restaurant expectations - ingredients, cooking
So last night we went to an Italian restaurant for dinner and while it was nice, I came away wondering what my expectations should be for restaurant food.
I cook a lot. I buy quality ingredients - not usually *luxurious*, but fresh, quality, often organic ingredients. I make most things from scratch. But also, I make the same dinner for one little family, not a fifty tables of diners all choosing different dishes.
I had a slow-cooked lamb bits in sauce over risotto. It was okay, but I was a little disappointed because the sauce was obviously made from one of those commercially made sauce bases instead of something more handmade, and the rice wasn't really risotto - it wasn't made that way, it didn't have an al dente center or the creaminess or infused flavor of a real risotto preparation. It wasn't Arborio, and it almost certainly wasn't Vialone Nano or Carnaroli. It was some kind of long-grain white rice. It wasn't *bad*, it just wasn't my idea of risotto. It was about what I would have made myself -- ten or fifteen years ago when I was learning to cook.
This entree was served alone and it cost around $22. I can't tell if I'm being overly picky or if it's reasonable to be disappointed. They didn't lie - these expectations were in my head, not on the menu. Maybe it's unreasonable to expect higher-cost ingredients and more labor for this price point? What do you expect for a $22 dish of "risotto" and lamb?
Of course there are exceptions for places I know are fantastic, or for occasions with friends; but, I tend avoid cuisines I am good at cooking when I go out to eat. I stick with cuisines I either rarely make, don't know how to make, are too laborious to bother with, or where I don't stock the correct pantry items to make the dishes.
For example, unless I am paying for a once-in-five-years sort of meal, I avoid french/nouvelle cusine. I cook better myself thank you. I also avoid Indian, Italian and South East Asian food in general (again, unless it is a particularly good restaurant or I want a specific dish).
I often go out for things like Japanese (I just don't stock the staples in my house), and Chinese (dumplings and other Dim Sum are too finicky for me to make on my own).
I have to say what you get depends a lot on where you live. Around here (Venice, FL) there is a lot of crappy Italian-American food; you have to find the one or two gems. In the one Gem you'd have gotten real risotto, made to order, with a handmade sauce, for under $22. Down the block; if they had even heard of such a dish it would be imitation for more money. Same goes with other themes and cuisines. The best Mexican food here is absolute garbage; but I know a little Latin market with a Peruvian owner, where his sister cooks on Saturdays, and it is the best "Hispanic" food within a thousand miles.
There's a local restaurant that makes the best mushroom risotto I've ever had, but it is not on their regular menu, only an occassional special. That said, I seldom order risotto out as it is usually disappointing.
I expect honest food at a fair price, whatever price point that is. Exceptional prices should match exceptional food.
I love to go out to breakfast. Most common complaint I have is that they don't TOAST the toast. I don't want barely warm bread. I send it back almost every time.
For $22 you should definitely be getting short grained rice in a risotto dish. And, in my opinion, a homemade stock. Rice and stock is practically the whole dish!
But FWIW, I almost never order risotto in a restaurant unless they say that they cook it to order and it will take 20-30 minutes from the time you order it. If they do not cook it to order, the rice is always par cooked before service and then finished when the table is fired. It is just never the same as when it is made from start to finish in one shot. For one thing, risotto par cooked ahead of time never gets the same amount of stirring than a cooked to order batch does because the line cook prepping it is inevitable prepping 3 or 4 other things at the same time and just can't stand at the stove stirring it for 15 minutes. (I have cooked many a batch of risotto in a restaurant kitchen.)
And when it is par cooked ahead of time, the cook has two opportunities to overcook it: the first time, when he/she yanks it at the par cooking stage, the cook has to be able to gauge how much more the batch will cook as it cools off. Then, when the table is fired as it is being finished it can easily overcook if left a little too long or too much liquid is added initially when it goes into the pan cold.
Sorry for the risotto essay, but I just think it is one of those dishes, for me at least, is almost always bound to disappoint.
I expect nice food prepared well.
I'm irritated when food I'm presented with at a restaurant is manufactured and not cooked with care. It's insulting that they would suppose the diner wouldn't taste or know the difference in qualities of food. In your meal - risotto is one thing, rice/grain prepared as a risotto is entirely another - it was inappropriate. And if you can taste the 'commerical' in the sauce, then the cook didn't adjust it at all. There was no love in the meal.
My irritation also comes from the knowledge that I could make the same meal at a quarter to a third the cost and have it taste great - so I know it wasn't entirely the cost of the ingredients that drove their decisions. And then I feel snobby because I've dissected and dissed the food - and dwelt for too much time on it and not the experience (guess they are often the same!). Then I get mad at myself and the restaurant for having ended up together in this unhappy relationship.
If asked, I'll tell the waiter that I expected risotto (or some other thing) but wouldn't return the plate unless there was something egregiously wrong. How do you send the meal back and ask the cook that you want a side of 'love' with that? Especially on the first date.
My typical answer to this is to almost never go back (there are too many other places) . . . and never recommend them . . . and give my opinion when asked.
Well, a couple of things.
If you feel you overpaid, then you write a review on your local board about your experience and that you feel the value for money wasn't there, and people will agree or disagree with you, and in the meantime you go elsewhere and try again.
Or you can beat yourself up and second-guess yourself and end up talking like my aunt, who ended every meal at any restaurant anywhere with, "Ehhh, I could make better at home."
As for what I expect for a $22 plate of lamb and risotto, I do expect risotto (short-grain rice, even if it's not fancy imported Italian short-grain rice) cooked risotto-style, with lamb in sauce. I guess I don't expect everyone to make stocks by hand, but it sure is nice when it happens.