Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

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Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Daniel Rogov » Sat Jan 17, 2009 10:47 am

Is there a particular food or dish by which you measure the quality of a restaurant? If so, what is that dish (or dishes) and why do you use those as your measure?

With thanks to Matilda for suggesting this poll…..
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Carrie L. » Sat Jan 17, 2009 12:19 pm

Daniel Rogov wrote:Is there a particular food or dish by which you measure the quality of a restaurant? If so, what is that dish (or dishes) and why do you use those as your measure?

With thanks to Matilda for suggesting this poll…..


I would have to say, Sauces. They should be perfectly balanced and seasoned to enhance (not mask) whatever is being "sauced." This includes salad dressings.
I would add to that perfectly cooked proteins. Fish that is moist, duck with crispy skin, steak with a good char, lamb that almost melts in your mouth. You get the idea...
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Carl Eppig » Sat Jan 17, 2009 12:34 pm

The price, value, and quality of wine. If we have to resort to ale in an upscale restaurant we worn't go back, no matter how good the food is.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Robin Garr » Sat Jan 17, 2009 1:25 pm

Interesting question, Daniel. When I'm wearing my restaurant critic's hat, I generally follow a couple of basic principles rather than calling for specific dishes.

1) If the menu has a section called "specialties of the house" or "chef's choice" or similar title, I'll choose at least one dish from that list, assuming that it's the selection that they consider representative of their art and makes them proud.

2) Choose at least one dish that requires some skill in preparation.

Daniel Rogov wrote:Is there a particular food or dish by which you measure the quality of a restaurant? If so, what is that dish (or dishes) and why do you use those as your measure?

With thanks to Matilda for suggesting this poll…..
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Shel T » Sat Jan 17, 2009 3:38 pm

Personally Daniel, am finding this question difficult to virtually impossible to answer. Because once you exclude the 'specialty' places, I.E. steak, burger, BBQ, lobster restos, then I think the entire package is what's important, ambience, service, attitude and the cuisine, from which presumably you don't always choose the same dish.
Wouldn't that be the way you review a restaurant Daniel?
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Daniel Rogov » Sat Jan 17, 2009 4:28 pm

Shel, Hi.....

I was going to hold until towards the end of next week to comment here but your questions need answering.

It was Eric Berne who wrote "Games People Play". One day, perhaps I shall write "Games Critics Play" for indeed we do have our repertoire. Quite often in any restaurant, regardless of whether it is a classic French restaurant, a burger joint, a steak house, a seafood restaurant, one of the dishes that I will order will be the one they consider their flagship offering. In such cases, regardless of whether I have been recognized or not, I go along with Robert Courtine's dictate to the effect that "if they don't make it (their flagship dish) perfectly that only proves that they are incapable of doing it perfectly. Beyond that, however, I tend to order several of the most standard dishes on the menu, for as standards they too should approach perfection.

In the case of an upswing steak house, for example, I will surely order one of their specialty cuts but almost invariably ask for it to be prepared with a sauce that is not listed on the menu, that showing both the potential or lack thereof for flexibility of the restaurant. It also gives me a chance to learn whether the kitchen is well versed enough to provide a sauce that is easy enough to make but not necessarily "standard" (e.g. Beauharnais as opposed to the offered Bearnaise).

In situations of re-visits, I will order a dish that I have had on an earlier visit, that giving me a chance to see whether consistency is being maintained. In restaurants that are specificallly kosher, I will almost order either the fillet steak or the entrecote because both of those require special care because of limitations caused by the rules of kashrut.

In restaurants that some consider "ethnic" (I always smile, wondering to whom the restaurant is "ethnic") I will, in addition to a variety of dishes, order those dishes that I can compare to other samplings, ideally in the country or region from which they originated. As in many places, I try to select dishes that are quite traditional (within a given framework of course) in order to make comparisons. In an Italian trattoria for example, if lasagna al forno is on the menu, that will certainly make its way to my table as this is a dish that while giving the illusion of ease to prepare, can be pretty tricky indeed if it is to be up to standards.

