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What's Right (And Wrong) With The American Restaurant (As I See It)

What's right with the American restaurant scene for me is the inclusion of craft beers on the beverage list. I am amazed at the selection and consideration of pairing craft beer with the meal these days.

However, what is wrong and what I'd like to see more of is:

1) Beer and Wine served at warmer temperatures - Will we ever get this right? So much of the complexity of both wine and beer are masked by the low, low temperature at which they are served.

2) Local cheese plate - Cheese is a wonderful thing. And now there are so many local cheese artisans out there. To me this is such a no-brainer. There should be a local cheese plate offered in every restaurant.

3) Offal - Why should liver (in mustard sauce), kidneys (in cream and cognac sauce) and sweet breads (in demi glace sauce) be so rarely seen on American menus? These are some of the most sublime flavors to be had gastronomically.

Am I alone in this thinking? And is there anything else missing that I've been remiss in mentioning?

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  1. There's a whole lot more that's right about American restaurants -- typical service standards (chains with teenaged part-timers excepted), "vertical" flavour palates rather than "horizontal" (meaning that a dish could be based on cilantro, with Indian, Mexican and Vietnamese influences, rather than being an Indian dish that happens to have cilantro), accessibility, etc.

    My biggest "wrong" with American restaurants is the portion size -- it's ridiculous, it's like we feel cheated if we don't get half a chicken or a whole friggin' cow on our plates when the food shows up.

    But back to your commentary:

    In restaurants fancy enough to care about whether their ingredients are sourced locally, there often IS a cheese plate, but it's not a commonly-ordered item because there isn't a cheese course in today's formal American dinner.

    I don't know where you've been eating (and drinking) but red wine isn't served cold around here... it's typically served at room-temperature. As for white wine, touch the bottle when the sommelier brings it and if it's too cold, ask him (or her) to let it come up to temperature before uncorking and pouring. You'll get some weird reactions from people who aren't really sommeliers ("but, like, dude, it's white, it's supposed to be on ice!") but it's your wine, drink it how you like it.

    As for beer, if you're drinking a craft beer it's one thing, and anyplace that has beer flights with their tasting menus should know how to serve it. If you're drinking your typical American hellbrew, it generally needs all the help it can get, which includes chilling it.

    I personally hate warm beer. I hate drinking in the UK because the beer is served warm. Not "cask temperature" as it is in Belgium or France or Germany, but room temperature.

    I agree on the offal, but like the Cantonese, I eat anything on four legs with its back to the sky except the table (with a few notable exceptions, beef tripe being the biggest). I'm still trying to convince people that boneless skinless chicken breast doesn't taste like chicken at all.

    All of this, though, presumes that others at your dining table are willing to go along with this, especially the wine (which is typically served for the whole table). Do take care not to become a snob about it, it'll rub folks the wrong way.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Das Ubergeek

      I fully agree about the portion sizes. Could you please however further explain the vertical versus horizontal flavor plates?

      As for red wine temperature I assumed that it would be understood that I was refering to white wine.

      1. re: Chinon00

        Not sure why you think it would be assumed that your wine temperature reference would be limited to white wine - nothing in your post to indicate that.

        1. re: MMRuth

          It's just sort of intuitive I guess. The coldest that I've ever received a glass or bottle of red wine in a restaurant was at cellar temperature which is around 55F. I believe that most of us probably have had the same experience and are fine with that. However, I (we) have been served white wine at refrigerator temperature of around 37F (particularly by the glass) which is way too low. What has been your experience?

          1. re: Chinon00

            You make an excellent point about wines by the glass -- typically the white is frigid, 3C (37 F) or so and the red is room temperature, which tends to be around 19-20C (67 F) in Europe and much warmer in California, about 25C (76 F) which is too warm.

      2. re: Das Ubergeek

        In my experience, it is too warm red wine that is more common and much more difficult to correct.

      3. I don't think the OP is being a snob, but proposing an excellent discussion.
        Yes, some restaurants have cheese plates-the finest ones, in the biggest cities. I think the point is that it should become part of an American formal dinner.It is an idea whose time has come.

        3 Replies
        1. re: SusanSDG

          I'm not suggesting that the OP is being a snob in the post -- sorry if it came off that way -- merely that one needs to be careful how one brings up things like this at the table (i.e., "this wine needs to be served at a warmer temperature") without sounding precious or like a total food snob.

