Anyone else use "benchmark dishes" for a new restaurant?

In a new place I’ll order one of that day’s specials.

If it seems to be a situation where the “special” is a way of getting rid of something that is close to going bad, I’ll never go there again.

If it seems the “special” is a way to show off something they are especially proud of, and if the pride is deserving, I’ll return.

Deli / ultracasual Italian / pizza joint, my benchmark dish is the cheesesteak. Ideally it should not be dry, be made of a tasty meat, but cooked in oil that’s a little past its sell by date. (And Subway, I’m looking at you) and when I ask for a cheesesteak you do not say “oh, you mean a Philly cheese steak”?

I think it probably makes more sense to reverse that. E.g. Chinese restaurants with a buffet are often bad.

According to Anthony Bourdain, that’s the entire purpose of specials at any restaurant. He advises always avoiding any specials.

This is profound.

At Chinese restaurants, I usually go by the hot-and-sour soup. If it’s overly sweet and gummy, that’s a bad sign.

Thai restaurants, the green curry. If I order it hot, does it actually come hot? Is there flavor to it beyond just “spicy”?

And yeah, good fries are an indicator of a good restaurant generally. (I mean, assuming fries are on the menu. :stuck_out_tongue: )

Did he actually say that, that that’s the “entire purpose”? Because that’s a pretty stupid thing to say, and he should know better. Specials at the restaurants I go to usually consist of very seasonal items or a chef experimenting with a recipe for a new menu, or things of that nature. Most of the time, it has very little to do with the types of ingredients that would be around the permanent menu. For example, one little Yucatecan place I go to will occasionally have white posole on the menu, or chiles en nogada, or a baby shark with tortilla dish, based on the time of year, the availability of the ingredients, the quality of the ingredients, etc. Sure, you may have some specials that are “let’s clear out the leftover food before it goes bad” sorts of thing, but that’s hardly the rule, and not at all “the entire purpose of specials.”

Tony is frequenting the wrong places. :stuck_out_tongue:

Or else I have been very lucky. I have a short list of restaurants I love, owned/managed by foodies. If they are offering something as a special, it is indeed.

ETA: yeah, what pulykamell said!

It’s been a while since I read Kitchen Confidential and I don’t have a copy handy, but I thought Bourdain was advising specifically against ordering fish specials, particularly on Mondays.

That I do remember from the book. A more general warning concerning all specials, I don’t.

Anything trying to pass itself off as an Irish pub had better serve a good Shepherd’s Pie. I wrote one place off last year when I got what appeared to be a sloppy joe under instant mashed potatoes.

As for the warnings about specials and chicken-fried steak, I must digress. One of my favorite places has a small ‘regular’ menu (with an excellent chicken-fried steak) and a blackboard with a minimum of seven specials; every night is different, and certainly not anything they’re trying to get rid of. To the contrary, if you arrive too late, half of them will be erased.

[quote=“silenus, post:3, topic:621959”]

Reported for forum change.

That said, oh yeah. I always order chili relleno at a new Mexican place. If they make that right, chances are they’ll do most everything else right. QUOTE]

This. The chile relleno is my test for a Mexican restaurant.

(One of these days, I have to eat and drink with silenus. It’s uncanny how similar our palates are!)

At a steak place I go with a ribeye. It is a good indicator of the quality of meat they use and very easy to cook poorly. It also is a good indicator of their philosophy of seasoning whether salt & pepper or compound butter or sauce because with a ribeye, less is more and if they are going to drown a ribeye in a ton of other flavors, then something is wrong.

For Italian restaurant it a chicken parmasan. I make a pretty good one at home, not too bready, homemade marinara and lots of cheese with roasted garlic bread. It makes it pretty obvious if the restaurant is using frozen chicken.

I don’t remember his exact words, but they were along the line of “Never order a special because that’s what restaurants use to get rid of the ingredients that they would otherwise have to throw out.”

In Chinese restaurants I use the Kung Pao dish, or the Szecvhuan Spcy Beef.

In Italian restaurants, it’s the Chicken Piccata, partly becazuse it doesn’t involve tomatoes, partly because if it’s bad, it’s very obvious.

If that’s what it is, it is, indeed, an incredibly dumb thing to say. I don’t think he said that. He’s talked about not ordering fish on Mondays; he’s talked about being wary of brunches, as well as permanent menu items that look like dumping grounds for leftovers. I don’t necessarily agree with all those (nothing wrong with leftovers in, say, Shepherd’s pie), but I understand what he’s saying. I would be shocked if he said to avoid specials as a general rule. Most specials, in my experience, are truly showcase items.

Then there is the piece de resistance; when the owner comes to your table and mentions a special not on the list. “I know you love xxxx, well the chef would like to offer to make you xxxx tonight.”

I use a couple of things, but they aren’t dishes; bread and wine.

In general, warm bread is a warning sign. It’s normally a sign that it was in the freezer ten minutes before. White wine shouldn’t be totally frigid. The good stuff is often quite happy being 45°. Red wine is best served at slightly below room temperature. If a restaurant goes to the trouble of serving it at the proper temperature, I assume they care about what they are doing.

Supposedly, tamago nigiri is a common benchmark dish for sushi restaurants. Done properly, it’s a delicate mix of sweet and savory and also really highlights the quality of the rice.

I want some tamago now.

Ah, yes, tamago. I love sushi, but I don’t eat it with regularity. However, my cousin does and that is indeed his benchmark for a sushi restaurant.