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phaelon56

Reference dish to test a cook / chef / restaurant

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This thread in the Spirits & Cocktails Forum got me thinking....

A Drink to Test a Bartender, What is a cocktail of minimum competence?

What is your reference point - as a diner or as a person screening a prospective employee?

Living in a small city with a seeming abundance of Italian restaurants - with places closing and new ones opening on a regular basis - has caused me to choose Veal Saltimbocca as my reference dish.

If I visit a new Italian restaurant in my town I'll always order that dish with a side of pasta and red sauce on my first visit. If they screw that up there's almost no chance I'll ever return there to explore the rest of their menu. If you have an Italian restaurant with a traditional Italian-American menu you'd better get veal, red sauce and pasta right on your first try.

If it's a Vietnamese restaurant I'll order the fresh spring rolls (uncooked style), a bowl of pho with rare beef and an iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk on my first visit.

My reference dessert is creme brulee for similar reasons - it's not that tough to make but it's not easy to make one that is stellar and is served at the right temperature with proper consistency.

Do you have similar reference dishes for the cuisines you either eat most often or enjoy the most and why are they your reference points?

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a good patisserie test is a lemon tart...it's got a few simple ingredients so it's all technique. i can tell if they're using cheap lemon juice, and infer that they don't use quality ingredients on other products.

a good bakery test is a baguette...all technique with only 3 ingredients.


Stephanie Crocker

Sugar Bakery + Cafe

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a good patisserie test is a lemon tart...it's got a few simple ingredients so it's all technique. i can tell if they're using cheap lemon juice, and infer that they don't use quality ingredients on other products.

a good bakery test is a baguette...all technique with only 3 ingredients.

Unfortunately I live in an area where good lemon tarts are rare in bakeries and nearly non-existent in restaurants. But many places do have creme brulee. And I've given up trying on baguettes.

But you're on to something there - if I think about my one trip to Paris (which I pray to repeat sooner than later) - we had both baguettes and lemon tarts on multiple days at a number of bakeries and patisseries - and the quality differences were revelatory.

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If I visit a new Italian restaurant in my town I'll always order that dish with a side of pasta and red sauce on my first visit.  If they screw that up there's almost no chance I'll ever return there to explore the rest of their menu.  If you have an Italian restaurant with a traditional Italian-American menu you'd better get veal, red sauce and pasta right on your first try.

If it's a Vietnamese restaurant I'll order the fresh spring rolls (uncooked style), a bowl of pho with rare beef and an iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk on my first visit.

My reference dessert is creme brulee for similar reasons - it's not that tough to make but it's not easy to make one that is stellar and is served at the right temperature with proper consistency.

I think you'll find that there are countless variations on each cuisine. Italian food is more than the upstate red sauce joints represent. I don't think even half the Vietnamese restaurants I frequent serve Pho. Creme brulee isn't on most restaurant menus. I think it's completely off the mark to try and compare a broad set of restaurants by a single dish.

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I think you'll find that there are countless variations on each cuisine.

Agreed. And if it is offered it's not as though I expect the dish to be the same in every place - I'd be disappointed if it were and would be looking for empty Sysco entree cartons behind the building if that were the case.

Italian food is more than the upstate red sauce joints represent.  I think it's completely off the mark to try and compare a broad set of restaurants by a single dish.

I'm not trying to compare a broad range of restaurants. I'm looking at a basic reference dish for a specific type of restaurant in a given geographic area and specific general price range. It will vary from area to area and individual to individual - if that person even believe there is such a thing as a culinary reference point.

I was simply stating the reference points that works for me in the community that I happen to live in at present.

There are undoubtedly some significant regional differences. But here in Syracuse and in North Jersey NYC metro area where I lived for several years nearly all Italian red sauce joints have Veal Saltimbocca on the menu.

I don't think even half the Vietnamese restaurants I frequent serve Pho.  Creme brulee isn't on most restaurant menus.

There's a fundamental difference between your area and mine. But I have visited many many Vietnamese restaurants in the US in upstate NY (Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany), Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, North Jersey, North Carolina, Los Angeles, Orange County CA and Seattle and even a few in San Francisco and the Walnut Creek area (but just a few in those areas). Every single one I visited had pho, fresh spring rolls and cafe sua da. So for me those are good reference points.

Creme brulee isn't on most restaurant menus.

I don't question that such is the case in your area. But 75% of the moderate to mid range "contemporary" places in my area and all French influenced places - from bistros up to haute wannabe's - have creme brulee on the menu.

The fact that such items may not be in style or even offered in many places in your area doesn't invalidate them as reference points for me in my area. I have a specific and limited budget for dining out and like to establish who the contenders are and aren't - in my typical price range - with a simple litmus test.

So - what is your litmus test (if you have one) for the types of food or cuisine that you favor most, prefer or go out for most often in your area?

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I’m right with you phaelon56. I am always in search of that special place, the restaurant I would lovingly refer to as “my favorite Chinese restaurant”. Can’t seem to find that place, for some reason. Every time I try a new one I order three simple things: egg rolls, hot and sour soup, and cashew chicken. That tells me all I need to know, which is whether they are better at preparing their groceries than my current not-really-favorite-but-what-the-hell-place. I usually know the answer well before I get done scraping the sugar goo off my chicken.

