When a new friend or neighbor discovers that one of my jobs is to write restaurant reviews, their first response is usually something like this: “Wow! Do you have the opportunity to eat at a different restaurant each week? It must be fantastic ! ” Why yes ! Yes it is! It’s fun to try new restaurants, and old ones too. We are fortunate in this foodie city to have a restaurant culture that understands what diners want and knows how to deliver it. I can barely remember a place that really let me down.
No, wait, now that I say it, I box remember a few, but let’s leave that aside for now. I don’t think I’ve had to write a truly negative review in the past five years or so, not since this pop-up Mexican restaurant by the river.
Every once in a while, though, during a great dining experience, I come across a dish that just doesn’t work. I’m not talking about something I just don’t like but others like… I’m looking at you, pineapple on pizza… but downright flaws or bad decisions on the part of the chef or menu planner. In short, I’m talking about efforts that challenge the old adage, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” I will absolutely tell you about such issues when they arise, as part of an otherwise positive review. Fair is fair. So, more out of grief than anger and in the spirit of offering some helpful advice, let’s take today’s space to talk about a dozen slip-ups and slides I’ve come across recently.
- If the first words out of the waiter’s mouth are an invitation to buy a drink, that gives me a clue about the direction of the restaurant, not the food. Give me ice water please, and lots of ice. Oh, and put some salt or pepper on the table, mmm-kay? I’m sure the chef knows best, but individual tastes vary.
- One of the most common, annoying, and easily avoidable problems occurs in the salad plate. Please don’t just grab a handful of mixed lettuce from the big box labeled ‘washed and ready to serve’, toss it on a salad plate and send it off without picking the greens first . Those slimy black bits of rotting leaves are there whether you want to believe it or not, and they’re distinctly unappetizing.
- Speaking of salads, if you want to make me grumpy, just take a traditional dish that’s perfect in its simplicity – like a caprese salad – and drizzle it with balsamic vinegar. As I wrote in a 2017 review of a restaurant I won’t name at this late date, “I would graciously suggest that less is more, especially when it comes to classic dishes like this salad. emblematic of Capri. Caprese is perfect as a simple and balanced presentation of fresh basil leaves, juicy fresh tomatoes and fresh, creamy mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil and a little lemon juice. [Redacted] imagine it with hints of oily, tangy pesto and a decorative criss-cross balsamic pattern…the culinary equivalent of a little too much eyeshadow and mascara. ’nuff said.
- A lot of people get upset when the menu reveals the farm of origin of meats and produce, but I like it. Support our local farmers! However, I’m not so smiling when the menu goes on to list all the interesting ingredients of the dish… without mentioning the main ingredient. Why describe a salad as “cucumbers, zucchini slices, cherry tomatoes and hearts of palm” without mentioning that it’s mostly lettuce?
- Speaking of menu trouble: if the chef decides it would be a good idea to add some hot spices to a dish that isn’t usually hot, that’s fine with me. Give me warmth. But some people are not so enthusiastic. Do it if you want, but let us know!
- According to Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, about 10% of Americans over the age of 18 consider themselves vegan or vegetarian as of January 2022, and that number is growing. Restaurants cater to this market, and that’s good. But it makes sense that the chef would dedicate the same creativity to one or two vegan entrees as he does to meat, poultry and fish. Offering a platter of side dishes won’t be enough, and slathering a grilled portobello with, yes, balsamic either. Create some really interesting plant-based starters and main courses. Ten percent of your customers will thank you.
- If you offer risotto as a main course, do it right. This classic Italian rice dish is best made to order. Unfortunately, this is a process of at least 30 minutes, which is problematic in a restaurant. A good chef can make a decent risotto ahead of time and finish it to order, but I’ve seen pitiful imitations of risotto made with long-grain rice and cream. Just say no.
- Speaking of entrees, it’s possible that some people like their entree salty made of sweet entrees, because America is in love with sugar. But really? Burgers covered in tomato “jam”? Scallops with honey vinaigrette? Brussels sprouts in a peach juice reduction? Nope. Please don’t.
- Timing matters. It can be difficult to keep on top of this in a company with labor issues, but please try to get the finished dish moving forward. Take the steak out while it’s hot, and before the heat turns off, cook it past that nice rare medium. Get that frozen treat out quickly, before it melts into a sweet but gooey mess.
- Finally, when it’s time for dessert, why rush and make us wait 20 minutes for the coffee to go with it? Some people want coffee with dessert. Ask, please! Alright, declaim. Don’t get me wrong: I still love this job and the good people in the company. But there is always room for improvement.
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