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Breaking the code to ordering.


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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. When I failed by ordering an 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. 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 window into 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.

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.

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 thinking about that stuff. If they go into the kitchen to check, that's still better than a shrugged "from a can."

"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, who owes whom a favor, and who in the kitchen has the hots for your server.

Sometimes you have so little information to work with, or such unappealing options, that you have to punt. If your dining companions are running out of patience because you're dallying their dinner hour away, and you have it narrowed down but can't decide, here's a way to trick your gut into tipping its hand: Flip a coin.

Tell yourself, "Heads, the foie gras; tails, the French fries." If, once the coin decides, you hear yourself whispering a relieved "yes!" then there's your answer. But if you feel a twinge of disappointment at the coin-toss result, you can disregard the toss because you no longer need it. Your gut has spoken.

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