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Jun 26, 2008 04:47 PM

What is THE dish to judge a cuisine by?

I've found myself judging new (to me) restaurants based on certain dishes and if they don't pass muster I am disappointed even if everything else is okay. Thai it's mango with sticky rice, french it's pate, sushi it's tuna, italian tiramisu, etc. Really there is no rhyme or reason to the dishes that I pick, just those that I enjoy from that particular cuisine.

But is this fair to the restaurant or is there a better way to a restaurant? Are there certain dishes that restaurants SHOULD do well if they are going to focus on a specific cuisine?

Just one of those questions that comes up when I move to a new area and haven't found my go to take out places.

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  1. I judge the restaurant by what my favorite dish for that cuisine might happen to be.
    For me, Mexican food is judged by the tacos. Must be shredded beef in a crunchy freshly fried corn tortilla. My husband judges by the enchiladas and our friend by the chile rellenos.
    Vietnamese is judged of course by the Pho and Italian the linguine with clam sauce or stuffed shells.

    If they make my favorite dishes great, it's o.k. with me.


    3 Replies
    1. re: starkoch

      I'll try and nip this in the bud before the "Mexican Experts" get at this... how many regions in Mexico serve tacos with crunchy tortillas and shredded beef?

        1. re: kare_raisu

          There is a new Taco Bell in Mexico City.

    2. If I had to boil it down . . .

      An Italian restaurant must not ever overcook pasta or use low quality pasta.

      A French restaurant must not have boring sauces.

      1. If the kitchen can deliver a perfectly cooked plain omelette there may be hope of a passable meal. Sniff.

        3 Replies
        1. re: mrbozo

          Mrbozo, do you know how rare it is to find a perfectly cooked plain omelette in restos? The art of the omelette is one which is nearly lost...

          that being said, I have found one place in Montreal that understands the art of the omelette, although there are currently moving and rental issues, and we are waiting to se when the resto returns... If you come into Montreal soon, I can update you on where to find this lovely omelette, though they usually put some cheese and fresh herbs in it.

          1. re: moh

            Moh, even though I was being a bit snooty in my original post I do believe in the importance of having a solid foundation of the fundamentals of whatever cuisine you are offering to the public at a price (it shouldn't be a cost).

            Your example below of the preparation of broth is a more universal yardstick than the omelette. Unfortunately too many cooks do spoil the broth.

            Once one has mastered the basics, then go ahead and create multicoloured, multitextured, multiflavoured food-based sculptures if you really must. At that stage the "creations" should be at least palatable if not affordable.

          2. re: mrbozo

            I'm in agreement that quality cooking emanates from mastering the basics. Any good Indian restaurant should be able to make a delicious rogan josh. Italians should be able to make an exciting gnocchi or comforting veal parm. The money you drop at a sushi restaurant that can't even deliver a crowd-pleasing tuna roll is probably better spent at a diner that has mastered the elusive art of the burger and onion rings. Unless you've got the foundations, your house of cards of fancy cooking is going to fall down.

          3. What's in the bread basket weighs heavily. If it's crappy bread, I have good reason to suspect that they don't care much about the rest of my meal.

            11 Replies
            1. re: HSBSteveM

              Another basic food worthy of measuring by.

              1. re: mrbozo

                I agree with the bread and rolls. I do not mind paying for the bread, but it should be from a artisan bakery or premise baked if the restaurant is not a chain.

                Soups tend to be another goalpost for a ethnic restaurant. If a restaurant can make their own soups and stock you usually have a winner.

              2. re: HSBSteveM

                (In America) is the bread free or do you have to pay for it. I know you shouldn't expect free stuff at restaurants, but I've come to expect the free bread basket.

                And don't forget the butter. Temp., how served, is there enough for all the bread?

                1. re: viperlush

                  bread is free.

                  only place i remember paying for bread is germany

                  1. re: thew

                    Oops, meant to say "Also (in America) is the bread free or do you have to pay for it?" as another way to judge a restaurant. I've had to pay for it in the US as well as in European cities.

                    1. re: viperlush

                      I recently paid $3.50 for 6 small wedges of flatbread at a tapas resto in Charlotte NC. I thought that was a bit gouging.

                    2. re: thew

                      Interesting. I've yet to pay for bread in a German restaurant.

                    3. re: viperlush

                      I agree about the butter. Sometimes places that might be promising bring out those little foil wrapped butter patties, and as bad as that is, worse is that they're frozen solid.

                      1. re: Judith

                        The cold foil wrapped butter bespeaks lack of concern for quality.

                        I always put some under my right thigh for a couple of minutes to warm it up, just don't forget it's there.

                        1. re: sarge

                          Growing up I thought my mom was very pious, she'd pray before every meal in a restaurant. Several years ago she confessed she was actually warming the butter between her palms and had always wondered why I got quiet when she did it!

                    4. re: HSBSteveM

                      fyi, there are a ton of great restos in Italy with pretty lousy bread.

                      We've paid enough copertos to figure out that not ordering bread is often the wise choice. So the bread rule doesn't apply everywhere.

                    5. I tend to make heavy judgements on their soup..
                      I find a delicious homemade soup shows alot!

                      14 Replies
                      1. re: burlgurl

                        Burlgurl, I agree completely with your assessment, and take it one step closer to basic elements. A Resto that makes an excellent broth says a lot to me about the quality of the resto. A fabulous home-made stock, made with real meat and bones, rich with flavour from gelatin - whew! So much better than powders and canned broth! Such a luxury.

                        1. re: moh

                          that stock that you think is a luxury is made mostly from scraps. what that tells me is that whoever runs that kitchen is cost conscious. its about watching their food cost. they get a product from something which otherwise would have been thrown out.