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Generally speaking, a salad is a good reference to start. The quality of the greens, the idea behind the particular version, and the dressing,and the execution.

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If a place serves pizza, I always go with the magarita (sp?). It isn't complicated, but it seems easy to do poorly.


Edited by MattJohnson (log)

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This may be boring but I check out the salmon and the meal size salads.

How difficult is making a salad. Obviously pretty advanced culinary skills are needed. What happened to a few onions in there? :rolleyes:

In Chinese places I go for the phantom almond cookie because I don't think anyone can dulpicate the ones we used to get. 'Course I'm kinda stuck in the salmon & salad departments so I don't get to do as much almond cookie scavaging as I might like. :raz:

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And it's not as though I expect the dish to be the same in every place - I'd be disappointed if it were and would be looking for empty Sysco entree cartons behind the building if that were the case.

There are undoubtedly some significant regional differences. But  here in Syracuse and in North Jersey NYC metro area where I lived for several years nearly all Italian red sauce joints have Veal Saltimbocca on the menu, every Vietnamese restaurant I have ever visited anywhere in the US has the  items I referenced and 75% of the moderate to mid range "contemporary" places in my area have creme brulee. 

Those items may not be in style or even offered in many places  in your area.  But that doesn't invalidate them as reference points for me in my area.  I have a specific and limited budget for dining out and like to establish who the contenders are and aren't - in my typical price range - with a simple litmus test.

So - what is your litmus test (if you have one) for the types of food or cuisine that you favor most, prefer or go out for most often in your area?

There's no single litmus test - for me, there are good restaurants, restaurants with good dishes, and bad restaurants. Good restaurants are places where you'll have a good meal more or less no matter what you order. Restaurants with good dishes are places where they've got a single or a handful of great dishes buried between a bunch of horrible things. We all already know what bad restaurants are. One restaurant making a particular dish better than another doesn't make that restaurant better - it simply means that dish is better there. Bartenders are working with similar ingredients at all bars, it's their skill that shows through in the finished drink. Restaurants start with different ingredients, recipes, techniques, etc. It can't be distilled to a single dish unless what you're looking for is your favorite pho shop, rather than the best Vietnamese restaurant.

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Interesting thought.

Might not work for everyone but a 'bellwether' dish seems to help a lot of us sort out a restaurant where we'll go to the trouble of returning, vs one that we've cut from the list of contenders.

Sometimes random chance means the one good dish is ordered, or missed. So be it. If there are a lot of places to go, its not a problem. If the market is smaller, the place may get a second chance with ordering adjusted by what was learned the first time.

I've been trying to think what my test order is, and it seems I have one for inexpensive Italian places where I'll get risotto or pasta aglio/olio or something similar first visit. At 'continental' places, its the roast duck (not on purpose to evaluate them, but if they are going to offer it, I'm going to eat it). I wont nix the place on the sauce (too sweet/sticky/sour/whatever) as that is very personal, but if the skin is yuck and the duck is dry, then I wouldnt go back. I used to order szechuan chicken in chinese places but that fell by the wayside at some point.


"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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My new one is to ask if there is cream in the Carbonara :rolleyes:

Really just reading the descriptions in some places can be very enlightening or frightening. Like your Saltimbocca, is it described as chicken with eggplant and mozz? or veal with sage and prosciutto

But I did recently have a Veal Oscar that had some mozz on the veal...a somewhat deconstructed version of the dish that was truly amazing yet not exactly Veal Oscar

eh we live in the boonies here, and the most consistant and best "restaurant" we have is Frank's Pizza...a little more atmosphere and they could triple the prices

T


Edited by rooftop1000 (log)

The great thing about barbeque is that when you get hungry 3 hours later....you can lick your fingers

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I'm a confessed chilehead so when it comes to Chinese restaurants, my yardstick is Kung Pao Chicken. Did it have spiciness like it's supposed to or was it mild?

With most Mexican restaurants, I usually choose chile verde. However, if I see they offer something with a mole sauce, I'll go with that instead. If their mole is good, then I think it's safe to say they know what they're doing in the kitchen.

As for Italian, I usually try anything that will have their red sauce since a lot of menu items come with it. If the red sauce isn't good, then most of their dishes won't be good either.


 

“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

 

Tim Oliver

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Interesting topic. My only check that I do for food is Ma Po Tofu at a new Chinese place. Since most of the Chinese here seem to be from Taiwan or Cantonese districts it makes for an interesting question. And even more interesting results. I will never forget the one place where the lady asked me "why would you want pork on tofu?" when I inquired about the dish.

But, I have also found some stars out there. Little mom and pop shops that, bless them, even deliver. And someone in the back of the house has been up north.

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Interesting topic.  My only check that I do for food is Ma Po Tofu at a new Chinese place. 

