Benchmark items
July 7, 2014 10:54 AM   Subscribe

What are the best benchmark foods or drinks to use to test out a new restaurant or bar?

For example, I've often heard that the Negroni is the best drink to try at a cocktail bar to establish if they know what they're doing, and every time I go to a new Tex Mex place I want to try their fajitas (though my mom always had the same idea but with burritos). I would love to hear opinions about ethnic food, or even hyper-specific location based answers (i.e. in Houston if I go to a new place that has 3 or 4 Karbach beers on tap it makes me feel better about the place).
posted by DynamiteToast to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Doesn't this kind of depend on what you like/what you think A Good XYZ is?

A less-subjective way to gauge this might be things that are easy to mess up. Poached eggs are a good example - hard to do right, harder in volume, heavily reliant on ingredient freshness.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:02 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why a negroni? It's an incredibly simple drink to make, and the only real variable is the quality of the gin....
posted by mr_roboto at 11:04 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not so much culinary finesse as food safety, there are a few items that will make it pretty clear how well management handles sanitation issues. If someone orders one of the following items and doesn't get sick, I call that kitchen a pretty good bet. Conversely, if I'm feeling cagey about a maybe-nasty restaurant, I will avoid these items like a literal plague:

- Caesar salad
- any dish with hollandaise sauce
- any tartare
- ceviche
- mussels, oysters

Basically, if I've always thought Restaurant X looks like a dive, and a friend tells me about some fabulous eggs benedict she had there last week, I'll probably go there and trust the kitchen to do a good job with most anything.
posted by magdalemon at 11:06 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Before checking items, best thing to do is check out the washrooms.

Clean, tidy, hygienic? Eat there. Dirty and foul? They show you the washrooms--now imagine what the kitchen looks like.

But, things to test:

- If you order a martini and they ask "Vodka or gin" run away. Martinis are made with gin.
- Order a plain old steak, with a specific temperature (make sure you know what steak colours should look like). Cut through the centre. If not perfect, send back to be remade, never eat there again.
- Pureed soup. Should be velvety and smooth on the tongue.
- Agreed on poached eggs. Also, eggs over easy. (most kitchens cheat with a salamander, but still.)

Basically, look at the simplest things on the menu, and see if they come out perfectly. If they can't do that, they can't do complex, never eat there again. Especially fried things. Should be crunchy and crisp and leave no grease behind on the plate or fingers.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:06 AM on July 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

I test with some food that I can do really well myself.*
Fish, for example: easy to cook, if you know when to stop.
Chicken breast: a no brainer to get them just right if you pre-slice them and if you're there to watch the pan--otherwise always a cardboardy disaster.

In drinks, I'd try mint juleps or something else fragrant that can be nasty if the ingredients aren't of high quality (But honestly, even a gin tonic can show the class of a place (or not)).

*Of course there are no-gos. Try risotto or lasagna in a restaurant, and you're likely disappointed. And liver. Why does everyone overcook liver?
posted by Namlit at 11:09 AM on July 7, 2014

Oh yeah. Seconding the bathrooms suggestion from feckless fecal fear mongering. And if there is hand sanitizer anywhere in sight--particularly, god forbid, in place of soap in the bathroom--I would severely limit the amount of things that touch my mouth there.

Hand sanitizer does absolutely nothing against norovirus, one of the most prevalent sources of foodborne illness--this is a widely known fact and anyone who's serious about safety knows that. To stock hand sanitizer in place of soap reflects managerial ignorance on an appalling scale.

Plus, you know, fecal matter (nicely coated in hand sanitizer) in your food.
posted by magdalemon at 11:10 AM on July 7, 2014

Why a negroni? I'd assume because (as you note) it's a gin drink, but often confused with the Negroni sbagliato, which is made with sparking wine. If you ask for a Negroni, and get a sparkling wine drink, you know you're in the wrong place.

I agree with the comment above--eggs are a good litmus test.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:10 AM on July 7, 2014

- If you order a martini and they ask "Vodka or gin" run away. Martinis are made with gin.

