Flash in the Pan 

Menu ninjas make gutsy orders

When dining out, sharing food at the table is fun. By passing dishes around spontaneously, or by placing morsels on each other’s plate, sharing is a beautiful way to eat together. Except, it turns out, when you order better than your companions.

My prowess was confirmed when I was twelve years old, having a bowl of soup at an Italian restaurant in Boston. I noticed Julia Child sit down at an adjoining table, her back to me, and order the same soup I had ordered. It was a nice affirmation, but I was already aware of my powers.

“Want some of my lamb?” my dad would ask, while Mom offered scampi, as both reached for my short ribs. It was like this from an early age, everybody wanting my order, and it didn’t happen by accident. I studied menus the way some people study stocks. On the rare occasions that someone at the table ordered better, I’d obsess about what went wrong.

Wrong choices were some of my best teachers. Sometimes, after an agonizing deliberation that went against me, I’d realize which dish I had really wanted in my gut, but didn’t have the guts to order.

Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes you get unlucky. Sometimes you have so little information to work with, or such bad choices, you have to punt.

Reading the soul of a menu requires tuning in to all sources of information—on and off the menu. Often what stands between you and the correct choice is no more than your own predictability. Are there things you always order, reflexively, when given the chance?

If you play your hand predictably you’re taking yourself out of the game, because you aren’t really studying the menu. You’re throwing yourself at the mercy of the odds, rather than crunching the numbers. I figured this out long before I ever had to pay the bill, but even mastering the numbers wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to go beyond the calculus and into the realm of art and flow. I wanted to kick ass like a Menu Ninja.

Menu Ninja avoids the ruts of predictability like a vegetarian avoids raw liver. He’s feather-light in his spontaneity, his senses open to all information in his inner and outer environments. Which way will he go? Corn beef hash or frittata? Sometimes the master himself doesn’t know. He’s as surprised as everybody else at where he goes. In touch with all the clues, Menu Ninja follows the subtle winds of his true inner hunger, his gut being far more in tune with reality than his brain.

He starts with obvious questions and observations. Where am I? (When in steak house, don’t order pasta.) What season is it? (Go for asparagus in spring.) Is there a local specialty this time of year? (Soft shell crabs in Maryland; Indian pudding in Vermont…)

Digging deeper, you must use your powers to ascertain if the specialty of the house is for real—like smoke meat in Montreal, barbecue in Kansas City; halibut cheeks in Alaska—or is the specialty of the house a hyped-up bad habit the cooks can’t break?

Beware the local recommendation that smacks of being some kind of cultural cliché, along the lines of “You haven’t really been to [name of town] until you’ve had the [name of dish] at the [name of restaurant/bar]!” Sometimes these dishes pan out, sometimes they don’t—proceed with caution.

When following tips and recommendations, make a call based on the credibility of the source. If credibility can’t be established, only consider using such random information when stymied by a menu, and forced to punt.

Sometimes you’re close to decoding the menu but can’t quite get it, and then you realize that what you want isn’t exactly on the menu, but could be. If they have scallops in oyster sauce, for example, and they also have green curry with chicken, then you might consider asking, “Would it be possible to have deep fried scallops in green curry?”

Your success in such high-angle ordering can depend on things beyond your control, like restaurant politics—who in the kitchen has the hots for your server, or who owes whom a favor (and does your server want to use his/her owed favor on you).

Ask questions about where things are from. Local foods tend to be higher quality, and their presence on a menu speaks to the establishment as a whole. Because the bottom line is this: The more you can learn about the specific raw materials in each menu item, the better prediction you can make as to the quality of the finished product. And simply getting the server to talk about anything food related, especially in terms of things that are on the menu, can deliver all kinds of unexpected gems.

Finally, if you can narrow your pool of options down to two choices, sometimes you can trick your gut into tipping its hand by flipping a coin.

Tell yourself, “Heads, I’m gonna order the chow mee fun, tails, the sum yung gai. If it’s heads and you’re like, “Yes!” then there’s your answer. But if it comes out tails and you’re like, “Errr, well, darn…” then you can disregard the coin toss because you no longer need it. Your gut has spoken.

Ask Ari: Fry debate gets folks overheated

Several readers have hassled me since I advised Frazzled Frybaby (“Friends don’t let friends fry high,” March 27) to turn down the heat under her pan so her olive oil won’t smoke (and since burning oil can create toxic compounds).

It was my suggestion that if she just can’t turn down the heat, then FF should consider using safflower oil for high-heat applications. And that really brought on the chorus of boos—including one on the chairlift at Great Divide.

Everyone was lining up to tear me a new one because I didn’t mention grapeseed oil—which I’d previously touted as a great candidate for high-heat frying. And now I’d pushed safflower oil, which evidently called my credibility into question.

Well, first of all, let me say this: I do reserve the right to be full of crap at any point, including right now. However, what happened in this case is that grapeseed oil had recently fallen to No. 2 on my list of high-frying oils, replaced by safflower in the top spot.

Grapeseed oil is still a fine choice, but it smokes at 485 degrees, while refined safflower oil smokes at above 500. (This difference, of course, is trivial in light of my overarching message to FF, which was to stick with olive oil at lower temps.)

The other reason I like safflower oil better, here in Montana anyway, is that you can get Montana-grown safflower oil (Montola brand). Grapeseed oil, a byproduct of winemaking, could be locally produced, but isn’t.

And remember, there are other, healthier ways to get your crisp on. Food that’s fried slowly over lower heat can turn out great. With a smoke point of 375 degrees—just on the cusp of deep-frying temps—olive oil can fit the bill.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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