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phaelon56

Reference dish to test a cook / chef / restaurant

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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.

Well, that wouldn't cut in the Southern United States. :wink:

Proper green beans are simmered for quite a long time with some bacon or fatback and more salt than is good for you. "Crisp" they ain't. Where's Racheld when you need her to wax eloquently about this southern side dish? :laugh:


 

“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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I would say anything that the critical cooking step was done well ahead of service. That eliminates how busy the restaurant is, who you are, etc.

Anything braised, stewed, baked, or preserved would seem to be a good choice.

One's you've made your terrine for the night, it's not like you can make a new one...

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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.

I agree, I am inclined to order the most expensive item on the menu and go from there. If their best dish is crap, well then there you have it.


Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.

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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.

I am fortunate to have a chinese restaurant close by that makes theor own noodles and dumplings. But I feel your pain, and what you are getting when the dumplings are thick like that are steamed potstickers (LAZY!). Another pet peeve is frozen "peas and carrots" in the Sizzling rice soup or the fried rice.


Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.

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I have to say, I'm very sceptical about some of these choices. The Chinese dishes mentioned are all over the map, from Beijing to Sichuan to Guangdong. Unless the restaurant specializes in the particular region the dish comes from, it's very likely to be a heavily adapted version. Mapo Doufu is a particularly good example, because it's a Sichuan dish that, outside Sichuan, is almost never served as it should be, except by (good) Sichuan restaurants. Even in Hong Kong or Taiwan, you won't find good Mapo Doufu easily. On the other hand, very bad (or a kinder way to say it might be "extremely diluted") versions are available at almost every restaurant, though it's not a Cantonese dish.

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I have to say, I'm very sceptical about some of these choices. The Chinese dishes mentioned are all over the map, from Beijing to Sichuan to Guangdong. Unless the restaurant specializes in the particular region the dish comes from, it's very likely to be a heavily adapted version. Mapo Doufu is a particularly good example, because it's a Sichuan dish that, outside Sichuan, is almost never served as it should be, except by (good) Sichuan restaurants. Even in Hong Kong or Taiwan, you won't find good Mapo Doufu easily. On the other hand, very bad (or a kinder way to say it might be "extremely diluted") versions are available at almost every restaurant, though it's not a Cantonese dish.

I have to say also, that most Chinese restaurants I see in my area no longer distuinguish themselves by the Province from which their cuisines originate. Atlanta is not really known for it's chinatown though, and I have not been back to Chicago's chinatown since I was a teenager. In fact chinese restaurants do not even provide service like they did when I was a teenager. :sad: Now it all comes on one plate with a preformed upturned bowl of bland fried rice, a prefab eggroll and a chicken wing. I remember platters of food and covered dishes galore with enough for everyone at the table from just one order. All of it hot and fresh.

Although, the owner of the restaurant that makes their own noodle, and dumplings did tell me that his father is from Shanghai, and I recalled at the time and related to him that I had seen Shanghai on "No Reservations" and that there was a dumpling shop that had the locals lined up around the corner in mid-winter to order from there.


Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.

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

I would argue that these are very fundamentally different things. As an employer you are probably only interested in the technical "can you replicate this recipe perfectly a thousand times" aspect, whereas as a diner, if the original recipe was no good, who cares how good the guy in the kitchen is?

You speak of categories of restaurants: I think that the process of defining the category also defines the "litmus test" dishes. At a red-sauce "Italian" joint, try the red sauce! I mean, you are grouping them together by their main cuisine: doesn't this usually also imply basically a few main dishes (or at least very similar variants on the theme)? A restaurant that doesn't have those dishes probably doesn't belong in that category.


Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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These are all very good points on a very interesting thread...

For me, the Chinese test is Chow Mein Cantonese: how are the noodles done, what is the variety of vegetables, meats, shrimp, hows the sauce, etc.

For more generic restaurants, I guage the daily soup. Generally, if the soup is a good, homemade concoction, the other items are generally good as well.

