I was out with a small handful of NYC-based food writers the other night. We were on our way to Edible Brooklyn‘s food trivia night, so I was feeling quite smug about my smartness in all things food-related right then, especially being among such illustrious company. As we made our way from the West Coast-oriented bar (with, according to my mentors, not enough beer cred for that claim) Pacific Standard to the Australian meat-pie joint, Sheep Station (kitschy, but the fries are among the best), one friend piped up about how food writers always tend to gravitate toward the same items on any given menu. Why was that? she wondered. Eager to impress, I immediately pontificated a theory:
“I think it’s because most menus are cluttered with familiar dishes that they know are going to sell well; then the chef likes to throw in a wildcard here and there, that’s more creative, or unique. The food writer always orders the wildcard.”
“I think you are absolutely right,” she replied, making me beam.
It was a sweeping generalization, but it made sense to a fellow adventurous foodie. It’s either a blessing or a curse, but we’ve all seen, smelled and tasted it before. We are constantly searching for that more exceptional something than what’s normally dealt. We’re difficult to please. Often, we are dreadfully single.
But that’s another story. Back to the wildcard theory, I’m sure we can all name several standard-issue foods that make its way, in some fashion, onto menus more often than not. Tried and true, these choices may include: a something-crusted salmon fillet, a meaty cut of beef dribbled with reduction sauce, “diver” sea scallops with something else light, and in this day in age, braised pork belly. Wild mushroom risotto. Beet salad with goat cheese. Moules frites. The gourmet burger. There’s nothing wrong with ordering them, after all, the public’s chosen them as winners. (Or is it the other way around, the chefs chose them and the public followed?) Restaurants are first and foremost a business, and they thrive on bestsellers. In many ways, its role is to simply compete against others for the best execution of popular favorite foods — like at a steakhouse.
Then there’s the wildcard. Experimental, playful, brazen or frank, this could be a specialty or seasonal dish, like squid ink pasta or rabbit stew. It could be something average cooked with unconventional flavors and flair. It could be plain and simple where unexpected, like spaghetti and meatballs from a Michelin-starred kitchen. Whatever it is, it’s clearly taking a risk.
Sometimes, the wildcard is a flop. Whoever thought vanilla bean went well with parsley? Or decided to deep-fry sausage? Sometimes, sweetbreads just can’t be saved. This is probably instant death to the menu item, and the restaurant will recover from its losses by selling the other courses they know sell well. But when they do excel, the novelty is well worth the risk.
My theory may have holes (i.e. a chef can get very inventive with a roast chicken… but often don’t), but I think these are two distinct camps of courses. And I completely understand that sometimes you just feel like eating that fill-in-the-blank familiarity, no frills attached. But if you’re persnickety about food like the critics, remember that you can always make a wildcard meal at home. You won’t be allergic to it, like you might the one offering at a restaurant that actually entices. There’ll be more to choose from; you can fill your mental menu with inspired choices and forget the rest. You can also fail at cooking it and figure out why, and then try again at it. Or move onto cooking something else equally unusual.
Unlike at a restaurant, your wildcard dish won’t vanish from the face of the earth if it turned out poorly, or just didn’t appeal to enough people. You’ll have some newfound understanding from the experience if yours flops, rather than just a bad taste in your mouth. And you’ll be better prepared to make a uniquely delicious masterpiece afterward. Basically, you will only get better at cooking for yourself in a way that pleases you, even if you’re hard to please. And all the more power to you if so.