I was reading a restaurant review recently (not of a Triangle restaurant, let me hasten to add), and I came across a statement so incredible that I read it twice -- to be sure I was reading it right. Sure enough, there it was: "I never order crab cakes." The writer went on to explain that in his experience, crab cakes are often disappointing.
That's precisely the reason that I almost always order them when I'm reviewing a restaurant. Well, one of the reasons. Especially here in the South, crab cakes are so common on menus that it's hard to imagine a professional restaurant critic avoiding them entirely. They're relatively expensive, too; an inferior crab cake is more likely to leave a sour taste in your mouth (in more ways than one) than, say, mediocre mozzarella sticks.
This got me to thinking about how I decide what to order when I'm reviewing a restaurant. It isn't the same, you may be surprised to learn, as when I'm dining out strictly for pleasure and can indulge in my personal preferences.
For starters, I usually have a pretty good idea what I'll order before I even get to the restaurant. Using a copy of the menu I've procured in advance, I develop a game plan devised to get a broad sampling of the restaurant's offering. Given time and budget constraints, I'm typically able to sample four to six appetizers and a like number of entrees over the course of at least two visits. If a restaurant makes its own desserts, I'll taste at least a couple of them, too.
Working within these constraints, I try to cover a variety of dishes that reveal how successful the kitchen is at different techniques, from sautéing to roasting to frying to braising to steaming. I try at least one of the least expensive options on the menu (often a vegetarian dish) and one of the most expensive. If a restaurant offers a hard-to-find dish, I'll check it out, too.
But I focus on the restaurant's specialty. After all, I figure, most people don't go to a seafood restaurant for a burger. If I'm in a bistro, you can be pretty sure I'll try the steak frites. I wouldn't think of dining in an Italian restaurant without checking to see if the pasta is consistently al dente, or the veal tender.
Regardless of a restaurant's specialty, if roast chicken is on the menu, I'll probably order it, even though it's more often than not disappointing. It's one of those deceptively simple dishes that can tell you a lot about a kitchen's skills and commitment to quality.
Crab cakes are another.