How to read a menu and order like a food critic

This week marks one year of Dónde Comer. What I hoped would be a digestible, fun, and useful weekly guide to eating in New York City is now a community of readers with thoughtful questions and strong opinions.

How to celebrate a year? Traditionally, with the gift of paper. More specifically here: menus. Someone recently asked me, “How do you decide what to order?” And I realized that being able to analyze a menu is a real skill. So I chatted with two amazing diners, our restaurant critic Pete Wells and our general critic Tejal Rao, hoping to help you all eat the way critics eat.

Our regularly scheduled show will resume next week. But for now, thank you so much for reading this newsletter, and here’s to another good year of great meals.

tile: Sometimes menus are structured to call attention to one thing. It pays to be a bit skeptical about it. Is the highlighted steak in its own little box going to be a show, or is it just an expensive item that distracts me from more interesting dishes? And if a dish relies on very high-quality, seasonal ingredients, you don’t want to order it out of season.

Pete: I try to skim and read everything from cover to cover, if it is long. Of course, your eye is drawn to things that you don’t see in every restaurant. Anything that looks different or original. And if a chef is going to put something truly classic and familiar on the menu, he challenges them to take it to a level that will amaze you.

Pete: Nobody wants to get the soup. I always want to get the soup, but it’s hard to share. When there’s soup on the menu, that’s interesting, because someone went to the trouble to make it, and it’s never going to sell very well.

tile: If I haven’t seen puntarelle in months and suddenly it’s in season, I order puntarelle. And I hope it will be served with anchovies and olive oil. But it’s okay if it isn’t. I just want it, you know? The same goes for fresh sardines, I can’t help it.

Pete: Steak is almost always super plain. And I rarely order a burger. There is so little you can do with a burger that it will really knock me out. For a while, chef-made burgers were a novelty, and then there were so many good ones that I now take it for granted that one chef’s burger will be much the same as any other.

tile: I will never order the short rib. Short ribs are served up on airplanes and at organized parties, and that’s because they’re a cheap and easygoing cut. It’s hard to mess it up. I do not want to say that the most elaborate on the menu is what is worth it, but I prefer to order something that I would not cook at home.

Pete: In a newer restaurant, I tend to only ask if I have two things and can’t decide. Whereas in a place where the menu never changes and they’ve been around for years, clear favorites start to emerge and the servers know what’s generally good.

tile: Some servers make it very clear that they are very familiar with the food and have tried everything. But usually I put the order and then say, “Is there something really amazing that I missed?”

Nikita: I’ll take this. I think the secret to broadening your horizon is to always order something you wouldn’t normally try. I hardly ever order a shrimp dish, but I always try it if someone else orders it. Call it exposure therapy. It’s perfectly okay to have food preferences; I don’t know if I’ll ever have runny egg yolks, sorry! – but continually pushing yourself out of your comfort zone has nothing but advantages. I promise.

  • This week, Pete Wells reviewed Kebab aur Sharabon the Upper West Side, which offers “an entire specialized line of kebabs from all over India that takes up three pages on the menu,” he writes, making dining there “an event.”

  • Openings: The Bistro from virginia returns this Thursday in a new space with chef Justin Lee (formerly Fat Choy and Barbuto) at the helm; Benny John’s Bar and Grill, a new steakhouse, is coming to East 48th Street this week; and the Taim Mediterranean Cuisine chain will open a location in Fresh Meadows, Queens, on Wednesday.

  • How to save a small town in trouble? Well, having Reba McEntire on your side certainly helps. Priya Krishna reported on Atoka, Okla., and the opening of Reba’s Placea restaurant and collaboration between Mrs. McEntire, a local hero, and the Choctaw Nation.

  • Molly Fitzpatrick reported on the rise of American aperitifs and digestifs and the producers working to create the next Campari.

  • Christina Morales wrote the obituary for Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra, a leading expert on Puerto Rican cuisine and culinary history who died in early March. She was 67 years old.

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