Today we will discuss how to get the most from your dining experience. It’s a difficult subject to explore, because everybody has different ideas and standards for what creates a positive experience. While there are certain factors—quality of the food, for instance—that are out of your control as a patron, you can maximize what a restaurant has to offer using a few basic principles. While this may sometimes—not always—result in spending more money, it will also, more often than not, dramatically increase your feeling of satisfaction.
note: my intention is that most of what follows really applies to what I would consider “a nice dinner.” That is, not just a half-hour burger break while you’re walking around the city, but a meal that is meant to constitute the evening’s entertainment, that is meant to savored.
1) Order appetizers and/or dessert. Appetizers, for me, are one of the great pleasures of a meal. They pique the appetite and create sensation in the taste buds. This not only reduces your overall sense of ravenousness, it reduces the pressure on the entree (which otherwise bears the entire weight of your opinion of the chef), making it easier to enjoy. The saying “Hunger is the best sauce” really couldn’t be more true, but as far as fine dining goes, it leaves something out. The simplest way to explain this is in terms of wine. Most people think wine accompanies food only because it is delicious and makes you giddy. These are reason enough, but they obscure one of the most important aspects of using wine to accompany food (or in my case, using food to accompany wine). Concentrating utterly, and without irony, on the scents and flavors of even an halfway decent wine sets a higher bar for attentiveness to consumption. When you’re really hungry, you tend to eat really fast. In doing so, you lose the opportunity to truly savor the experience. The more I learn about wine, the slower I drink it, and the more pleasure it gives me. Drinking wine, or in this case, ordering an appetizer, creates a standard for attentiveness that enhances your pleasure in the entree.
2) Get a bottle of wine. Or if you won’t/can’t, try more than one wine by the glass. You may certainly ask for a taste of any wine by the glass, but try to limit yourself to two different tastes. More than that and you’re probably just being indecisive, and running your server around a little too much. Getting a bottle of wine personalizes the experience; gives the meal a celebratory nature; allows you to embrace a complex, almost musical set of flavors as they shift from key to key; and is often no more costly than two glasses of wine per person. Lastly: it is rare for a restaurant to offer more than a dozen wines by the glass, yet perfectly ordinary to find pages and pages of bottle choices.
3) Ask for recommendations from your server. Feel free to ignore them.
4) Except in the case of allergies, do not ask for ingredients to be deleted from a dish. Believe it or not, the people making the food are chefs. A single dish, let alone an entire menu, is a carefully curated affair. I remember an acquaintance asking if shrimp could be removed from the shrimp ceviche. Gimme a break. The chefs know what they’re doing, and frankly, you probably don’t.
5) Try something unfamiliar. Tripe sounds gross, I know. But it can taste really good. And how many times have you ordered “the chicken,” or the salad with the most ingredients? A great friend of mine always orders chicken. It’s important to observe these patterns. If you spend all your time and money inadvertently replicating previous experiences, then you’ve wasted not only your time and money, but also an opportunity.
6) That said, go with the spirit of the place. If it’s a French restaurant and they have linguine (Balthazar…), it’s probably for the benefit of children and overly fussy patrons who eat the same three things every meal. It has nothing to do with the chef’s idea of cuisine, which is important. If they’ve opened a French restaurant, it’s because they want to cook French food.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: 600,000 RHAPSODIC MUSINGS ON WINE, AS WELL AS SOME PRACTICAL TIPS ON BUYING WINE IN A RESTAURANT, INCLUDING: BASIC INTRO TO FRENCH GRAPES AND REGIONS; A FEW FACTORS THAT WILL SIMPLIFY ORDERING WINE; AND HOW MUCH TO SPEND ON A BOTTLE.