True, but not necessarily a good sign of bar quality either way. I know plenty of excellent bartenders who know damn well what a martini is, but have started asking because they're sick of customers yelling at them because their martini has gin in it.
posted by Itaxpica at 11:11 AM on July 7, 2014 [11 favorites]

"I've often heard that the Negroni is the best drink to try at a cocktail bar to establish if they know what they're doing"

I'm not going to argue against that, but I would offer the alternative that a well-made daiquiri is a better benchmark. With the Negroni you're looking at 3 ingredients, one of which is held constant (the Campari) and then the whole product being made appropriately cold and diluted.

With a daiquiri - assuming you even find a place where the bartender doesn't immediately respond, "We don't do frozen drinks" - you're not only left with the bartender's choice of rum that they think is best showcased by this preparation, you're also treated to their ability to gauge the tartness of their lime juice (it is fresh juice, right? If not, back away) and balance that with their simple syrup. You get to watch their shaking - do they just give it a cursory toss in the tins (ugh) or do they actually shake the hell out of it and get it properly cold? How do they strain - single strain where you get ice chips in your drink, or a nice double strain for a smoother presentation? What kind of glassware was it served in? Was the glassware chilled before the drink was poured in?

I've been to "craft cocktail" bars that looked at me as if I'd grown a second head when I asked for a daiquiri. A bartender that says, "Right away" and produces a cold and balanced and delicious daiquiri within seconds is a sign that someone is actually taking pains to have a good bar.
posted by komara at 11:11 AM on July 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Magdalemon, not to burst your bubble, but a lot of places (siiiiiiigh) will use bottled Caesar rather than from-scratch-with-egg-yolks (although you can always tell by colour--white not yellow--and texture), and I am not unfamiliar with places that use powdered Holly. It's better to look at things which require cooking, and see the level of finesse used.

(it is fresh juice, right? If not, back away)

posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:12 AM on July 7, 2014

Best answer: I have been told by o-fficial gelato makers that the best way to gauge a gelateria is to look at color - as in, the color of certain flavors. If the banana gelato is yellow and the pistachio gelato is green, that's not a good sign; bananas aren't yellow on the inside, so banana gelato would be white or kinda gray unless they put some coloring in it. Pistachio would be a similar gray/green/olivey kind of drab. (And if they have no problem with adding food coloring, the argument goes, then they also might have no problem in adding flavoring either, and....yeah.)

Oh, and mint should be white, not green.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:13 AM on July 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

mr_roboto: "and the only real variable is the quality of the gin...."

I beg to differ. There's a whole world of red vermouth out there, with the Carpano Antica sitting at the very top (and deservedly so). Vermouth is a perishable product, unlike gin and Campari, so you'd hope to see your bartender pulling it from a fridge, not dusting it off as (s)he pulls it from a back shelf where it's seen no action in months. A cheap or expired vermouth can destroy a Negroni faster than a good gin can elevate it.
posted by komara at 11:14 AM on July 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Disclaimer I should have added: the washroom advice is from Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, which is filled with all sorts of other useful knowledge in between the drug and alcohol binges.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:14 AM on July 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

For Mexican restaurants and taco shops in San Diego (and occasionally elsewhere), it's carnitas, maybe carne asada. There's a range of decency with carnitas - most do it okay, which means that they're likely using some kind of shortcut because it's really difficult and time-consuming to do correctly and most places don't go to that length if they have limited space and high turnover. A select few do it really well, and even put the carnitas on the grill for a bit so it's sort of crusty on the outside and juicy on the inside but still falls apart and is all flaky's too close to lunchtime. Bad places will basically give you a diced pork chop, and don't get repeat business unless all I want is a quesadilla, which is almost impossible to mess up (although there was one place that regularly ran out of flour tortillas (?!??!??!) and has since closed).