At any Chinese take-out place I'm trying for the first time I go with hot and sour soup and some steamed dumplings. Unfortunately - what i receive is nearly always the same stuff - soup that isn't spicy enough and generic frozen dumplings with a thick pasty skin - obviously pre-made industrial glop.

Last year we were fortunate enough to get a new Chinese restaurant that was not only on my way home from work but made their own dumplings, sauces and soup from scratch with high quality ingredients. If they had opened in a cheap rent take-out only space they might have prospered but they had a high rent space with a huge dining room that stayed empty nearly all the time - and were gone in six months.

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At any Chinese take-out place I'm trying for the first time I go with hot and sour soup and some steamed dumplings...

I've thought about using Hot and Sour soup as a yardstick. The reason I decided against it is because when it's poorly made, it's not edible. That a Chinese restaurant doesn't even offer it can be used as a gauge, as well.


 

“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

 

Tim Oliver

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For a French place (or French-inspired) I'd go with Roast Chicken. It's an easy dish to get wrong, but with the right chicken it's hard to get wrong. For a place that is near a shoreline, I'd go with seafood. For Italian I'd try any pasta dish - just to see if they make their own pasta. For Thai I always get the green curry. BBQ I always go with the brisket. For a breakfast place I always try 2 eggs sunny-side up. That's a hard preparation during a rush.


"A culture's appetite always springs from its poor" - John Thorne

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mmm..let's see for Indian - the Butter Chicken and the Naan

If a restaurant is sepcifically South Indian - then the masala dosa

Thai - panang tofu curry

American Chinese - General Tso's chicken or shrimp as the cae may be.

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For a French place (or French-inspired) I'd go with Roast Chicken. It's an easy dish to get wrong, but with the right chicken it's hard to get wrong.  For a place that is near a shoreline, I'd go with seafood. For Italian I'd try any pasta dish - just to see if they make their own pasta. For Thai I always get the green curry. BBQ I always go with the brisket. For a breakfast place I always try 2 eggs sunny-side up. That's a hard preparation during a rush.

I second pretty much everything said here. As a professional chef it's all these dishes that are the true test of a cook because there's nothing to hide the mistakes you make. When I get a new cook in the kitchen I test him with his roast chicken it's either really good or horrible.


"Dio non ha creato che l'aqua... l'uomo ha fatto il vino

-God created the water...man made the wine.

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But many places do have creme brulee.  And I've given up trying on baguettes.

The baguette is a lost cause in america, isn't it :sad:

I don't use it as a litmus test per se, but creme brulee has made or ruined many a meal finale for me.

The most common creme brulee problem - cooking at too high a temp! curdled and broken, you can tell someone thought that doing something fast was just as good as doing something well. Impossible to tell if it was a retaurant systemic issue with management (work faster!!), or just one bad chef - so I don't usually throw the restaurant out completely over it.

I don't bother with the creme brulee again though :biggrin:

edited for typo


Edited by chickie (log)

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For a breakfast it would be scrambled eggs, but would I be brave enough to risk it?

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For a breakfast it would be scrambled eggs, but would I be brave enough to risk it?

There are so few places who do scrambled eggs properly. Very hard to find a good one short of a good hotel restaurant. They are either crumbled and overdone, grossly runny, or..the worst...a thin layer of egg cooked on a glowing flat top in a few seconds.


Edited by gfweb (log)

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I once subscribed to the premise of this, but I no longer do.

Instead, I try to speak to the owner, or the chef (by sneaking into the kitchen) and asking them to recommend what they think is their specialty, their best dish, and I usually test them with that.

If it's great, I'll come back and try something else. If it's terrible, and it's their pride and joy, they'll never see me again.

Mind you, this doesn't rule out their recommending something extremely simple, if they feel they do it well.

But a lot of places have things on the menu because people demand them, and while they may make them well, what's the point, if the chef has other strengths?

I want the chef to tell me what he thinks is his best dish, and let me judge him on that.

And I say this after many, many, (many) years of thinking that I had to test out a restaurant by how they made a particular standard. But if the chef's strength is a light and deft hand with seafood, or an amazing skill at grilling, I'm going to miss that if I arbitrarily choose a dish that isn't his forte. I don't know if this will make sense to anybody reading it, but it makes sense to me.


Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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If you REALLY want to test a chef on his knowledge of food. Ask him to cook green beans, watch him get his mise en place, wash the food, cook it to the right crispness.

Ask them how to make french fries from scratch. Ask him, what kind of cut it is. Ask him what kind of potato is used, watch him gather mise en place, wash produce, are the cuts proportionate to each other, did he blanch them, then refry? What were the temps?

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If you REALLY want to test a chef on his knowledge of food. Ask him to cook green beans, watch him get his mise en place, wash the food, cook it to the right crispness.

Ask them how to make french fries from scratch. Ask him, what kind of cut it is. Ask him what kind of potato is used, watch him gather mise en place, wash produce, are the cuts proportionate to each other, did he blanch them, then refry? What were the temps?

Ya know it's amazing how many people that call themselves cooks don't know how to make a French Frie from scratch.


"And in the meantime, listen to your appetite and play with your food."

Alton Brown, Good Eats

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