New Year’s Revolutions: Things We Are Soooo Over in 2008

New Year’s is a time of renewal, of shedding old habits and instituting new ones. In that spirit, we’re devoting this week’s post to our least favorite restaurant tics – the ones that we see every day, and would like to see disappear. Some of these are overused classics, some are tired old fads, and some are evil new practices. All need a fresh outlook and a new direction.

If you’d like to add your own restaurant pet peeves to our list, please email EATER at comments@westchestermagazine.com.  

Maryland Crab Cakes
Last I checked, neither of the two bodies of water flanking Westchester County is Chesapeake Bay — so then why do Maryland crab cakes show up on so many local menus? We wouldn’t mind if the patties were stellar, but for the most part, the dish is made with de-flavorized, pasteurized crab meat, Hellmann’s mayo and Old Bay seasoning. These blobs of panko-crusted tuna fish salad taste about as close to the sea as fish sticks.

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What we’d prefer to see: Chef’s working with local ingredients, like The Dressing Room’s Michel Nischan who uses Westport-raised oysters from Jeff Northrop—whose family has been oystering our very own Sound waters for generations

Molten Chocolate Cake
Little did Jean-Georges Vongerichten know when he unleashed this dish on the world in the 1980s that these half-baked treats would become virtually ubiquitous, available in every restaurant everywhere, from Chicago to Chengdu. When that happens, it’s inevitable—no matter how delicious, that dish has to go.

What we’d prefer to see: puddings. Just like the molten chocolate cake, puddings are warm and gooey — but unlike Vongerichten’s brainchild, puddings come in an endless variety of flavors and textures, from bread, plum and sticky toffee, to the delightfully named spotted dick. For a truly soul-warming dessert, check out Jill Rose’s pear bread pudding at Tarrytown’s Chiboust.

Tuna Tartare
Here’s the dirty little secret about this dish: chefs love it because (like Union Square Cafe’s tuna burgers) it uses up all the chopped-up trimmings from the tuna dishes offered elsewhere in the menu. While there’s nothing wrong with this practice — and, in fact, economy is the mark of a smart, well-trained chef — we’re getting really sick of this particular preparation. Sure, some versions have wasabi, while others have chili, yuzu, or what have you — but essentially, they’re all quenelles of seasoned raw fish, often overworked with the knife until the flesh becomes mush.

What we’d prefer to see: crudo. This Italian dish was resurrected at Esca restaurant, the Batali/Bastianich seafood Mecca in Manhattan headed by Chef David Pasternack. Crudo entails small pieces of raw fish, bite sized chunks or slices, simply seasoned with best-quality olive oil and exotic sea salts. Maybe, if Pasternack is feeling Baroque, he’ll throw in a micro herb or something, but in general, this dish is all about small bites of immaculately fresh fish, elegantly gilded with the most ethereal oil money can buy. Crudo is the essence of elegance — simple, clean, perfect. In fact, I dream of the crudo at Esca, though I can’t seem to remember anything else on the menu.

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Spring Rolls Not Appearing in Chinese Restaurants
We can blame Wolfgang Puck– that ‘80s phenom and ringer for Elmer Fudd — for this one. His fusion pizzeria Spago caused the virus-like epidemic of Peking duck spring rolls. Why did they become so popular? Well, you can chuck anything you like inside a spring roll, from leftover de-boned spare ribs to duck confit. They’re cheap and easy, plus, who doesn’t like fried food, right? Often appearing alongside straight-from-the can duck sauce, these tubes of cabbagy goodness are often poorly sealed and just bursting with grease

What we’d prefer to see: Vietnamese summer rolls. These unfried, greaseless Asian burritos envelope a complete hand held meal, including meat, bouncy rice noodles, and bright, crunchy lettuce, cilantro and mint. Where spring rolls are leaden and oily, summer rolls are sprightly and clean-tasting. We wish we could recommend a local version, but alas—Westchester is as yet unserved by a great Vietnamese restaurant.

The Bottled Water Upsell
How many times has this happened to you? Your waiter approaches the table and asks, “Still or sparkling?”–often holding the twin, 8$ bottles in his sweaty, overeager hands. If you succumb, you’re looking at a huge increase in your bill – plus, there’s no guarantee that your fancy bottled water tastes any better than tap. Restaurants love the bottled water upsell, since profit margins are huge in this area. What costs you $8 probably costs them less than $1. Plus, it’s the gift that keeps on giving: a table of four can easily go through six or more bottles in a sitting. Then there’s the environmental aspect of bottled water – just think of the carbon footprint of shipping all that heavy water from points all over the globe, then processing all the used glass and plastic containers. It’s an ecological nightmare and it’s totally avoidable.

