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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.

                          3. I judge against some of the dishes that I know and make:

                            Japanese: tsukemeno, simple stuff like niku jyaga/simmered beef and vegetables w/ hot gohan; or musubi and teriyaki; or oyakudonburi; or cold soba; and makizushi

                            Mexican: Tamales or chiles rellenos or turkey mole in their infinite variety and goodness w/ green rice, salsas, and simple sides; also mondongo, refried beans

                            "Chinese": (again, my indicators!) Steamed fish w/ ginger, scallions, black beans; sesame duck and noodle salad; rice noodles and fresh spring rolls.

                            Lao: laab, greens, khao niyao, spicy diced water buffalo cooked in blood

                            Italian: carpaccio, home made ravioli, and fruit ice creams replaced in natural peels or forms

                            American: Kansas City style BBQ, fish cioppino, burgers

                            French: (no way!) salad nicoise, pamesan souffle, pate, potage cressonnier, anguille a la creme or raie au beurre noir or medaillones ou noisettes de veau or a simple ragout de mouton printanier, rognons in any of many forms, and rissoto de caille, charlotte....

                            Filipino: bulalo, sinigang ng kanduli, panikbet, sisig, fresh lumpia, dinaguan, embutido

                            Viet: pho, stuffed bitter gourd, fish baked in little hammered dishes from Hue

                            Peru: ceviche Amazonica, antecuchos,

                            Colombia: sancocho, patacones

                            Bhutan: emadashi

                            Nepal: momos

                            India and Burma: tandoori naan/roti (and my curries against those of India)

                            Bolivia: saise, fresh pan campesino, goat cheese from the altiplano

                            Brasil: manisoba & pichana

                            German: wurst, kartoffelsalat, sauerkraut, und bread

                            UK: yorkies, roast beef

                            Mozambique: chicken piri piri

                            Kenya: m'chuzi wa kuku and ugalli

                            7 Replies
                                1. re: Sharuf

                                  it can be
                                  (a) a yorkshire pudding, or (b) a chocolate bar

                                    1. re: kmh

                                      or (c) a small dog just the size of a roasting pan! KIDDING!

                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    If you are judging Filipino restaurants particularly on their dinaguan and sisig, it's no wonder you are not a bigger fan of the cuisine! Like many of their vinegary dishes, they are foods best enjoyed in the home of a hospitable and excited cook. I should hope, also, that you're a little generous in judging the Mexicans' preparation of mondongo since that is more of a Caribbean thing. However even if you're judging by their menudo, I don't know how many Mexican cooks can hold up!

                                    As an aside, wenn man "bread" in Deutschland will, sagt man "Brot."

                                    1. re: JungMann

                                      Jungmann, don't know if you'll see this, but I ate filipino foods in the extended family home of a woman I was with for many years, not in restaurants.

                                  2. Sam,

                                    With all due respect, it is perhaps because they have to meet expectations of people like yourself that South Asians restaurants can never claw themselves out of the Ninth Circle of Hell they find themselves in. Momos and Nepal? Curries and India? Tandoori naan and roti for Indian nd Burmese restaurants?

                                    I am an Indian, from Bengal, descended from a family settled for generationsin Burma on one side, raised and fed by by Gurungs from the mountains north of Pokhara.

                                    Lets start with the latter: I hae eaten extensively of the Mid-Hills and High country repertoire, and where there iare no Tibetan infuences or tourists, in all the decades until 1980, this momo was not something commonly eatedby the Gurkhas or the peoples [plural] of the Terai, i.e. 90% of the Nepalese. So whose Nepal are we talking about? The Kathmandu of the corrupt adminisrtion and drug addicts that created the terrible resentment which fomented decades of bloodshed that show little respite even now? Hae you tated Nimbu ka chook? Shilam, roasted perilla seed? Would you eat boiled potato dessd in paste of garlc, paste of shilam and nimbu ka chook? That iswhat I woul order frt from a Gorkha restaurant, if run by a group comprising Gurung, Tamang, Limbu. I would ask. Not so if they were Newari or Madhesi, or brahmans rom Kathmandu Valley. These are sme ofthe ways to go about evauating the cuisines of Nepal thus allowing local cooks to shine forth with their respective masterpieces.

                                    Similaly, Do you walk into a restaurant and ask for "European food? Tha'swhat you ae ding when you talk aout "indian" food! If you rely kow enough, you woul be able to walk into a bangladeshi restaurant, now the region of bangladesh that person came from, and get a first class meal o the dshesthat the cooks know how to prepare like a dream. Instead, by pretending to know more than you do, you will walk out with a tenth rate experience. o with all pakistani ad Inian restaurants. Either really earn about Sbcontinenta foo, or don't confuse weird restaurant cooking fr Indian food In that cae, always check that the cook are from pakistan or Punjab, and you will get excellent naan and rotis.

                                    I got really weired out by some reviewers from Chowhound re:Mina of Angon, who knowing nothing about Bengai food how it should be ordered how it should be eaten, the dfferences between Eas ad West Bengal etc. pild up some incongruous mixture o dishes and pronounced themselves well pleased. This harks back also to the absurd reviews churned out by Jay Jacobs in 1985 Gourmet re Mitali,Manhattan.