          I don't, by the way, have any need for a cheese course. I like cheese, but it always seems a bit superfluous, especially since so many American foods already contain cheese.

          1. re: Das Ubergeek

            Quality cheese is never superfluous ;)

            1. re: Chinon00

              I agree. Cheese is never superfluous and I've never met a cheese course on a menu I didn't try once (unless it was blatantly clear that it was really, really crappy).

        2. I'm a beer importer by profession, and I deal with the serving temp of beer often. While a hideously over-chilled (to the point of haze) beer is never good, my feeling is that it's easier and better to let a beer come up to temp rather than serve it at the perfect temperature to start with, which has the inevitable result that the last half of the glass is too warm.

          Many people, myself included, would rather have beer a few degrees on the cold side than the warm side, and by starting too cold the "sweet spot" where the beer is perfect happens 100% in the glass and on your tongue and not while the beer is on the bar or on the way to the table.

          1. Interesting - my complaint re: wine in most restaurants is that red wine is served too warm, and a lot of white wines to cold.

            2 Replies
            1. re: MMRuth

              I can not agree with you more! There is NOTHING worse (OK - so I'm sure there's worse!) than getting a glass of red and it's almost HOT! Yuck - send it back! And a white shouldn't be FREEZING! And this has happend in NICE places, too! Makes me think about ordering a martini instead!

              1. re: SChalfant

                Yes - even at some of the *best* places in NYC, the wines are not served at the right temps. And, yes, a martini helps mask my irritation about this issue!

            2. I find that reds and whites are both often served too warm, as if the wine storage is in the kitchen or something.

              1. Well, part of the problem with beverages in the US is that our internal climate and climate control are usually quite different than the historic norms of Europe. Our room temp is higher than typical for much of the year in Europe before central climate control became more common in restaurants there. Our cellars, sheesh.

                Cheese plate is a lovely idea. It's fairly common in better restaurants in New England. Not necessarily local, though, despite our many find regional cheeses.

                Offal: while I would like them they are highly perishable and thus prone to waste if there is insufficient demand. Supply will only follow demand for any place trying to keep its margin from falling. Also, because of industrial butchering here, supply from the meat vendors is more limited than in Europe. Hence, more difficult and more expense. Another blow to margin. Simple economics.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Karl S

                  The main thing wrong with US restaurants is none of the minor points the OP mentions-- it's portion size. End of discussion.

                  However, as far as those points:

                  1. I only drink red, and it comes room temperature at every eatery I frequent, so I don't see that as a problem.

                  2. It's a nice thought, and certainly a cheese course can be (and IS) offered at better restaurants all over.

                  3. For the vast majority of Americans, organ meat and offal are just not anything they're familiar with. I like liver and sweetbreads as an occasional treat, and I think they would be a fairly easy sell to the public. Kidneys, however, are another story. I find them repulsive (smell, taste), and I'd venture a guess that I'm not alone in that reaction.

                  1. re: rjw_lgb_ca

                    To me a cheese plate is just such an easy and amazing thing to provide at a restaurant. Bring out the nuts, fruit preserves, honey, dried apricots, good bread . . .

                    And as for drinking only red wine, to each his own. But I just don't get avoiding something as diverse as "all white wine". I don't really get the "anything but Chardonney" crowd so eschewing all white wine to me seems quite excessive. But again to each his own.

                2. Cheese service can be a problem because of Health Department regulations in some places. It has to be held under refrigeration, below a certain temperature, and can't be kept at proper room temperature for serving. Restaurants just take a chance, leaving some out to reach the proper temperature, hoping they don't get caught.
                  Really stupid. If it were a real threat, everyone in Europe would have been dead centuries ago.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: MakingSense

                    But, but, there are MILLIONS and MILLIONS of Europeans who HAVE been dead for centuries -- so it must have been the cheese, not the natural process of aging!

                  2. Don't care either way about the portion size issue. Depending on the type of establishment, that's part of how they draw in their customers. What do I care how much food is on the plate as long as it tastes great? Now, going for portion size in lieu of flavor and texture - that's a problem.

                    My pet peave is beer served in a chilled glass. Even when I order Yuengling or Sam Adams wait staff often look at me wierd when I ask if they have any room temperature glasses.

                    In my experience though, good beer bars and microbreweries will serve their drafts at a specific temp.