In every supposedly prestigious restaurant I visit, I will order a tomato salad, having taken that trick too from Courtine, and if the tomatoes are not peeled and I am not asked what kind of vinaigrette I prefer, that earns a few bad points.

As to other tricks - when on the menu I will often order a "truffled dish" in order to see if they used truffles, truffle oil that was made on the premises or some artificial truffle flavoring; if Cornish game hens on offered, I will order that dish to be certain that the restaurant is really serving Cornish game hens (god bless Victor Borge) and not far less expensive squab; when Stilton is ordered, at least a bit will make its way to my plate so that I can see if it is true Stilton and not a super-market quality bleu that is being delivered. Not to forget - if the ever-present tiramisu is on the menu, that will be ordered. As there are tiramisu offerings to be despised and sent packing straight to Hell, so are there those that deserve to be adored and shared with the angels.

Oh yes - quite important - whatever I order it will be a dish that I would look forward to - ordering things that I do not normally enjoy would be rather silly. Happily that is one of the reasons why I almost always attend restaurants in the company of at least one other person. Also important - dining out can give such great pleasure, I most often add to that pleasure by ensuring that my "companions" are far more often women, men being the exception only in the case of one or two dear friends or on more-or-less journalistic lunch or dinner meetings (e.g. invited winemakers or colleagues from abroad).

Enough...I could go on for hours.

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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Shel T » Sat Jan 17, 2009 5:48 pm

My Gawd Daniel, are you saying that restauranteurs would employ "deception" in the ingredients and dishes they present...HORRORS!
Well LOL, I see why you're a good resto critic and the 'tricks' you listed are worth noting.
Now ethnic restos, didn't think about it until you mentioned it, but when trying a new thai, Indian or Chinese resto for example, almost always will order what most consider a 'signature' dish for that cuisine and if that passes muster, then probably the less publicly popular dishes will be good, hopefully outstanding.
My first time choices for Thai are Tom Kha Gai, Pad Thai and Yellow Chicken Curry, for Indian, Chicken Tikka Masala (the English invention!) onion bhaji and lamb dhansak, and for Chinese, hot & sour soup, either Peking or crispy duck and sometimes Szechuan pork.
I suppose life would be 'easier' if I could apply narrow selections to Western cuisine, but alas, not happening.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Daniel Rogov » Sat Jan 17, 2009 6:16 pm

Shel T wrote:My Gawd Daniel, are you saying that restauranteurs would employ "deception" in the ingredients and dishes they present...HORRORS!


The best known of such "deceptions" is that when you order rabbit in a Parisian restaurant, the chances are about 50% that you will receive cat. Interestingly, when served with the appropriate sauce, virtually impossible to know the difference. Only if you're lucky enough to receive part of the rib section will you see the difference. C'est la vie Parisienne

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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Matilda L » Sat Jan 17, 2009 7:54 pm

Chat a la moutarde? Good grief!
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Shel T » Sat Jan 17, 2009 9:30 pm

Daniel Rogov wrote:
Shel T wrote:My Gawd Daniel, are you saying that restauranteurs would employ "deception" in the ingredients and dishes they present...HORRORS!


The best known of such "deceptions" is that when you order rabbit in a Parisian restaurant, the chances are about 50% that you will receive cat. Interestingly, when served with the appropriate sauce, virtually impossible to know the difference. Only if you're lucky enough to receive part of the rib section will you see the difference. C'est la vie Parisienne

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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Matilda L » Sun Jan 18, 2009 6:56 pm

I like Thai food, and have tried the green chicken curry at many Thai restaurants. Green chicken curry is one of those very ordinary dishes, possibly seen as unexciting or unadventurous. But in some places, the green chicken curry is delightful, and obviously treated with respect. But I don't suppose it follows that if a restaurant does its green chicken curry well, that all else will necessarily be good.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Jenise » Mon Jan 19, 2009 5:27 pm