                                    The bd resl istht genuinely excellent ethnic cooks and restaurants fail to survive, because those who eat have no idea of what is excellent. Sagat w adisma restaurant next to Pongal on Lex & 29th c.1993 but had a genuinely excellent Bangladeshi cook ofhomestyl cooking, whom none ladd. That restuarant is gone! Similarly, there may be such cookson McDonl Ae, but I don't know know about them.

                                    Sam, you need to thoroughly undersandthe forte ofthe indigenouscuiine before pronouncing jdgement. Fr exampe, the Bay rea has may Suth Inian retaurants tha hve nothing to do with naas. Saravana Bhavan etc. there serve Suth Indan pecilties. There are others that serve Gujaati speciaties, others that serve chaat. Paisai places that specialize many in Nihari. Go to Aladin [one D] in LA:it speciaizesin paatha an cerain types of chicken curries that are THE STANDARD for those types whether or not you understand that. The worldof Indian food & foodways is larger than your universe, and it seems a bit too presumptuous to keep it confined within your limited comprehension.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: mousey

                                      Namaskar! mousey, I understand what you're saying. Be reminded that I do not live in the US and am only talking about eating in the respective countries.

                                      My opening statement was that I enjoy comparing dishes I eat in different countries to what I prepare at home. I did not include ALL of the many different foods and dishes that I've eaten in the different countries--only what I commonly prepare.

                                      I've worked a lot in the Terai of Nepal, in the rice-wheat areas of India, and throughout Bhutan over many years. I enjoy all of the foods that you mentioned, but do not cook them all.

                                      My dishes for Japan are what I normally prepare--not the things that most people might know and think of as Japanese food.

                                      I enjoy all of the foods I eat in Mexico, Pakistan, Mozambique, Laos, Vietnam, and elsewhere, but do not prepare them all. In other countries, I only prepare the dishes I like--because I don't like them all (e..g, I really don't like sun dried pork fat and yak butter tea in Bhutan; or arepas in Colombia, or mashed potatoes in the country that you appear to live in).

                                      1. re: mousey

                                        Also, I do not know about the Indian/Burmese/Ghorka food in restaurants in the US. I've eaten in Ghorka areas of Nepal, in Pokhara, all over India for more than a combined pair of years. As to momos, for example, I learned to make them from one of my ex-PhD students from Nepal who was attending the University of the Philippines at Los Banos. Similarly, I learned to make almost all of the other dishes mentioned from local cooks in each of the respective countries over amany, many years (I am, as you can conclude, an old fart--and as to being a tourist: because of my work, I never travel if not for work. Never!).

                                        1. re: mousey

                                          "Sam, you need to thoroughly undersandthe forte ofthe indigenouscuiine before pronouncing jdgement."

                                          Mousey, your post is very informative, and I greatly appreciate your points. For what it is worth, I would say that Sam was not presuming to judge or minimize the indigenous cuisine of Nepal or India in any negative way. I can vouch for the fact that Sam is one of the least judgmental and also one of the most open-minded hounds on the board. His palate is broad, as is his breadth of knowledge. But all of us, including Sam have limitations in our experience. As much as I would like to be an expert in every cuisine under the sun, there is only so much time and money and eating space in our stomach!

                                          The vast expanse that is the sub-continent of India continues to amaze and fascinate me. I am always amazed by the variety of cuisines, ingredients dishes, etc. that are available. My husband had the chance to visit India once, and marvelled at the number of different provinces and the different cultures throughout India. It was then he realized how simplified our Western notions of this grand country were. I have never had a chance to visit, but would love to go some day.

                                          The level of knowledge and appreciation of the cultures of India is improving in North America. We have greater access to authentic ingredients, vegetables, spices. There are many more well-written English-language cookbooks that explain various regional differences. The Web has been a great resource for understanding these regional variations as well.

                                          Every cuisine needs their proponents. Look at the influence of Julia Child on the level of understanding of French cuisine in North America. just to name one important example. A passion for education can go a long way in expanding our palates and our experiences.

                                          You clearly have a depth of understanding of Indian cuisine that many of us on this board do not have. I strongly encourage you to continue to post, and to share your great knowledge with us so that we can all embark on this exciting journey of discovery. We need and welcome your expertise. Start some threads on different regions in India, for example, "what is your favorite Bengali dish?" Get us talking! Tell us about how you approach each cuisine, what are its unique qualities. Help us expand our culinary universe, be our expert on the regional cuisines of India. This board can only be as useful as its participants. There are many wonderful posters already present on this board who are very generous with their expertise in certain cuisines (Hannaone and his Korean recipes, Eat nopal and his insights into Mexican cuisine, and Silverjay with his thoughtful posts on Japanese cuisine and culture pop into mind, but they are only 3 of many such regional experts). They and other experts posters are key in expanding us regular posters, both in knowledge and in pant size!

                                          One last thing: I am going to warn you now, that some of us are going to post some stupid statements out of sheer ignorance. We just don't know that much! But we are willing to be corrected! Please please please, try to be patient with us. We aren't necessarily trying to be presumptuous or judgmental, we just may not know better. So teach us gently. And then maybe more of those excellent ethnic restaurants will survive and even thrive.

