Ask the Critic: How Do You Know What to Order for a Review?


[Illustration: Robyn Lee]

Editor's note: Here to answer your dining questions is New York restaurant writer and former SE senior managing editor Carey Jones. Have a question? Email [email protected] with the subject line Ask the Critic to submit.

Dear Critic, How do you choose what to order when you're reviewing a restaurant? I've always wondered that. It would seem like you usually can't order the whole menu (at most places, anyway), so what do you pick?

Many a night I've gone to a restaurant with the intention to review. And many a night my dining companions have kindly set aside their menus and let me take care of the ordering. Is there a method to the madness?

Yes and no. Sometimes a certain dish will just call out to you. (If you can read about a thin pressed sandwich of uni, miso butter, and pickled mustard seeds on the menu of New York's Toro and not order it —well, I don't know if we have anything more to say to each other.) But there are other reasons to order, too.


The awesome beef tartare at New York's Estela. [Photograph: Eunice Choi]

If everybody's doing it. Like any other creative enterprise, restaurants are subject to trends, and to plenty of publications, trends matter. So my hypothetical restaurant—let's call it Fork + Spoon—is doing an unusual beef tartare; that's certainly A Thing right now. How does its stack up against my favorites in town right now: Estela's fabulous beef-sunchoke tartare, or Skal's raw beef with littleneck clams?

If nobody's doing it. On the flip side, if a dish looks strikingly original, you can't ignore it. It looks like Fork + Spoon is really into Eastern European flavors? Okay, interesting. That dish has three vegetables I've never heard of? Worth a closer look.

If it sounds amazing. Self-explanatory, no? If a dish leaps off the page of the menu, if it's the sort of thing you eagerly clap your hands for as it's brought to the table—well, order the damn thing.

If it sounds crazy. A foie gras grilled cheese at Chez Sardine. Kung pao pastrami at Mission Chinese Food. I had doubts about both; I ended up loving both.

When a restaurant puts a dish on its menu that's a little bizarre, it tells you something regardless of how it tastes. If it's brilliant, then you get to see what the kitchen is capable of. And if it's horrible? You learn that the chef doesn't necessarily know how to edit his menu (or execute his ideas). Either way, it tells you more than a competently prepared, original dish.


Standout linguine with clams at New York's L'Apicio. [Photograph: Alice Gao]

If it's integral to the restaurant concept. You've got to order pan con tomate and a simple egg tortilla at a tapas joint. You've got to get some kind of pasta at an Italian spot with a robust pasta section. You've got to try the star meats at a barbecue joint. Evaluate the basics before you go off the rails.

If it's nothing like the restaurant concept. A pizza on the menu at a non-pizzeria. Why? Can you really pull it off? A paella on the menu at a vaguely French-American restaurant. Again, why? Knowing whether the kitchen can pull off an oddball dish or not tells you quite a bit about the chef's abilities and instincts.

And don't order the same thing twice... Multiple visits are an industry standard, but even with multiple visits you might not be able to order everything on the menu. So resist the urge to revisit old favorites...

Unless you have to order the same thing twice. If there's a lackluster dish I've heard praise for elsewhere, I'll occasionally give it a second shot; perhaps the kitchen had a bad night, perhaps that was a bad batch of dough. And if there's a lackluster restaurant I've heard praise for elsewhere, I might give it another visit, too. When critically evaluating a restaurant, your opinions are ultimately your own. But researching the current consensus can help you make informed decisions.

Ask Us!

Email [email protected] with the subject line Ask the Critic to submit your question. All questions will be read, though unfortunately not all can be answered.