In Chinese restaurants in America (where the dishes all tend to be the same), I can pretty much judge the skill of the kitchen and bent of the restaurant overall by ordering Mongolian Beef and Kung Pao Chicken. In a Thai place, pad thai with tofu will reveal a lot about kitchen skills as will a beef taco and a cheese enchilada in a Mexican joint. But in other restaurants, I don't have any yardstick, though I can tell a lot about the restaurant's commitment to ingredient quality and attention to detail by the way they handle salads. Never does a great restaurant serve an overdressed, limp, inarticulate salad, and in any restaurant I've been served such a thing the meal that followed seemed to show a restaurant that cut every other corner it could, too.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Matilda L » Tue Jan 20, 2009 12:02 am

inarticulate salad


That is just about the best descriptor for an unsuccessful salad I have ever read.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Dave R » Tue Jan 20, 2009 5:26 pm

Good poll subject Matilda. I can tell a lot about a restaurant by the token vegetarian item they have on the menu. If that item is well conceived and executed flawlessly chances are the normal stuff is good as well.

Roast chicken is also a good way to measure restaurant quality.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Stuart Yaniger » Wed Jan 21, 2009 12:04 am

That leaves out 95% of restaurants. Oh, wait, it's Sturgeon's Law again!
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby ChefJCarey » Wed Jan 21, 2009 11:14 am

I don't know what to say. For once I am speechless.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Daniel Rogov » Thu Jan 22, 2009 3:43 am

Chef, Hi......

Why speechless? Necessary perhaps to acknowledge that being critical is one of the things that makes us human. That the mere act of cognition involves making comparisons and judgements and that those equate quite comfortably with the evluation of quality.

More than that, any person (chef, plastic artist, dentist, critic) who performs any public act is open to criticism. As we hope the chef is talented and shows imagination and creativity,let us simply hope that the critic is intelligent at whatever his/her level of knowledge.

Indeed, I may not expect the same level of performance from even the finest home cook as I do from the professional chef and his/her staff. On the same plane, I do not expect the same level of performance from the "mere" observer or commentator as I do from the professional. Regardless, each at his/her level is entitled to the expression of satisfaction, dis-satisfaction and/or evaluation.



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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby ChefJCarey » Thu Jan 22, 2009 10:21 am

More than that, any person (chef, plastic artist, dentist, critic) who performs any public act is open to criticism. As we hope the chef is talented and shows imagination and creativity,let us simply hope that the critic is intelligent at whatever his/her level of knowledge.


There's the rub, Daniel. I'm not saying anything about you or Robin with my previously indicated lack of eloquence on this topic.

It was what some of the other folks said about how they judged a restaurant. Everybody thinks they are qualified to pass judgment on a restaurant. After all they paid their money. In this arena everybody is a critic. All think they are qualified to pass judgment because...well... because they eat. They judge ambiance, cleanliness, presentation, service, decor, china color, noise level, odor, menu calligraphy etc. They are CRITICS! I think the taste and quality of the food actually get lost sometimes.

Also, in my experience, just about every publication that has dispatched an employee to pass judgment on our fare has taken absolutely no pains to determine whether or not that individual had any qualifications or background. Of course, I am not talking about the big publications here, the ones that are right on top of whatever dernier cri is being sold to the dining public. I'm talking about only 90% or so of the restaurant criticism in the US of A.

One anecdotal example of what I'm talking about here. After spending sixteen years in the San Francisco Bay Area as a chef I relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. I opened my school and taught for a year. I got so many requests to open a restaurant that I finally succumbed when I found a 19th century carriage house I thought was suitable.

I crafted a menu that I thought was not too cutting-edge for the MidSouth. I trained my staff extensively. (Here's problem number one: everywhere in this country - except the half dozen dining meccas - waitstaff are not going to be professionals. You got to go with what you got). I did develop what I thought a well-crafted wine list, about 150 bottles, new and old world.

