September 22, 2007

What to look for when dining out

Lately I have been talking a lot about the bad things at a restaurant. But we all eat out, several times a week or even several times a day.

Last night I had cioppino at my favorite Italian restaurant Lucia in New Milford. The seafood was simply prepared in a little wine and lemon sauce. My wife enjoyed veal and asked for broccoli rabe on the side. A little wine, a little espresso and, later, at home, a little limoncello, made eating out, a dining-out pleasure.

So how do you find these restaurant gems hidden in a sea of unhealthy meat markets? What are the clues that waffed into your senses as you walk into a restaurant?

Karla Cook of the International Herald Tribune talked to restaurateurs and drew upon her experience as a restaurant critic to offer sage advice.

First. as you are waiting for a table or just opening the menu, spy on your neighbor. Did the chef take his time with the side dishes?
"Look over your neighbor's shoulder," says Betty Fussell, an author living in New York. "It's good to know the size of the portions. And check out the joint, to see what other people are eating.' Are vegetables, whole grains and fruits and vegetables commanding half the plate, or are green beans a garnish? Is there too much rice? Is sauce lapping over the sides of the platter? Is there, as Rodgers disdainly describes it, 'excess for the sake of excess?'"

"The value of my dollar isn't based on how much food is on my plate," he said. "It's based on the dish itself and the quality of ingredients, the flavors and the overall dining experience."

Next, look for menu clues: light, fresh and sustainable. A small and simple menu is probably a great indication of a kitchen that changes with the season and keeps less perishable food lying around.

A promising sign on a printed menu is provenance plus preparation, like "grilled Barnegat Light scallops," with a description of "New Jersey dandelion, guanciale, celery," at Blue.

The item and its ingredients seem to indicate an interest in buying local, in perhaps paying more for it, and, possibly care to make the most of the ingredients. I ordered it, and was right.

Watch out for foods that are out of season. Where did those peaches and tomatoes come from in December?

On the other hand, peaches and tomatoes on the menu in winter should raise an eyebrow, says Nils Norén, vice president of culinary arts at the French Culinary Institute in New York.

Specials can indicate either too much inventory or a chef's treasure, with price as a rough guideline. "If it's really inexpensive, or looks like a great deal, it might be too good of a deal," says Noren.

And always custom order for yourself. Substitute broccoli rabe for French fries.

Finally, no menu should say "freshly made" or "grilled to perfection". Isn't that what you're paying for?
Buon appetito!

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