what pops up on the menu. If I have a bunch of halibut in the walk-in that’s about to go bad, I’m coming up with a special to move it! Moreover, there has to be a balance between the level of deliciousness/opulence and what your market is willing to pay for a given dish. You might want to use prosciutto di Parma and truffles to elevate a dish to the stratosphere, but the paying public (and your accountant) might balk at the cost and you may have to compromise.
While I definitely think every restaurant has both stellar dishes and at least one clunker (and this is true from the low end to the high end) (ed: cf. Clay’s comment above), I also know that the opinions of what constitutes culinary heaven and hell can differ from person to person. My better half and I have remarkably similar tastes, but even we can disagree on the same dish at places we frequent.
Finally, knowing what to order can be key. My friends in Mountain View, CA, ordered dishes at a local Chinese restaurant that did nothing for them on their first trip. Once they were clued in as to the house specialties, they became regulars. I went there and let them order for me and came away satisfied, although if I had gone on my own I may have ordered differently and ended up with a different opinion. Weird, that. But very real.
Slim indirectly concurs.
The authenticity question is another one altogether. But many good Chinese places I know, for example, have two menus: the real one and the idiot’s one. I seek out the ones where the authentic menu is also available in English. It’s easy for the kitchen to dumb it down, so the staff doesn’t have to turn the gwailos away.
Applying that logic to Domo, I have a lot to think about.