The critic shows up. (I admit I was tipped off). She got top notch service. She ordered a "house" salad - consisted of what we then called "Lamb's lettuce", mesclun, sun-dried tomatoes, a couple of oval garlic croutons, and topped enoki mushrooms and a citron vinaigrette.

She first asked the waiter what the white things were. He told her.

She than asked, "What're those things?" indicating the sun-dried tomatoes. (I introduced them to Memphis apparently).

"Madam, they are sun-dried tomatoes," he informed her.

"Oh, kinda like a tomato raisin," she said pushing them to the side of her plate.

He then proffered her the wine list.

"Oh, no thanks, I don't drink. I'll just have water," she said.

I can't go on. It brings a tear to my eye.

(I admit, did get good reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle when I was in the Bay Area and New West magazine, ironically enough, in light of the above story, said I made the best salad in the Bay Area).

I really cannot be at all objective on this topic.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby David M. Bueker » Thu Jan 22, 2009 11:20 am

ChefJCarey wrote: I think the taste and quality of the food actually get lost sometimes.


In my (admittedly limited) experience the taste of food does get lost - by the restaurant. They're so focused on the "experience" that the basics are missed.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Bill Spohn » Thu Jan 22, 2009 11:34 am

David M. Bueker wrote:
ChefJCarey wrote: I think the taste and quality of the food actually get lost sometimes.


In my (admittedly limited) experience the taste of food does get lost - by the restaurant. They're so focused on the "experience" that the basics are missed.


You must have eaten at the same ones I've been to. The attitude often brooks no dispute - they ARE the greatest and if you dare to point out that they haven't perpared your dish the way you asked for it or that the wine is corked etc., you get argument instead of apology. Some don't have the attitude, but still the best part is the decor with food quality being mundane and the owners apparently happy with that.

I'd rather eat first class food in second class surroundings (and have, many times) but I expect that the restaurateurs are right in thinking that surroundings will impress TGU (the Great Unwashed) who for the most part wouldn't know a boudin from an Oscar Meyer anyway.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Daniel Rogov » Thu Jan 22, 2009 2:05 pm

Chef, Hi.....

You write, in the tone of complaint that
... Everybody thinks they are qualified to pass judgment on a restaurant. After all they paid their money.


My own take is that for true and for real, the very fact that they did pay their money gives them the right to pass judgement on the restaurant. I'm not going to argue that everyone is a qualified critic but I am going to argue that every person who dines in a restaurant is entitled to his or her opinion. If they did not have an opinion it would indicate only one thing - that they were brain dead.

You also seem to base your assumption on the premise that criticism is going to be negative. What of positive criticism? That is to say of the client (or, for that matter, the professional critic) who leaves your establishment with nothing but good things to say. That too is criticism. One does assume that people leaving a restaurant are going to be either satisfied or dis-satisfied. Whatever their opinion, that too is a critique.

You go on to say that
...all think they are qualified to pass judgement because ...well...becuse they eat

Indeed they are qualified and that simply by the fact that one of their goals in coming to a restaurant is precisely to eat. I would expect no person with a normally functioning brain to leave any restaurant without having formed an opinion of the food and other factors. As much as I hate to say it, one of the roles of the chef and/or restaurateur is to work towards that point where the vast majority of people who visit will leve with a feeling of satisfaction. Those that leave satisfied will return. They may well even recommend the establishment to others. Those who leave dissatisfied will not return.

You also say that
..,.they judge ambiance, cleanliness, presentation, service, decor, china color, noise level, odor, menu calligraphy etc. ...


Damned right they do and damned right they should! Atmosphere and service are distinct parts of the pleasure (or lack thereof) of dining out. You know as well if not better than I that a bad waiter can turn even the most exquisite meal into an evening of torture while a good waiter can elevate even a mediocre meal into a most pleasurable experience. Many, many factors can impact on how much or little one enjoys one's meal. Ever tried eating on dark purple plates or on stained tablecloths?

