NEW YORK • Most people do not go out to a fancy meal expecting a bargain. But that does not mean they want to be ripped off.
Splurge by all means - just know what to avoid if you don't want to be slogged with a huge mark-up or inferior produce, says Josh Capon, chef and co-owner of New York's Bowery Meat Company and Lure Fish Bar. Here is a list of things he would never order from a restaurant menu.
1. Oysters that are not freshly shucked
"When you order oysters, make sure the restaurant is shucking them to order. They should be displayed on ice, cold and juicy. And they should taste like you're eating the sea. You shouldn't eat oysters for US$3 (S$4) or US$4 a pop that come out looking a little dry and not exactly plump and sexy.
"Cheaper oysters aren't necessarily bad oysters though. A lot of raw bars offer a US$1-oyster happy hour to get people in the door and the oysters are usually local to the region. Often, the restaurant breaks even when they sell them - but that's to your benefit. Just make sure they were opened after you ordered them and that they look good."
2. Truffles you can't see
"Plenty of truffle oils and butters aren't made from the real stuff. Some even use chemicals to simulate their distinctive flavour. I've worked in places where they use portobello gills - the bottom of a portobello mushroom - that look like truffle shavings when they are dried out.
"Truffles are expensive because they're hard to come by. A dish spiked with four to five grams of white truffle can cost anywhere from US$44 to US$175, depending on the restaurant, market supply and time of year. I'm not saying they're not worth it, but if I'm going to pay for them, I want to see them shaved tableside. You should see the truffles, smell the truffles - basically, you want to enjoy the show."
3. Mediocre steak frites
"You get what you pay for when you buy a good piece of meat. With something like steak frites or what's called the 'bar steak', restaurants don't always specify the cut of meat. I see some chains selling steak dinners for US$11.99 with a skewer of shrimp and I don't know how they do it. There are different meat tenderisers, as well as certain tools that pull at the muscles and tendons to make a cut a lot more tender.
"To me, a steak isn't something you eat every day, so I go for a prime, possibly dry-aged steak that I know I'll really enjoy, not a questionable cut."
4. A US$76 Dover sole
"A fish like Dover sole, often sold as Sole Meuniere, is a high-ticket item. Since real Dover sole is flown in from Europe, it's expensive to buy, which means it's going to be expensive on the menu. New York's 21 Club sells it with a lemon beurre blanc for US$76 a pop. It's a rich, buttery fish. I'm not saying it shouldn't cost that much. But I can get you a beautiful, locally caught lemon sole for a lot less. If I served a Dover sole and a lemon sole and covered them both in a brown butter sauce, you probably couldn't tell the difference."
5. Dishes "for the table"
"Let's say you're in a group of six people and the captain comes over and says: 'The scampi is so good. Why don't we order this for the table?' There's nothing wrong with saying, "That's great, but can we do those scampi for five people?" This strategy for ordering less than your group size goes for anything from bread to sides to a raw bar to steak, because there's always someone who won't eat as much as the others."
6. Mystery maki rolls
"When you cut a piece of tuna and save the best parts for sushi and sashimi pieces, there's a lot of trimmings you can use in maki rolls so nothing goes to waste.
"But I've seen frozen products out there - bags of chopped-up tuna. You don't know where it came from, when it was chopped up or when it was frozen. That's what you don't want in your spicy tuna maki. Sometimes the spice hides the questionable flavour of the fish."
7. Guilt-ordered wine
"If you're having an expensive dinner, you probably feel you need an equally pricey wine. It's perfectly fine to not want to spend big bucks - say more than US$75 - on a bottle.
Tell the sommelier what kind of wine you're looking for and what your price point is. He or she should appreciate your honesty and treat you with the same amount of respect as somebody buying a US$500 bottle of red. If they don't, you just learnt something about that restaurant."