                                          Mousey, I really hope to see more of your posts on the board soon! Perhaps you'd consider commenting on this recent thread of mine, of some vegetables I was trying to identify and cook with:


                                          1. re: mousey

                                            Mousey, your argument that you wouldn't ask for European food can go down to every cuisine. Italy has its' different regions, as does just about every other country. Look right here in the USA, is a hamburger what we should judge American food by? There are so many specialties from each state/region that it's impossible to know of them all.

                                          2. My problem is I can't count the years since I've found a restaurant that is consistent, let alone has more than one or two dishes to use to judge their overall quality. Then there is the added variable of which cook is in the kitchen today?

                                            I've been thinking of writing a revue of a local sushi restaurant on the Texas boards for over a month now, but... I've eaten there five times now, and reliable consistency of getting the great flavor I fell in love with the first time just isn't there. There's one dish I have had three time and it has tasted three different ways.

                                            But that's not something that happens with just this particular restaurant. It has been a problem for me for years now. To the point that I'm beginning to think the only place to find consistent and unchanging flavor is in a box... Like Kraft Mac'n'Cheese!


                                            1. I cannot help but judge a malaysian cafe by its laksa

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: kmh

                                                Which type of laksa do you prefer - the lighter soury penang laksa, or the rich coconut milk laksa lemak, or both?

                                                1. re: limster

                                                  I prefer the laksa lemak to the assam laksa although somewhat more hedonistic!

                                                  1. re: kmh

                                                    :) Me too! Although some people will call me biased since I'm from SIngapore, and Assam Laksa is less common.

                                              2. I absolutely have a list of go-to dishes by which to judge a place. Usually they're familiar/popular dishes a kitchen may feel it "has" to have on the menu but then executes them half-heartedly. If, on the other hand, it gives them its all, I feel I can trust its integrity.

                                                I agree with others re the bread basket—it can be simple, but it's got to be quality. Good, fresh bread made by a human and served with good olive oil or butter (which must be room-temperature).

                                                Other litmus tests (as I've taken to calling them):

                                                Caesar salad
                                                French onion soup
                                                fried calamari

                                                4 Replies
                                                1. re: tatamagouche

                                                  Mexican- Chips and Salsa
                                                  Indian- Naan
                                                  Chinese- Won Ton Soup
                                                  Italian- Calamari
                                                  French- Lardon Salad w/ Poached Egg
                                                  All very simple things but if they are not good I don't hold out much hope for the rest of the meal.

                                                  1. re: bubbles4me

                                                    just throwing this out there, but italy isnt the only place with calamari and im starting to get annoyed that a calamari frito misto is now the "must have" on every red sauce slinging italian american restaurant.

                                                    1. re: SiksElement

                                                      hmmmm... I think I could be a lot happier with "Italian" restaurants tossing calimari into everything instead of basil. I quit going to Italian restaurants a couple of years ago when my polenta AND garlic bread were loaded with basil.

                                                  2. re: tatamagouche

                                                    I should emphasize the Caesar. Above all, if the dressing's eggless and/or anchovyless, the place is probably not for me.

                                                  3. My take on this is a little different, I think. Theoretically, everything at a restaurant should be fabulous, but, of course, that's not the case. I think too many restaurants have items on the menu because they think they'll appeal to customers, not because they do them well - i.e., pasta in a French restaurant (usually a give away for me not to go there).

                                                    So, when I go to a new restaurant, I simply order based on what appeals to me at the time. In some cases, I may have read on CH or elsewhere about a specialty, and will try that. If my meal is good, I'll go back. If not, I may not. If for some reason my first meal wasn't great, and I wanted to try it again for whatever reason, I might do more research about dishes that others have enjoyed there, in case I "ordered incorrectly" (a concept that I don't love, though).

                                                    Last year we went to an Italian restaurant in Manhattan chosen by someone else, and while the food was generally just "ok", the deep fried prosciutto wrapped figs were amazing - I still think of them every time I see the word "fig". But, it was a special, and I probably won't be going back to the place any time soon.

                                                    On the other hand, a short lived delivery Thai place had what I thought was a really good shrimp fried rice (smoky, with tomatoes) that I kept ordering, dropping other dishes as the weeks went by because they were just plain bad. Then it closed!

                                                    7 Replies
                                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                                      I agree with you. I'll try to research a place first and find out what they're known for. For example, I was at a Burmese restaurant in Philly and it was known for their tea salad. That is probably not something I would order at a Burmese place, especially since I've had it before and not enjoyed it too much. But as this place was known for it, I tried it. It was really good, and I was so happy that I got over my prejudice and tried it. Problem was this salad totally ruined me for other tea salads for life, including the one from the much-lauded Burmese place on these boards in Queens.

                                                      And I recognize that a restaurant may have its strengths and weaknesses. For example, while I'd like to think that a Korean restaurant should be judged on the quality of their banchan, I find that it is not always the case. So I don't think I have any hard and fast rules about how to judge a place.

                                                      1. re: Miss Needle

                                                        If I judged Korean restaurants by their banchan, I would probably never step into another one. Simply because most places do not match up to dishes my wife makes.