Finally, you say
...I think the taste and quality of the food actually get lost sometimes
. On that we agree but I think we would also agree that at any level the taste and quality of the food, as critical as it is to the success of any meal, cannot stand fully alone. Nor should we forget that at any level of restaurant (from the mass-market to the most exclusive) that clients come with a set of expectations. If those expectations are met, clients leave with a feeling of contendedness. If those expectations are not met, they leave feeling unhappy.

I am not at all by the way saying that the customer is always right. I am, however saying that the customer is always the customer and in that is the raison d'etre of the chef. Chefs and restaurateurs cannot cook and do business for their own pleasure. The pleasure must be that of those who come to dine at their establishments.

And, not to let myself off the hook as a professional critic, the chef and the critic share the same clients. It is precisely the same people who dine at your retaurants as who read our columns. In that they will pass judgement (i.e. be critics) of both the restaurant and the professional critic. As to critics who are not professionals, let us forgive them in the same way that we forgive the great number of those who call themselves chefs and have never managed to figure out the difference between a Sauce Bearnaise and a Sauce Beauharnaise or who lack the imagination or talent that would take them beyond the literal and proverbial joy of cooking.

Let it be acknowledged loudly and clearly that the ultimate critics are neither the chefs nor the paid critics but our clients - those who dine with us or who read us. Indeed, by heaven, it is precisely that they have paid for those privileges that gives them the right to be our critics.

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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby ChefJCarey » Thu Jan 22, 2009 6:29 pm

There is much truth in what you say, Daniel.

You did not address my principal complaint - the one that affects far too many chefs in this country. Over 90% of those designated, by this publication or that, to critique restaurants are unqualified to do so.

I did intend to stay out of this thread because those of us who are looking out of the kitchen really do have a different perspective.
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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Daniel Rogov » Thu Jan 22, 2009 7:07 pm

Chef, Hi.....

With re the hypothesis that many who write criticisms for various publications are unqualified is a sad state, both for your profession and my own, and on that we have no disagreement whatsoever.

As to having a different perspective .... perhaps not as different as think. The professional chef and the professional critic are not, as is often assumed, in an adversarial relationship but in a collegial one - that is to say a relationship that can be compolementary to both "sides", much depending how we interact with one another and the extent to which we approach our work as professionals. In a sense, chefs have something to sell and critics are deciding what is worth buying. The ultimate critics of course are the people who attend restaurants.

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Re: Culinary Poll # 24: Measuring the Quality of a Restaurant

Postby Jenise » Thu Jan 22, 2009 7:16 pm

ChefJCarey wrote:I really cannot be at all objective on this topic.


Clearly.

You know what, I know a number of chefs. And over the years every single one of them has struggled with the need to cook for, and sometimes down to, the palates of the often unsophisticated and uneducated palates of the patrons whose money is what keeps them in business. They struggle not to become too resentful of the fact that their very livelihood depends on the kind of person who orders cassoulet and yet is disppointed to receive a 'casserole'. They suffer in silence every time they have to cook a steak well done. They roll their eyes in dread every time the buffoons show up, the patrons for whom a meal would not be complete without summoning the chef to their table to be congratulated in laborious, clueless detail on every aspect of the meal they just enjoyed. All very understandable.

But that's not the people of this board. We are not the critic who didn't 'get' your salad all those years ago. We are instead the more discerning among the patrons who made your kind of livelihood possible. We have taste. We care deeply about the quality of what we eat. We know what sun-dried tomatoes are! And though it obviously chagrins you, we walk into new restaurants and by various means attempt to determine, not the grand scale of whether a restaurant should live or die as you seem to take it, but on a much more micro and practical plane: whether or not this is an establishment we would want to come back to. And whether we do that by the sauce or the salad or the chandelier, until restaurants give away their food for free we'll continue to do it and by exercising the only power that we have--our feet and our wallets. Like it or not, agree with our methods or not, that IS how the world is, this is who you're cooking for and dependant upon and therefore some respect is essential. Your contempt is most out of place and unwelcome.
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