Also: guacamole. Cheap places will use some kind of powdered mix that ends up like green food coloring in sour cream. Good places will actually have some avocado chunks in there.
posted by LionIndex at 11:21 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why not just ask them what their speciality is? If you try it and it's not great, then it's doubtful that anything else is better.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:29 AM on July 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Whenever I go to a new place that claims to be a "craft cocktail bar" I order a hemingway daquiri. Why? I love them and like to find places that make a good one with freshly squeezed juice. It's also a good way to test the knowledge of the bartender: Some bars know what it is but don't get the citrus component perfectly balanced. Other bars have no clue what it is and will say something like "sorry, we don't do blended drinks" thinking that I'm asking for something akin to a frozen strawberry daquiri - that's my indication that they don't know what they're doing.
posted by joan_holloway at 11:41 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do they advertise one main cuisine, but also have one generic American food like burgers on the menu? For example, a Chinese restaurant that also advertises burgers, or a burger place that advertises tacos. They will most likely do neither well.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:53 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For places that make Neapolitan pizza, I always order the Margherita, in line with the above advice to order the simplest, most pure food item when testing out a new place.
posted by jasper411 at 12:04 PM on July 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Honestly, if I'm at a new place I tend to order anything that's heavily advertised/seems to be their speciality. I figure that if there's one thing that a restaurant claims to do very well, they're gonna put their best foot forward for it.
posted by Itaxpica at 12:16 PM on July 7, 2014

I always order a Manhattan in a new bar. It's a simple, straightforward drink to make but that doesn't stop lots of people from screwing it up.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:25 PM on July 7, 2014

Best answer: Oh, for sushi restaurants: just order some very simple nigiri (piece of fish or something else on top of rice). The rice should hold together well, and be moist. The fish should be fresh (obvs), and not detach from the rice if you look at it funny. Also order a couple of pieces of sashimi. They should be beautifully sliced, with no ragged edges or odd shapes.

Sitting at the sushi bar in front of the chef is also a very good way to check the quality and finesse they are using. Order a Sapporo or an Asahi or some sake, and watch the chef at work. If you're not seeing careful handling, skip ordering, have your drink, and go somewhere else.

If the restaurant fails on any of those points, don't go back (I'm wishy-washy on the soy thing; you can get very decent sushi at places that bring you soy and wasabi at the table instead; it's not an exclusion criterion). If they fail on fresh fish (it's really hard to hide non-fresh raw fish in such simple preparations), leave immediately and refuse to pay the bill.

Another bit of quality to look for, if there's a sushi bar in the place, is the chef adding the correct amount of wasabi and soy (usually painted on very thinly with a brush); this tells you they are really serious about how they make their sushi, and how it should be enjoyed. Even better quality: seeing someone hand-grinding real wasabi, as opposed to that green goop that's faked with mustard and horseradish and then dyed. Real wasabi is almost floral--it's super easy to tell the difference.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:40 PM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

If an Italian place can't get spaghetti with white clam sauce right, they won't get anything else right either.
posted by workerant at 1:34 PM on July 7, 2014

Chips and salsa; if they can't nail the salsa - next.
Bloody Mary is a basic and classic drink.
Draw of beer - frozen mug, or some warm thing sitting in a stack for days?
Spaghetti and meat sauce - same as the salsa test, if an Italian restaurant can't nail these basics; seriously.
Cheeseburger - if the cheese is not the slight bit melted; next.

Basic stuff. Nothing complicated. If a restaurant or beverage place can't get the easy stuff right; no way I'd expect them to do complicated stuff respectfully.

Oh, my favorite seafood joint test is if the entire back lot is full of boxes saying cod, haddock, etc, and neither appears on the menu; I'm going to assume they are either selling millions of 'crab-cakes' or yeah, enjoy your 'talapia' and 'mahi mahi'.
posted by buzzman at 1:37 PM on July 7, 2014

I dunno. I frequently use more esoteric/feely things to suss out the quality of a new place, rather than specific menu items. (I mean, I do have "standard" test items for different types of restaurants/styles of cuisine, but writing them all out will bloat this comment unreasonably.)