                                                        With Korean restaurants I look at the size of the menu first, then the size of each section. If there is a huge selection of dishes and each section has roughly the same number of dishes, chances are most of the dishes are going to be only average. If a menu is smaller (fewer selections) one section (the grilled meats, stir fry, or soup section) is usually larger than the others, and that's probably what they do best.

                                                        But it's not a hard and fast rule as there are always exceptions. Some places can actually pull off a very large menu, and some places with specialty menus can't even bring off their "special" dish.

                                                        1. re: hannaone

                                                          You are indeed lucky to have such a wife!

                                                          You make a good point about the size of a menu. Generally, I've found that the greater the selection a restaurant has, the worse the food is. Probably has something to do with quality control of ingredients, or that it's trying to please everybody, and there's a greater chance of ordering a dish that's a miss. One of the top Korean restaurants in Manhattan has just about 10 dishes, and it's really known for their sul long tang. Always really crowded and they are very successful. btw, their banchan offerings are pretty paltry as they only serve kimchi. But their kimchi is the best out of all the Korean restaurants. I generally ask for seconds, and I'm not the hugest kimchi fan. Probably because I've been eating pretty crappy kimchi.

                                                          1. re: Miss Needle

                                                            Good points. As a general rule in Korean restaurants, I've found that the larger the menu, the worse the food, but of course there are exceptions, though I can't think of any right now. This is true in my experience in Korea too. If I go to a resto, I try to go to one that is known for one thing only. This usually means that one thing is at least okay, and also, you don't run into as many service problems.

                                                            I totally agree with moh too that if the kimchi is good, that is a good sign that I am in for a decent meal...but not always. But at least if the meal sucks then I have good kimchi to eat.

                                                            I don't know how anyone can judge all cuisines of the Indian subcontinent by one dish. That's just crazy and well, let's be honest, stupid. I'm not even Indian. Rogan Josh. Damn.

                                                            1. re: choctastic

                                                              That's true with many other countries as well. In Japan, an izakaya might have a bit of everything, but otherwise, you're looking at restaurants that tend to have a specialty. I'm certainly not going to go into a ramen restaurant expecting good sushi, nor would i go into a sushi restaurant expecting good ramen.

                                                              I've also had the same experience as everyone else with the Korean restaurants. If it doesn't have a specialty, the food seems to be a bit disappointing. Not all of the Korean restaurants I've visited really seem to specialize in kimchi so I don't use that as a starting point.

                                                              1. re: queencru

                                                                Okay I'll admit, kimchi is not really a guide for me, it's more of a reassurance that if the meal sucks at least I have the kimchi. Sad I know, but sometimes you gotta roll with the punches.

                                                                I think the specialization thing is esp true in Korean cuisine for some reason. I mean, as in, a menu with more than 50 things on it never seems to have good food, or in the alternative, most people end up ordering only the house specialty anyway and God Help You if you make the mistake of ordering something else, because either the order is mixed up or the food sucks (or both).

                                                          2. re: hannaone

                                                            Re: Korean restaurants:

                                                            I put a lot of emphasis on the quality of the kimchi. This, I think, is a basic requirement. If they don't have good kimchi, then what is the point? Second thing I put emphasis on: Quality of stock/soup broths and of kochuchang seasoning.

                                                            That being said, it has been very hard to find good kimchi in restos in my city (sigh). And despite this, I have found some excellent dishes in these restos. So clearly this is not a hard and fast rule with me...

                                                      2. Does anybody else think this is a useless exercise? How can any one judge a restaurant representing a national cuisine (particular the more important / diverse national cuisines mentioned) by a single dish?

                                                        At best - in Mexico's case - I could probably break it down to one dish per culinary region... that is least 125 dishes... and I am sure this is the exact case for China, France, Italy, India etc., There is no single dish that represents the country... there isn't even 10, 20 or 30.

                                                        6 Replies
                                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                          I don't think it's a matter of a given dish representing the national cuisine; it's a matter of the dish representing the restaurant and its treatment of the national cuisine.

                                                          1. re: tatamagouche

                                                            Still... what if I want around Mexican restaurants wanting to try their Al Pastor, Chips & Agua de Tamarindo... maybe its a crappy Al Pastor because the family is from Michoacan and they had never even seen a Vertical Spit growing up, or ever fried up a chip... but hey their Caldo Michi is the best I would have ever eaten in my life.

                                                            I have had similar experiences in restaurants of all ethnicities... I go to a Thai place and the Pad Thai is horrible... only to find the family is from the Mekong Valley area... and guess what they really don't give a crap about Pad Thai there... but their Green Curry... ah that is where its at etc.,

                                                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                              One of the best Thai restaurants in NYC actually has a reputation for having very bad pad thai. But most of the other stuff is outstanding. So that's why I'd rather not have benchmark dishes to judge a restaurant, let alone, a cuisine.

                                                              1. re: Miss Needle

                                                                Right - and I think a lot of Thai/Chinese/Indian/Mexican restaurants think that they need to serve what Americans typically think of as a typical dish from their country, even if it's not a specialty in the region they are from, etc.

