How to Read a Menu and Order Like a Food Critic

This week marks a year of Where to Eat. What I was hoping for would be a digestible, fun, and useful weekly guide to eating out in New York City, now it’s a community of readers with thoughtful questions and strong opinions.

How do you celebrate a year? Traditional with paper gift. More precisely: menus. Someone recently asked me, “How do you decide what to order?” And I realized that being able to parse a menu is a real skill. So I chatted to two extraordinary diners – our food critic, Pete Wells, and our food critic, Tejal Rao – hoping to help you all eat like the critics eat.

Our regular program will continue next week. But first, thank you for reading this newsletter – and to another good year of great food.

Tejal: Sometimes menus are structured to draw attention to one thing. So it pays to be a little skeptical. Will the steak, highlighted in its own little box, be a showstopper, or is it just a big ticket distracting me from more interesting dishes? And when a dish relies on quality seasonal ingredients, you don’t want to order it out of season.

Peter: I try to skim the whole thing and read cover to cover if it’s long. Of course, your eye goes to things you don’t see in every restaurant. Anything that looks different or original. And when a chef brings something truly classic and familiar to the menu, it challenges them to take it to a level that will surprise you.

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Peter: Nobody ever wants to get the soup. I always want to get the soup but it’s hard to share. When soup is on the menu, it’s interesting because someone has taken the trouble to make it and it never becomes a big seller.

Tejal: If I haven’t seen Puntarelle for months and suddenly it’s in season, I order Puntarelle. And I hope it’s served with anchovies and olive oil. But it’s OK if not. I just want it, you know? The same goes for fresh sardines – it’s not my fault.

Peter: The steak is almost always super-plain. And I rarely order a burger. There’s so little you can do with a burger that really blows my mind. For a while, cooked 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 pretty much like everyone else’s.

Tejal: I will never order the braised short rib. Short ribs are served on airplanes and at catered parties, and that’s because they’re a cheap, forgiving cut. It’s hard to screw up. Not to say the most elaborate thing on the menu is what’s worth it, but I’d rather order something I wouldn’t cook at home.

Peter: In a newer restaurant, I usually only ask when I’ve only done two things and can’t decide. Where the menu hasn’t changed for years, clear favorites emerge and the waiters know what’s good.

Tejal: Some waiters make it clear that they are super familiar with the food and have tried everything. But usually I place the order and then say, “Is there anything really amazing that I’ve missed?”

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Nikita: I’ll take this one. I think the secret to broadening your horizons is to always order something you wouldn’t normally try. I almost never order a shrimp dish, but I’ll always try if someone else orders it. Call it exposure therapy. It’s totally fine to have food preferences – I don’t know if I’ll ever come across runny yolks, sorry! — but constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone has nothing but benefits. I promise.

  • Pete Wells reviewed this week Kebab aur Sharabon the Upper West Side, which offers “a whole specialized array of kebabs from across India that take up three sides of the menu,” he writes, making dining there “an event.”

  • Openings: The Bistro Virginias returns this Thursday in a new room with Executive Chef Justin Lee (formerly of Fat Choy and Barbuto) at the helm; Benny John’s Bar & Grill, a new steakhouse, will arrive on 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 struggling small town? Well, having Reba McEntire by your side certainly helps. Priya Krishna reported on Atoka, Oklahoma, and the opening of Rebas Placea restaurant and collaboration between Ms. McEntire, a local hero, and the Choctaw Nation.

  • Molly Fitzpatrick continued reporting 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 authority on Puerto Rican cuisine and culinary history who died in early March. He was 67.

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