I have a couple of areas of disagreement with previous comments, though. Bathroom/FOH cleanliness is certainly a concern, but doesn't necessarily correlate to the conditions in the kitchen. Different staff are usually employed to clean those areas. US kitchens are required to have hand-washing stations, and cooks usually wash up there, regardless of whether they washed in the bathroom (in other words, people are more likely to wash twice, rather than not at all). And anyway, a professional kitchen is just "dirty," relative to what one sees on celebrity cooking shows, or expects at home. Despite best efforts, a working kitchen will have areas of cooked-in grease, neglected corners, things occasionally stored next to things they shouldn't be. Sometimes bugs or other pests (obviously, full-time residency is bad). Best not to worry too much about that (many US jurisdictions post food safety inspection results in local media or elsewhere, if you really need to know about serious violations). The suggestion to try a plain piece of meat (or seafood) to judge the quality of places focusing on those things is great, but I'd argue that the occasional overcooking/undercooking is something that just happens, even in the hands of very skilled cooks. The actual dealbreaker should be how graciously and accurately the staff handles the re-fire.

As for drinks? As a reformed drinker, who was almost exclusively a double whiskey neat kind of guy, I can't really speak to an ideal cocktail. Seems like a real rabbit hole to go down, especially when 1) talking about obscure drinks, and 2) living in an age of boutique cocktails, where different establishments are making their own signature mixers, etc. But I do note the level of service I get when I order a non-alcoholic drink at a bar. Am I treated like a real human customer, who is spending real human money? If it's a snazzy mocktail, does the bartender actually give a shit about it, or is it just a glorified fruit spritzer?

Anyway, here are some positive/negative signals that I look for, when trying out a new place:

Menu Design and Contents: How simple is the menu? Is there a discernible theme? One-to-two pages (not counting desserts or drink options), with several dishes that mesh, is a good sign. A damn telephone book, with no focus, and we're in trouble. This also applies to the signage behind the counter, in places that don't do menus.

Server Knowledge and Conviction: Does the server or counter person know their own menu? When asked for a "favorite" item recommendation, do they hedge? Does their recommendation make any sense, given the general thrust of the menu (e.g. is it a seafood place, but they recommend the burger)? When they describe a special, does it sound like they've actually eaten it and grasped its defining nuances, or are they just reeling off a string of rote-memorized words? Bonus: In places that offer scaled spicing, can the server explain the levels, and can the kitchen avoid patronizing (or alternately, punishing) you?

Customer Base: If it's an ethnic restaurant, are a fair number of customers (over 50%, unless local demographics disallow this) of the ethnicity in question? If it's been recommended as "a pretty fancy place" by your local contact, does it actually look like one? For instance, do the customers act/dress like they take the place seriously? If you've been directed there as a leading example of the regional cuisine, are you surrounded by people of the region, or only fellow tourists?
posted by credible hulk at 1:40 PM on July 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Similar to LionIndex, I judge Mexican joints and taquerias by the simple steak tacos. Is the steak decent or is it the gristly chewy stuff? Are the tacos handmade maiz or are they cheap premade flour? Are they doubled up for strength or did they go cheap? Onions and cilantro only.... those should be fresh too. Then there's the salsa exponent, etc. Damn, now I'm hungry too..
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:49 PM on July 7, 2014

There was a recent Quora thread you might find useful.

Apologies for pointing to Quora, but it seemed unusually relevant.
posted by aramaic at 1:50 PM on July 7, 2014

It should be something you actually know and like well enough to tell whether it's being done properly or not. I mean, how in the world are you going to gauge a bar by its negroni if you aren't entirely sure you've had a good negroni already?