                                                              2. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                OK, I hear what you're saying...note that I'm in the US, and my own personal list sidesteps the issue entirely by focusing on dishes that have lost all trace of ethnicity they ever had. I'm referring specifically to contemporary American, not "ethnic," restaurants, where I probably don't have similar benchmark dishes. :)

                                                                Benchmark techniques may be more to the point.

                                                            2. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                              I sympathize with the OP's dilemma but I'm also hearing what Eat_Nopal is saying. I do have my "benchmark" dishes but if a place doesn't do them well and succeeds on other fronts, I'll still put it on the list, just not for that item. For example, I frequent a couple of Thai places in Vancouver who couldn't do a pad thai or a tom yam koong to my standards to save their lives, but they have other dishes that are excellent. There is a taqueria here that has the most egregious tortilla chips that they serve as "testers" for their many salsas -- if I'd let that put me off I'd have missed great salsas and tacos.

                                                              From traveling in Mexico I'm aware of the extreme diversity of regional cooking there that E_N is talking about, and it obviously applies to India in spades per Mousey's post above, and to France and Italy and many others. So I say use the benchmarks to build your list of places that do them well but don't count out a joint just because it can't churn out your favourite the way you like it :-).

                                                            3. Like everyone else I have my benchmark dishes. I went with some friends for Italian one night and they over cooked the noodles in my pasta dish. Past aldente, past soft.. one step short of mush. Literally broke apart and fell off my fork in pieces.

                                                              On the other side of the coin, as an American, am I really qualified to determine what a good thai curry should taste like? I would never presume to know if a Haggis was good (and doubt I would order one), yet it is one of the national dishes of Scotland. Even something as simple as say an enchilada - I have certain expectations being raised with Old California mexican. Certainly different than what I might find in Mexico city or the Yucatan.

                                                              1. Yes countries like Mexico, India, and China have hugely variable cuisines across peoples and regions. That certainly does make having single indicators a tougher task or even impossible in those countries. On the other hand, there are selected foods in these coountries whose very variability allow them to be indicators--of good and bad. Take the morning tamales or fresh hand made tortillas across all of Mexico and Guatemala, the mondongos from Mexico though parts of the northern Andean countries, the tandoori naans--where tandoor style food is made, very different vegetable curries throughout India, the momos all over Nepal from the Hymalayas down through the Terai, different versions of pho up and down Vietnam, different types of ugali in much of east Africa, and so on. Uncommon common threads can be used as indicators.

                                                                1. there have been absolutely beautiful replies here and i don't pretend to be an expert, but
                                                                  A Japanese Sushi restaurant - I will alway order a sashumi plate first to check the freshness of the fish and the presentation - a bad plate will not get me to try anything else.
                                                                  Mexican - I know there are many variations, but I have to like the enchiladas.
                                                                  Italian - I have to love the Raviolli's
                                                                  Indian - the spicy hot food - must be and same with Thai food.
                                                                  a Hamburger joint must have good fries
                                                                  a deli must have a black forest ham sandwich
                                                                  BBQ places - the brisket must be able to be cut with a fork and full of the rich smokiness of hours in the smoker.
                                                                  Columbian food - the bandeja paisa must pass my taste test.
                                                                  I think those are the main ones

                                                                  10 Replies
                                                                  1. re: PaulaT

                                                                    Okay.... but what if there is a place that makes inspired Moles but put no heart into the Enchiladas... you try the Enchiladas... they suck.. you leave... never come back & miss out on what could have been one of your favorite dishes ever.

                                                                    Some times the Chowteam / Moderators aren't too happy when I do my essays on the roots of restaurant owners / cooks and go into ethnohistory etc., but I think its key. While I have learned not a benchmark any broadly defined cuisine by a single dish... I do love to know what the restauranteurs are all about... their regional specialties... and then benchmark them on that... I am certainly guilty of benchmarking Atlanta diners based on their fried chicken... but that is partly because I know that is a highly probably special. Benchmarking them on a Sonoma or Cobb Salad (both some of my favorite dishes in the world) would probably not be a good idea.

                                                                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                      E N, how about I adopt this as a rule in Mexico: rate the restaurant by one of the following from a short list: enchiladas, mole, tamales, chile rellenos (or red snapper in Vera Cruz) depending on what is regionally appropriate or restaurant specific? Could do similar lists for Japan, China, and India.

                                                                      Of course, I might have to start going to real restaurants instead of eating street and market foods.

                                                                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                        This time I wholeheartedly agree with you... I myself don't have any benchmark foods whenever I go for a cuisine of any particular type. I just order dishes that look interesting or they say are specialties and judge from there.

                                                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                          I accept your criticism - but I love good enchiladas and If a place can't make them good, I am likely not to go back - and I am not a stickler for 'authentic', just that they taste good. If they don't offer and there are place that don't, that's ok, just don't serve me a bad tasting enchilada.
                                                                          The issue about hamburger is simple - most places won't serve me my rare hamburger that I love, so I go to the next thing that I think of as 'American' the fries. On the other hand, when I am in Mexico, there is no way I am eating a Hamburger, but I might have to try the place you mentioned, just for the chips!