                          1. re: SiksElement

                            " that stock that you think is a luxury is made mostly from scraps"

                            Sikselement, you are of course right that stock is a sign of a cost-conscious kitchen. That is why it is discouraging to have stocks that are obviously not made from scratch. There are also a lot of places with substandard stock and sauces. when I find a place where the stock is delicious, it is a real luxury - because it is harder than it looks to do it well, and because many places seem to take shortcuts.

                            1. re: SiksElement

                              It's not just about the stuff that goes into the stock, but also how they tend to it. Is the consomme properly clarified? Does the tonkotsu broth show that beautiful milky flavour from long simmering of bones? Or on the extreme side, the depth of the broth in a Buddha Jump Over the Wall (which is definitely not made from scraps).

                          2. re: burlgurl

                            it shows that someone can clean out the walk-in and use the stuff thats about to go bad.

                            1. re: SiksElement

                              uh, no. if you try to make stock or soup out of garbage, you end up with garbage flavored stock or soup. soups can, and historically have been, made out of (fresh) leftovers, but certainly not every soup is, and it's a mistake to think that restaurant soups are not carefully composed. soups are often foundation pieces of whole cuisines, there is a world of difference between a crafted soup and something you get out of a can. well-wrought soup is amazing food: accessible, intricate and straight-forward at the same time, as well as adaptable to local and seasonal ingredients. as far as stock goes (as the foundation for sauces and stewed/braised dishes), with most cuisines, if you start with a shoddy stock, you might as well quit right there.

                              1. re: soupkitten

                                soupkitten, I'm having one of my "cranky" days, and getting a bit miffed that I keep having to agree with EVERY WORD YOU WRITE. Seriously, are you bugging my brain somehow? :0

                                Soup is the ultimate peasant food and sometimes it's the ultimate fusion food. It challenges a cook to combine available resources with ingenuity. Sometimes you've got fresh fish, perfect stock and lemongrass to work with and sometimes all you've got is some dried beans, a bone and some water. Grab a handful of herbs from somewhere and maybe a splash of sherry and you'll figure something out.

                                GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) is a valuable lesson to keep in mind while making soup. Soups and stews are my favorite things to cook. Once you have a firm grasp of soup-making principles, recipes are almost unnecessary. I usually just pull all of the leftovers out of my fridge or freezer, arrange them on the counter top and try to figure out how to balance them in a soup recipe. The idea is not to use everything, just to figure out how to combine what will work. Sometimes everyone in the kitchen pitches in with ideas. We argue, we cajole, we bargain, and then come up with a plan. It's the high point of my day, when it works. Last week my cooks came up with an improbable mushroom-chile-chicken-hominy soup that was unforgettably delicious and probably impossible to re-create.

                                And when it doesn't work? Well, they were only leftovers, after all. I'd rather pitch it and learn from the experience than serve a soup that's less than wonderful.

                                Life is too short to eat bad soup.

                                1. re: chefbeth

                                  "Last week my cooks came up with an improbable mushroom-chile-chicken-hominy soup that was unforgettably delicious and probably impossible to re-create."

                                  Your cooks have good taste... Mushroom Pozole (sans Chicken) is one of the more popular dishes at the Pozolcalli chain during the Central Mexican mushroom season (late April through early October)

                                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                    Another thing I love about soup is that it's all derivative. No shame in that. If it's delicious, chances are some one some where has come up with it before. It keeps us all connected on a basic level.

                                    Great soup isn't competitive. It's the oposite of that.

                                    1. re: chefbeth

                                      LOL! thanks for the smile today, ChefB. i've been hauling frozen organic chickens around all morning & just found out i need to make soup for tomorrow! (weather is cooling down up here in msp-- time for good soup) no garbage around, wonder what i'll make! :)

                                      1. re: soupkitten

                                        "(weather is cooling down up here in msp-- time for good soup)"

                                        Whoa... whoa... I am of the philosophy that soup has NO seasons...its always good and helps cool you down on a very hot day. From the dry, hot, sunny days in the Puuc Hills of the Yucatan to the steamy jungles along the Mekong... hot soups are a year round staple in very hot places throughout the Tropics & Sub-Tropics!

                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                          We are of the same school of thought, E_N, but you would be surprised at how many customers are not.

                                          That said, a that first frosty day fills my heart with fantasies of "winter" food -- heary soups and stew are the first things I think of.

                                          1. re: chefbeth

                                            E_N, For me winter is for soups and stews just because the oven roasting the bones, then making the broth, then the soup itself simmering just gets my apartment too hot in the summer. When fall comes around I go nuts on soups and stews.

                                            A good broth is the first of the many good things you need to make an outstanding soup. After that, anything goes. I'll bet that the mushroom pozole would be good with pork (what I usually use in my pozole) too.

                                            In the summer I make good cold soups and noodle dishes.

                                            1. re: KailuaGirl

                                              KG... I just got back from Kailua in fact. Coincidentally, we just made an offer on a house there. If we get the place there is plenty of garden space to make soup outdoors... I had not thought about it... until you just brought it up... but I think my first priority might be to set up a Mex style outdoor cooking area.

                                              Now with that said... nothing wrong with Cold soups either... I whip up a mean Uruapan style Avocado soup. Slightly different... but I also like me some versions of Sopa de Frutas... the Gazpacho Moreliano (truly a misnomer)... being fairly high up there.

                                              Regarding the Mushroom Pozole... the point of Pozolcalli's version is to offer up Vegan options... if done right... its not lacking of much... although some nice shreds of roasted pork cachetes wouldn't be so tortorous.