Besides, if you order something you like and it's not done well, you will know immediately. Their ability to do something you'd never order is moot. You want to eat at restaurants that make food you like, not food somebody else likes. I'd never order spaghetti with meat sauce in an Italian restaurant, so why should I do so as a "test" of a place? The goal of eating in restaurants is to get something you like. If I want to feel like I'm grinding away at a tedious chore, I'll stay home and have leftovers.
posted by Sara C. at 1:52 PM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why a negroni as a benchmark?

posted by under_petticoat_rule at 2:05 PM on July 7, 2014

For any place that claims to be a decent bar my go-to test is a Manhattan. It's a fairly simple drink (just three ingredients!) that everyone "should" know if they're skilled at their craft, but there is a lot of room to show both admirable skill and knowledge, total lack of competence, or something in-between. If they make it with rye whiskey without needing to ask, rather than well bourbon? Killer! Make it OK, but omit bitters? So many places sadly do this... not necessarily a huge black mark, but it does indicate that they don't really know the basic cocktails. As long as the rest of the ingredients are good, just ask for any fiddly details explicitly next time. Pull out a bottle of sweet vermouth from a shelf that looks like it was last touched in 1985? Run far, far away.

As a former Texan, for any place that claims to be "authentic" Mexican, as opposed to "we're better than ChiChi's" Tex-Mex, I look for a mole dish. If they can ace a good mole, savory, with nice chile spice, and a chocolate component that's a little more bitter than sweet.... it's a very good sign.

Sushi was covered above, but I will say that for me the tell is salmon -- because I don't really like raw salmon, unless it's very fresh and good. If I can eat a couple pieces of salmon nigiri without wishing I hadn't, I know I'll probably like anything they can throw at me.
posted by jammer at 2:09 PM on July 7, 2014

As far as cocktails go, I had a Sidecar a couple of nights ago that will ensure I won't return to that place.
They made it with sour mix.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:00 PM on July 7, 2014

> It should be something you actually know and like well enough to tell whether it's being done properly or not.

The food you benchmark should be something you like but the rest of this complaint is pure balderdash.

If you are trying the same dish/drink/salad/dessert at multiple locations, you will be able to compare experiences and realize, maybe, that the first or second Caesar salad of the half-dozen you've tried in the past year was the best one.
posted by ardgedee at 5:29 PM on July 7, 2014

that the first or second Caesar salad of the half-dozen you've tried in the past year was the best one

Ha ha! As it happens, the very first Caesar salad I ever had (~ ten years old?) was done up in the classic tableside fashion, complete with multiple cooks in full whites, giant bowl, comically huge peppergrinder, etc. True theater.

And, although I've certainly had -- and made -- several equivalent Caesar salads in the ensuing years (among the multitudes more that were but pale shadows), I'll never have a better one.

Food appreciation is as much about early imprinting/emotional reaction, as it is about book larnin'. Which is why my initial experience of Caesar salad was both an excellent benchmark for future Caesar salads, and also a kind-of impossible benchmark for future Caesar salads. A basic understanding of technique can be helpful in evaluating aesthetic stuff like art, music, and food. But over-reliance on received wisdom/trivia can be limiting.

We don't go into an art museum and compare all the paintings to that one Vermeer we like (or, more accurately to the question, that one Vermeer that everyone said we should like).
posted by credible hulk at 8:19 PM on July 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

A negroni is a very simple cocktail--1:1:1 ratios of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari/Luxardo Bitter, garnished with orange rind and served on the rocks. Anyplace that messes this drink up is pretty likely to have issues elsewhere (at least at the bar). I've had negronis served to me in martini glasses, neat. I've had negronis made with vodka and dry vermouth (which is a different drink), and negronis served with grenadine (!) instead of Campari. Every time, the errors paralleled other issues with the meal.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:02 PM on July 7, 2014

In a place that serves a wide variety of beer, I judge them by serving temperature.
posted by neushoorn at 1:51 AM on July 8, 2014

In a place that does not serve alcohol, I judge based on hamburger. If they use a frozen puck burger with no seasoning, how can they not be too lazy to do anything else well?
posted by WeekendJen at 3:12 PM on July 8, 2014

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