                                                                          1. re: PaulaT

                                                                            You would be well advised to try at least one burger in Mexico... its a very different style... but the beef is so tasty.... and when there is chorizo & bacon in the patty... it gets even more interesting. Plus, the top burger street vendors make their own condiments (the economy is still such that it is cheaper to make than buy the institutional crap).

                                                                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                              okay okay you convinced me - I still think of the 'Hamburger" as 'American" - tho ground meat dishes are international

                                                                              1. re: PaulaT

                                                                                In spirit they are very American burgers... they were introduced into Mexico by Americans.. and their variations are not any greater than regional variations you find throughout the U.S. In some respects... they are "more American" than contempary U.S. burgers... because they still respect the proportions of 1940's America, they use use plain old American style buns & American style Real cheese.

                                                                                What makes them worthwhile is the quality of ingredients & cooking techniques. They usually feature free range, grass fed / grain finished, recently slaughtered beef which in Mexico is just so flavorful, the buns are baked daily by Bimbo and sourced from the Distribution Center and then the condiments at the best vendors approach true greatness... home made Mayo, Ketchup, Jalapenos with a snap, flavorful tomatoes etc.,

                                                                                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                                  Oooh, Pan Bimbo, blast from the past. Although I take it from your post that the product has improved...

                                                                          2. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                            now your talkin'. vanilla frappe and grilled cheese sandwich, good job on those and ill be back...

                                                                          3. re: PaulaT

                                                                            "a Hamburger joint must have good fries"

                                                                            I don't think its that easy... of my top 5 burger experiences ever... one of it is absolutely without a doubt from the Wednessday night farmers market in La Loma Tlanemex (adjacent to the Tyco Electronics factory in Tlanepantla, Mexico City)... not a french fry in sight... however the next vendor over makes the absolute best Potato Chips... straight out of the lard, with a coarse salt... awesome Arbol chile sauce (with some kind of fruit puree in it), squeeze of lime... one could forget French Fries even exist.

                                                                          4. In Japan, it is a kind of adage that a wife's cooking talent is judged by how well she cooks niku jaga. There's also the adage that a sushi chef's skill can be judged soley on the quality of his tamago-yaki. But, I agree with E.N. While Japan doesn't have the vast regional differences of Mexico, true Japanese dining is very compartmentalized. There are ramen shops, there are soba shops, there are sushi shops, etc. Each little sub-cuisine would need to have its' own representative dish. For izakaya or small dish places though, I think sashimi is often a gauge of a chef's ability as it demonstrates freshness, selection, plating, and knife skills.

                                                                            1. Count me as anti-benchmark.

                                                                              I'd rather determine what dish the kitchen is proudest of and try that.

                                                                              To be fair, occasionally I'll have a craving for a particular favorite dish. If in a new city, I might not know where to find a good version, and if a new restaurant disappoints, I might feel less than happy -- but that's my problem.

                                                                              The biggest problem with using popular dishes as benchmarks is that they might be on the menu only because management realizes that "gringos" will recognize and order them. They may not reflect the nationality or the strengths of the kitchen staff.

                                                                              1. I use different strategies, depending on whether I have a passing familiarity with a cuisine vs. more in-depth knowledge.

                                                                                If I have had limited exposure to a cuisine and I am unable to specifically name dishes from different regions of the country, I tend to look for the most unusual dishes on the menu - it's sort of a subtractive method - if I've never seen it before, I order it. I tend to use this for Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, and Korean. Although, if I see banh khot on a Vietnamese menu, I'll definitely order it. No go-to dishes for the others for me.

                                                                                If I'm familiar with specific regional cuisines, I look for specific dishes:
                                                                                Chinese (Szechuan): water-boiled beef/fish/chicken, Chongqing chicken wings, 1000-chili fish soup, "twice-cooked" pork
                                                                                Chinese (Shanghai): xiao long bao, lion's head meatballs, red-cooked pork, rice cakes with preserved veg and pork
                                                                                Chinese (Shandong): knife-cut noodles
                                                                                Chinese (Cantonese) - oddly, I don't have a go-to dish. Partly because I find "Cantonese" cooking so vast - I'll go to one place for duck noodle soup, another for congee, another for dim sum, and another for a seafood banquet.
                                                                                Chinese Muslim - I'm actually not sure if this is primarily representative of one region or of Muslims across Northern China - anyway, I always get lamb with green onions and the big sesame bread
                                                                                Lao: larb, papaya salad, sour sausage
                                                                                Burmese: tea leaf salad, ginger salad
                                                                                Cambodian: amok, stuffed chicken wings (which may actually be Lao in origin, but they're at all of the Cambodian street fairs), prahok khtiss
                                                                                Italian (Rome): semolina gnocchi, amatriciana and carbonara pastas
                                                                                Italian (Emilia-Romagna) - piadine, bolognese sauces, lasagne
                                                                                Italian (Liguria) - focaccia, potato gnocchi, farinata, pesto
                                                                                Italian (Piedmont) - agnolotti, anything with rabbit or truffles
                                                                                Italian (Lombardy) - polenta, risotto
                                                                                Italian (Umbria) - anything with wild boar, truffles, farro, or chickpeas
                                                                                Indian (Tamil Nadu) - dosa, uttapam, vadai, pongal, uppma. And the rasams and sambars of course. In other words - I want it all.
                                                                                Indian (Kerala) - ha! I'd kill just for a restaurant that serves Keralan food, period.

