Don’t covet your neighbor’s dinner – order for flavor and experience!
Reading a menu at your favorite restaurant can be a lot of fun (especially if they’ve added new items that you haven’t tried) unless you’ve waited too long to eat and you’re starving! Then your eyes start darting around and you’re completely distracted by all those beautiful dishes passing you by – and at nose level! I suggest buying time with some bread so that you can actually pay attention to the dishes that the chef spent so much time creating. Go ahead, order the drinks to start and with a few bites of bread to calm those hunger pangs you’re ready to go.
Over the more than 20 years that I owned restaurants we approached menu creation logically. When my chefs came to me with menu ideas, our goal was to create menus that offered guests a chance to experience a particular flavor combination using what was in season, especially if one of us had just returned from travel with new ideas. I wanted our guests to enjoy the food, the friendship that brought them to the table, but definitely not to envy each other’s dinner because they thought they’d ordered wrong.
That’s where the art of ordering from a menu comes into play.
Your response might be “Ordering from a menu is art?” Depending on the restaurant, yes; just as much as it is an art in preparing the food for you to enjoy.
When I was a child, my parents had friends from China who frequented our dinner table. It was at that time that I learned how many Asian families prepare and eat food: small dishes of all kinds of different preparations, shared around the table so that everyone got a taste of something different. It was one big social experience that happened to involve food. I didn’t realize it then but it’s the perfect way to eat a meal – tasting multiple dishes.
Mexican and Spanish “tapas” (snacks or small plates) cuisine has evolved in the same way. Everyone orders their favorite dish to share with everyone else at the table – what we used to call “family style dining.” This style of restaurant (shared plates) and type of ordering has become extremely popular. Everyone gets to order something that has caught their eye on the menu and the whole table gets to taste different dishes that they might not have tried before.
The traditional way of ordering from a menu, what you might call the “mainstream” approach, is to order by course – appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert (if you can manage it) – none of which is shared, except for maybe a bite or two that someone else at the table might ask to taste from what you had ordered. The problem is that many people look at the entrées first to decide what they want for their main course and then they decide if they want an appetizer or salad. That is exactly the opposite of what I do even if I’m at a traditional restaurant and not a tapas style place.
It doesn’t matter if I’m at Sfixio, one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, Charcoal Venice, in Los Angeles where everything is wood-fired and delicious, or the incredible restaurant at The NoMad Hotel in New York City that I make sure I visit every time I’m there so I can indulge in as many appetizers as I can handle and still have room for “Chicken”. I always order the same way.
Look at the menu carefully and you will see that the chef is his most creative in the appetizer section and perhaps even in side dishes. I’ve found that these dishes tell more of the story of the chef and the type of food he wants to share than anywhere else on the menu.
If I am with at least one other person, we find at least two-three appetizers that we both are happy with, find a side dish or two that look good and then maybe share one entrée if we’re hungry. Of course, if those appetizers look absolutely amazing then we might just add a couple more and skip the entrée all together. If it’s a party of four, then I add at least one or two more appetizers, another side and a second entrée.
You will get to taste more items on the menu than if you just ordered by “course” and you’ll also understand better how the chef views food. Perfect!
Then, of course, you might still have room for dessert.
PHOTO: Oysters Josper, from Charcoal Venice