I find steak another good indicator: is it rare as I asked? If yes, the cook is paying attention. Is it high quality? If yes, the buyer knows his stuff. Is it BIG? If yes, the owners want you to have large portions. These characteristics may spill over to other plates as well.

Mexican? I agree with Toliver; if a place has mole on the menu to begin with, it means something. If its good mole, it says volumes.

I frequent seafood joints occasionally and I always guage them on their prep of a whole fish. If they do this well, they are good in my books.

Do I use this guage to rule out restaurants? No. I simply use it as a comparison and a general feeling to a new joint.

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Just an observation:

On Kitchen Nightmares (The US version) Gordon Ramsey seems to always order calamari as a starter - don't know if it's a personal favorite or just his version of one form of vitmus test.

(I don't think he has liked anyone's yet, and even if they say they're fresh, he can always tell if they're frozen or "too mature".)

It sort of makes sense to me - I've had great plates of calamari and way more many plates of bad. Seems to be no middle ground.

J.


Jamie Lee

Beauty fades, Dumb lasts forever. - Judge Judy

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Just an observation:

On Kitchen Nightmares (The US version) Gordon Ramsey seems to always order calamari as a starter - don't know if it's a personal favorite or just his version of one form of vitmus test.

(I don't think he has liked anyone's yet, and even if they say they're fresh, he can always tell if they're frozen or "too mature".)

It sort of makes sense to me - I've had great plates of calamari and way more many plates of bad.  Seems to be no middle ground.

J.

Calamari would indeed be a good litmus test. It's either one minute cooking time or one hour. Anything in between is pure rubber. You don't want too much batter, what what of it you do have needs to be light. No grease. Clean oil. Well seasoned. And most importantly, fresh squid cut in managable pieces. Yes indeed, you may very well we right.

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So many variables to consider but freshness of the ingredients is always a good point to start in judging a restaurant.

Milky flavoured scallops are being previously forzen. Frozen carribean lobster tails are like shoe leather compared to freshly caught. Watery, flavourless fish means they've been sitting in ice water. Fresh deep frying oil will produce golden crusted products instead of dark crusts.

A good cook will have a difficult time hiding or masking old ingredientss, but freshness will not matter if the cook is inept.

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I don't know that I'd really latch onto a certain dish for a cuisine per se....

But if I really wanted to test a restaurant, I'd probably try to order the simplest, most classic seeming thing on the menu.

In some places, that's the roast chicken, in others, it's other things.

I guess the theory is that if they can still have the care/thought to pump out a good "boring" classic/simple dish, the rest of the food must be decent.

I somewhat recently tested this theory at Vegas:Bouchon.

I ordered roast chicken.... It was decent, but not great. Not quite the level of moistness I might have expected, and the flavor wasn't anything that wow'd me.

And the server was a total douchebag.... I don't use that term lightly. I was expecting Keller-style service, and this guy couldn't stop talking or veil'd insulting.... I half considered pulling him aside and telling him to cut the ****ing act, and I wasn't even paying the bill.

I suppose that could have colored my perception, but I'm pretty sure I left the restaurant with a correct impression of the food being great/decent on most fronts, ( a sous vide tongue salad was quite good) and my server a really freaking annoying anomaly.

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Just an observation:

On Kitchen Nightmares (The US version) Gordon Ramsey seems to always order calamari as a starter - don't know if it's a personal favorite or just his version of one form of vitmus test.

(I don't think he has liked anyone's yet, and even if they say they're fresh, he can always tell if they're frozen or "too mature".)

It sort of makes sense to me - I've had great plates of calamari and way more many plates of bad.  Seems to be no middle ground.

J.

I thought it was crab cake that he usually ordered, always asking if the crab meat was fresh. The server would always respond "yes". And in most cases, they were wrong. (but I do recall that he received a good one at one place)


Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"
jmeeker@eGullet.org

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