                                                                                4 Replies
                                                                                1. re: daveena

                                                                                  Good list! But really, how much variation do you see between the dosas/vadas/uttapam at most South Indian restaurants? If the restaurant flubs those, it obviously sucks, but that rarely happens. I've been to plenty of mediocre restaurants that served decent dosas, etc. Hence why I always order dosas and other simple dishes when I go to an unfamiliar Indian restaurant. You can't go wrong with them. The quality really doesn't vary all that much based on the overall quality of the restaurant.

                                                                                  If you really want to tell if a restaurant is good at preparing South Indian food, you should pick something more variable. Upma is a good choice for that. Manchurian dishes are my dish of choice. If they have ketchup in their manchurian sauce, or they don't serve enough of it per order, I know I'll be disappointed by their curries and other dishes.

                                                                                  If we're not going to single out a specific dish, I'd say go with the thali at an Indian restaurant or the tasting menu at any other restaurant. That way you can sample a little of everything and see if the restaurant represents the cuisine well!

                                                                                  1. re: fallingup

                                                                                    Actually - I've had a lot of subpar vadai and uttapam. Dosa, on the other hand, are kind of like mac and cheese for me... they have to be pretty bad for me not to enjoy them. But I can still differentiate between one that's great, and one that's merely enjoyable. You're right though - there seem to be a lot of restaurants where dosas are the only good item... good sensitivity, poor specificity :P I think that coconut chutney and sambars vary widely enough that they could be used as a more specific marker of quality.

                                                                                  2. re: daveena

                                                                                    your post reminded me of a quote i once heard, and the author has slipped my mind, but "in italy, if you ask a thousand people to make bolognese, you'll get a thousand different bolognese sauces. if you as a thousand french cooks to make a hollandaise, you'll get one sauce. and i dont think there is anything wrong with either of those statements. i think its a testament to different thought processes.

                                                                                    1. re: SiksElement

                                                                                      Great quote, SE! I've been saying the same thing about Italian cooks for years, but in a much more long-winded and less succint way. I hadn't given much thought to the French side of the quote, but you're pretty much dead right on the Hollandaise thing. Doesn't hold up for cassoulet, though.

                                                                                  3. My test for a Chinese restaurant is what type of broccoli they serve. If it's what I call "Western" broccoli (florets,etc.) I know I'm in for a probable highly Westernized taste experience. If they serve Chinese broccoli (Gai Lan I think is the name) I can relax most of the time as I'm in for a more true-to-the-cuisine experience. Not 100% effective but works much of the time.

                                                                                    5 Replies
                                                                                    1. re: Midlife

                                                                                      Some Chinese dishes employ the use of western broccoli as opposed to Chinese broccoli, it all depends on the context.

                                                                                      1. re: Blueicus

                                                                                        I traveled to Hong Kong and Taiwan on business several times a year from around 1975 through the early 90's and can't recall ever seeing "western broccoli" in a Chinese dish. I'd be interested in more opinions as to how prevalent it's use is in Asian countries.

                                                                                          1. re: hannaone

                                                                                            Do you know if that's as true in North Korea as it is in South? I'm curous whether it may have to do with the large presence of U.S. military and Korean hospitality in trying to make them feel comfortable?

                                                                                            But recipe content also evolves with time. Fifty years ago you NEVER found brocolli or baby corn in Cantonese dishes in the U.S., for example. But there was a lot more use of celery than you find today. I love "grown up" corn, both on and off the cob, but find baby corn a royal pain, and brocolli overwhelms all the subtle flavors of everything else. Ah well, take a clue from the Boy Souts and crush a few Tums and carry it in a salt shaker.

                                                                                            1. re: Caroline1

                                                                                              LoL Caroline - Fell victim to your problem of old posts that no longer show on "My Chow" ----
                                                                                              I can't personally say about North Korea, but I believe that in S. Korea the use of western broccoli may have started with American GI's.
                                                                                              A lot of Koreans were in famine conditions during and just after the Korean war, and a lot of "American" food was taken from military store to help the people. While this was mostly canned goods like Spam, some of it was fresh (or not quite so fresh) produce. Some of the aid to help rebuild Korea also included seed stock for a lot of "western" vegetables.

                                                                                    2. I think a salient question beyond the soggy/oily/overcooked/dry question (fairly universal criteria, no?) is: what dish did I have that made me fall in love with this particular cuisine in the first place?

                                                                                      and avoid it all costs, 'cause nothing will ever live up to that moment.

                                                                                      well maybe not never...but that initial burst, giving off the look the cat gives when it gets canned food for the first time, can never be truly duplicated even if what you had was only passable in hindsight.

                                                                                      1. Ask, "How good is your cream of water soup?". If the the reaction is either that it's wondwerful or one of stunned silence, leave, immediately. Should the response be quick-witted ask to see the menu. But do not not judge the restaurant by the soup.

