How to Read a Menu Like a Food Critic

It’s harder than it seems. So Pete Wells and Tejal Rao have tips.

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By Nikita Richardson

This week marks one year of Where to Eat. What I hoped would be a digestible, funny and useful weekly guide to eating out in New York City is now a community of readers with thoughtful questions and strong opinions.

How to celebrate one year? Traditionally, with the gift of paper. More specifically here: menus. Someone recently asked me, “How do you decide what to order?” And I realized that being able to parse a menu is a real skill. So I chatted with two diners extraordinaire — our restaurant critic, Pete Wells, and our critic-at-large, Tejal Rao — in hopes of helping you all eat the way the critics eat.

Our regularly scheduled program will resume next week. But for now, thank you so much for reading this newsletter — and here’s to another good year of great eating.

What should diners look out for on menus?

Tejal: Sometimes menus are structured so that they call attention to one thing. It’s worth being a little skeptical about that. Is the steak highlighted in its own little box going to be a showstopper, or is it just a big-ticket item distracting me from more interesting dishes? And if a dish relies on pretty high quality, in-season ingredients, you don’t want to order it out of season.

Pete: I try to skim and read the whole thing cover-to-cover, if it’s long. Of course, your eye goes to things you don’t see in every restaurant. Anything that looks different or original. And if a chef is going to put something really classic and familiar on the menu, it challenges them to take it to a level that will surprise you.

What are your always-orders?

Pete: No one ever wants to get the soup. I always want to get the soup, but it’s hard to share. When there’s soup on the menu, that’s interesting, because somebody took the trouble to make it and it’s never going to be a huge seller.

Tejal: If I haven’t seen puntarelle for months and all of a sudden it’s in season, I’m ordering puntarelle. And I hope it’s served with anchovies and olive oil. But it’s OK if it’s not. I just want it, you know? Same goes for fresh sardines — I can’t help it.

What do you rarely order?

Pete: The steak is almost always super-plain. And I rarely order a burger. There’s so little you can do to a burger that will really knock me out. For a while cheffed-up burgers were a novelty, and then there were so many good ones I just take it for granted now that one chef’s burger will be pretty much like all the other ones.

Tejal: I’m never going to order the braised short rib. Short ribs are served on airplanes and at catered parties, and it’s because they are a cheap, forgiving cut. It’s hard to mess it up. Not to say that the most elaborate thing on the menu is what’s worth getting, but I’d rather order something I wouldn’t cook at home.

How often do you rely on servers for advice?

Pete: At a newer restaurant, I tend to only ask if I’m down to two things and I can’t decide. Whereas at a place where the menu never changes and they’ve been around for years, clear favorites start to emerge, and the waiters know what’s generally good.

Tejal: Some servers make it really clear that they’re super-familiar with the food and they’ve tasted everything. But usually I will put in the order and then say, “Is there anything really amazing that I’ve missed?”

What advice do you have for diners who think they’re not adventurous?

Nikita: I’ll take this one. I think the secret to widening your horizon is to always order one thing you wouldn’t normally try. I almost never order a shrimp dish, but I will always try it if someone else orders it. Call it exposure therapy. It’s perfectly fine to have food preferences — I don’t know if I’ll ever come around on runny egg yolks, sorry! — but continually pushing yourself out of your comfort zone has nothing but upside. I promise.

In Other News …

This week Pete Wells reviewed Kebab aur Sharab, on the Upper West Side, which offers “a whole specialized line of kebabs from around India that takes up three pages on the menu,” he writes, making dining there “an event.”

Openings: The bistro Virginia’s returns this Thursday in a new space with the chef Justin Lee (formerly of Fat Choy and Barbuto) at the helm; Benny John’s Bar & Grill, a new steakhouse, will arrive at East 48th Street this week; and the Taim Mediterranean Kitchen chain will open a location in Fresh Meadows, Queens, on Wednesday.

How to save a struggling small town? Well, having Reba McEntire on your side certainly helps. Priya Krishna reported on Atoka, Okla., and the opening of Reba’s Place, a restaurant and collaboration between Ms. McEntire, a local hero, and the Choctaw Nation.

Molly Fitzpatrick reported on the rise of American-made aperitifs and digestifs and the producers working to create the next Campari.

Christina Morales wrote the obituary for Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra, a leading expert on Puerto Rican cuisine and culinary history who died in early March. He was 67.

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