Strategy for The Menu

Sometimes, it's a slam-dunk, and only a quick-parse of the menu is all that's needed for me to make a decision. It might be a dish for which the restaurant is famous, standing out like a sore Zagat guide-flipping-thumb or an ingredient combination so classic, simple, and austere, it beckons like the softness of your own bed after a long business trip.

And then there's the other 98% of the time.

Those other times it takes me several parsings of the menu to even begin to think about what I might want. I mean, we're talking here about the fundamental fuel of life and choosing the substance which will, in a short time, actually "become you" isn't a decision to be made lightly. Your options are handed to you mere moments from a bustling city, often at the end of a work day that confounds (and often annoys) you. You're still a bit rattled from the rattles eminated during the high-speed cab ride, a bit disoriented, and now must quickly transition into “food mode”.

In most cases, you've no idea what to expect until you see the menu. It's like a quiz for which (lacking a web browser and the foresight to look up the menu online) there is no means of research. Good menus change daily and updating the online version is a luxury to diners afforded by only a few restaurants.

With no decision in sight, your server assures, “No rush, I'll come back.” Indeed, he'll be back in a calculated and usually too-short amount of time. Fortunately, that all-important (to both diner and restaurant) drink order can keep him or her busy for a while, and they usually know to let the first few sips of cocktail settle in before asking “if 'we've' made any decisions yet or have any questions about the menu.”

But before he dashes off, he offers (nay, insists) on rattling off today's special. Is it me or are these almost always about one ingredient too complicated? And why is the special so rarely written down? Even on a separate sheet of paper, I'd like to be able to refer back to it when weighing the options. Inevitably (and more so as I get older), the question arises “What was the special again?”

I'm also struggling to do this while also (pretending in some cases) to pay strict attention to the ramblings of those around me. In most business dealings, I'm fortunate in being able to choose my dinner guests based on both social and culinary compatibility, but even the most fascinating of dinner companions are at odds with the tantamount decision of the meal at hand. Many of these same gifted, talented, and interesting people also have the uncanny ability to simply glance at a menu, see a single dish, and be “sold”. “OH! Salmon! I love salmon. I'm having that", closing their menu as if to mock my inability to choose. Never mind the thing could be prepared with beef jerky glaze and a rhubarb-scented sneaker, this singular ingredient usually surrounded by non-threatening "sides" is enough to cement their decision.

I take a bit longer.

Salmon. Okay... Well, kind of the token "safe" dish on the menu (along with the subtle variant of a steak with potatoes (frenched and fried, baked and mashed, etc) or chicken similarly accessorized, so for me to order salmon requires a preparation worthy of reconsideration of a humble, if predictable, fish. Barring that, I'll need inspiration from the side dishes.

While vegetarians and I (generally) do not get along (save for the four-legged ones which eventually serve as a main course), vegetarians recognize (rightly) that a dish need not contain meat to be good. In many cases, a carnivorous restaurant will treat vegetables with equal, if not better care and consideration than one where dead flesh never enters the door.

With this in mind, any time vegetables are generalized with the horrible moniker "veggies", run the hell away. A close second is the use of "vegetable medley" which either means they from a (frozen) plastic package of the same name, or they don't treat vegetables well and haven't seen fit to itemize them on the menu. Vegetables, despite their exclusive and fanatic followers, are worthy of respect and should be mentioned by name.

Servers will often return, visibly folding their notepad to a blank page - a subtle prompt to the table to get your act together, and prompt one last time about "any questions about the menu?" In the case of Olivetto's in Oakland, your odds of parsing even two-thirds of the menu on your own are slim.

Once a menu is parsed, obscure ingredients clarified, preparations explained, etc. only then can one begin to narrow the options down. But I think I need a system.

Maybe a rating system of some kind; checkboxes of 1 to 5 stars next to each dish on a menu and eraserless "golf" pencils handed out to each table. Each diner gives a score to each dish for uniqueness of primary ingredient (i.e. Chicken gets 0, Beef gets a 1, Bison gets a 3, Koala gets a 5, loin of screaming child next to you, 10+), a score for preparation thereof (Tuna, seared - 0, beef poached sous vide then seared, 3, duck egg anti-griddled on the bottom, and heat-gun baked on the top - 5), etc. Add up the score, there's your answer.

And then there are the sides.

Sometimes a “side” will put it over the top for me. A three-way-tie of lamb vs. pork loin vs. filet mignon will be broken if, say, there are caramelized Jerusalem artichokes on one. Fingerling potatoes? Bingo. Yukon golds blended with celery root after taking a collective “ride” through a potato ricer? Yes, please. Spinach, lovingly sauteed with garlic and shallots, or shredded Brussels sprouts with bacon and a bit of its grease, steamed and grilled endive, potato gnocchi - the list goes on.

Ferran Adria had a brilliant point about how we somehow "value" proteins (i.e meat) more than a vegetable in both in gastronomic and, therefore, monetary terms. In reality, "sides" should not be thought of as accessories to the main protein as they can - if done correctly - stand on their own.

Aside from the checkboxes, I need other tools to make that important choice. A score card, Post-It notes, a highlighter pen and a search engine, a seasonal vegetable chart, and - in the most desperate times - a simple coin to toss. I may make 4-5 visual trips to the menu, interspersed with questions to the server, to decide, but once I sense others have made their choice, I give myself a 60-second warning. When my turn comes, I'll slowly start closing the menu, "closing the door" on my decision. Then, and only then, will I make the final decision. Nothing like a deadline to get you motivated.


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