                                                                                        1. chicken is always a good challenge.

                                                                                          calf's liver will give a good chef fits.

                                                                                          1. Italian, Viet, Japanese by their noodles. A great noodle is not so easy to find. Japanese also by the sashimi and the cold ramen dish...and by how much crappy mayo sauce is over the rolls. Mexican by the tortillas and the pasole. Laos by the green papaya salad and the sausage. Indian by the naan. Chinese by the broth. Greek by the "greek salad" and quality of the feta.

                                                                                            1. If a restaurant has roast chicken on the menu, that's my dish to judge it by

                                                                                              1. Good bread (and warm) in the breadbasket.
                                                                                                Cool but not cold butter - not in foil
                                                                                                Recently washed and well dried greens in a salad that has not been refrigerated - or over dressed.
                                                                                                A simple syrup to sweeten my iced tea shows me that they sweat the small things.
                                                                                                A menu that is small enough for the dishes to be individually cared about

                                                                                                A restaurant like that could serve any cuisine and be one of my favorite places.

                                                                                                1 Reply
                                                                                                1. re: Billow Fair

                                                                                                  Simple syrup is such a treat and is so rare to find. Friends and I have actually given stars regarding whether to go back to a place on such simple things as simple syrup, adequate butter at a reasonable temperature for the bread, and whether they have artisan bread over store bought and it's brought to us warm in a basket vs. cold and flopped on our plates. Trying to stir regular sugar into iced tea or iced coffee is something that you shouldn't have to do in a decent restaurant, much less a good one. The same goes for cold or near frozen butter (forget the foil wrapped pats).

                                                                                                2. that's easy, the Cheesesteak

                                                                                                  1. What a great discussion!

                                                                                                    For Cantonese Chinese food, it's all about the "wok breath" and whether a chef can master this. Everyone will have their own measuring stick dishes, but there are some tried and true classics.

                                                                                                    The idea is that "the simpler the food, the harder it is to nail it down", and those who have watched Hong Kong movie "God of Cookery" (Stephen Chow) will know the origin of the phrase.

                                                                                                    Scrambled egg with shrimp - there are some restaurants in Hong Kong that still use this dish to test the skills of a chef who is interviewing. It's simple comfort cook at home food. Sounds easy, but getting the egg to be perfect smooth and runny yet cooked, and the shrimp still comes out juicy, is a lot more challenging than it seems.

                                                                                                    Dry fried beef chow fun - bean sprouts, ho fun rice noodles, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, beef slices, and of course oil. Every dim sum restaurant can make this, but can it be done perfectly? It started off as street food, and you can spend upwards of $20 for a plate of this in Hong Kong, where the best renditions use high quality beef, and after you finish it, there's no drop of oil on the plate, whereas the lesser skilled chefs will leave grease on the plate.

                                                                                                    For really good authentic and/or high end Japanese, the most simple and basic little things have to be done right. A perfect bowl of white rice, excellent green tea, and even the bowl of miso soup. That is the fine detail and difference between an average place and a really really really good place.

                                                                                                    4 Replies
                                                                                                    1. re: K K

                                                                                                      K K, what a great post!

                                                                                                      I have only recently begun to enjoy the art that is wok hai, and I would agree that it is the sign of a true master.

                                                                                                      Your discussion of scrambled egg with shrimp reminds me of all the stories of French chefs and mastering the art of the omelette. Seems there are certain themes that are common across cultural divides.

                                                                                                      As for your comment about fine details in fine restaurants, I would also agree heartily. It is the little touches that really distinguish a restaurant, such as the quality of the side vegetables, the bread, the salad dressing, and indeed, the perfect bowl of white rice.

                                                                                                      1. re: moh

                                                                                                        "Seems there are certain themes that are common across cultural divides. "
                                                                                                        re: eggs, every chef i have ever known (several), obsesses about cooking eggs. are there many other foods that are so ubiquitous? maybe breads? but if somebody is a whiz with eggs, all things are possible.

                                                                                                      2. re: K K

                                                                                                        Yes, RICE for me too! If the rice is overcooked or undercooked, or, heaven forbid, long-grain, basmati, or jasmine, I'm out

                                                                                                        1. re: K K

                                                                                                          I disagree on Japanese. White rice and green tea provide little or no demonstration of seasonality or aesthetics, which are essential elements to Japanese cuisine. Beyond that, they do not take much skill to prepare. Both are done by assistants or front staff. The quality of what particular rice or tea is being prepared is important and judged, but hardly a deal maker. And neither really are consumed with restaurant meals as much as Westerners seem to think. It seems common here in the U.S. for people to philosophically weigh heavily on rice and green tea with regards to Japanese cuisine, but I think that is taking the sense of simplicity and refinement too far. Ultimately, as I noted above, I think sashimi is a common gauge of a chef's (restaurant) ability to demonstrates freshness, selection, plating, seasonality, and knife skills. Crappy Japanese restaurants in the U.S. often serve poorly cut and plated sashimi. And often with an odd combination of fish that betrays the sense of balance that is also part of Japanese cuisine. It's my experience that sashimi is the standard gauge for authenticity AND quality with respect to Japanese restaurants...especially in the U.S.