What we’d prefer to see: we’d love to see more restaurants offering chilled, triple-filtered New York State tap water, just like our friends at the now-defunct Bloom. We’re incredibly lucky that our tap water tastes so good — we should celebrate it at every chance we get.

Mint on EVERY dessert
When we were learning the finer points of restaurant cooking, it was suggested to us that to garnish a dish with something not already occurring in the preparation was a very diner-ish, bush-league gesture. Think parsely sprig, twisted lemon slice or purple kale shoved on a dish solely “for color.” Instead, it was better to echo the flavors of a dish you’re garnishing, so thyme branches on beef with a red-wine reduction, rosemary on a roasted chicken, etc., etc. Not only is this visually less hackneyed, but diners might wind up actually eating the garnish. Therefore, the garnish’s flavors should be harmonious with the dish.

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So then what is the deal with mint sprigs and dessert? Even at restaurants that should know better, I’ve seen the offending herb lurking on crème brulee (minty crème brulee? Eeeeew.), caramel sauce, coffee granita, you name it. Enough with those tacky mint sprigs!

What we’d prefer to see: we’d like to see a bit more thought applied here. If you don’t garnish every entrée with a parsely sprig, then don’t garnish every dessert with mint. How about some more interesting options?

“-Ini” Drinks Made with Other than the Canonical Trio of Ingredients
We can lay this one solely at the feet of “Sex and the City,” whose scantily clad urbanites were constantly swigging either dreadful pink Cosmos or huge martinis out of chic, inverted-cone glasses. Problem was, martinis are an adult drink. Properly made, a martini has strong, big-boy flavors like medicinal gin and herbal vermouth. These cocktails pack a punch and taste like it, too – it’s a drink for people who like the flavor of alcohol. Martinis are not a drink for 22-year-olds — no matter how much they’d like to imitate Sarah Jessica Parker and pose around holding those cool-looking glasses. Cue the “ini” drinks – you know, chocolatinis, appletinis, peach-a-tinis. Almost universally, these candy colored and flavored alco-pops are made using the DeKuyper family of shnapps, whose varieties include – all artificially flavored and colored, mind you, just like Jolly Rancher candy—Berry Fusion, Cheri-Berri, Island Blue, Grape, Watermelon, and Sour Apple. I wish I were kidding here, folks.

What we’d prefer to see: we think there’s nothing as sexy as a well-made, classic martini, especially when our work has elicited yet another nasty letter to the editor. Chilled by its tussle with a shaker full of ice, the gin becomes thicker, almost viscous, while the different density of the thin ribbon of vermouth catches the light as it drifts to the bottom of the glass. Garnished with a briny olive, nothing is as elegant, pure or satisfying. We especially like ours in a setting as grand and grown-up as the cocktail: drop by Equus at the Castle and imagine yourself in the Great Gatsby, drinking martinis as you sit by a baronial fire.

“Death by Chocolate” Desserts
Look—I like chocolate as much as the next guy, probably even more, but I’m totally left cold by these “death by chocolate” desserts. You know the ones I mean—the massive servings of chocolate cake, chocolate frosting, with chocolate sauce and chocolate shavings? Even if the dessert is made with the best chocolate money can buy, it’s still an unrelieved, one note wonder: a half-a-pound of exactly one flavor. Blame Marcel DeSaulniers of Trellis Restaurant, located in the boondocks of Williamsburg, VA, for this one—he coined the name and the concept. Now, like molten chocolate cake, you can find this tarry, smile-blackening fudge-a-thon everywhere.

What we’d prefer to see: we like a little counter-point to our chocolate, something to brighten the palate and enliven the senses. Nothing earth-shattering, but how about a silken crème anglaise studded with vanilla seeds? Or some whipped cream, hazelnuts, or even a sprinkling of chili? One of our faves (even though the dish is essentially a molten chocolate cake) is the chocolate dessert cooked in a vacuum jar at Gaia in Greenwich. Paired with the perfect ying/yang compliment of tangy crème fraiche, the two intense flavors taste fresh with every bite.

Waiters That Ask Presumptuous Questions Like, “How Are You Enjoying That?”
We don’t know if there was a focus group, or culinary school study or what, but this annoying restaurant practice is getting out of control. Waiters are clearly being trained to ask this bizarre question, and to what end? Are we supposed to be tricked into enjoying ourselves by a leading question? What if we’re not enjoying ourselves? What if our enjoyment ended when you asked this obnoxious question?

What we’d prefer to see: honest inquiries, like “Is everything all right?”, or “How is everything?” or even, “Yo—you good?” We’re happy with any gesture that shows the restaurant cares about their diner’s experience—and isn’t looking to manipulate their response.

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