Being either a hipster or a self-proclaimed foodie, there are a few things you can’t admit to not knowing when at a trendy restaurant. It’s one thing to cop to not being familiar with an all-Spanish wine list (always followed by a “I’m really more of a fan of French wines”), but not knowing ingredients, preparation techniques, or proteins when asked by fellow diners and having to (gasp!) ask the server—that’s so not très chic.
Additionally, the usual “fake it ‘till you make it” mantra is unacceptable in this situation. As I so snottily informed a diner just last week; “No, veal is neither a small bird nor a type of fish.” Getting schooled by your waitress on a date is a surefire way to an early end to the evening. Or at least, it should be.
Without further ado, here are five menu choices deconstructed to help make you sound smart:
1. Veal Sweetbreads with Rutabaga, Truffle Salt, and Sauce “Forestiere”
From In Season
Hate to break it to you, but veal is not a small bird or a fish—it is a calf. Much like lamb differs from goat, the taste and texture of veal is much different than a dry-aged steak. Sweetbreads are neither sweet nor bread, they happen to be the thymus or pancreas gland of an animal. They’ve got a smooth, creamy texture and are positively delicious. Rutabaga of course is a root vegetable, similar to a turnip and is firm and slightly sweet. Truffles are a rare fungal delicacy dug up by pigs and dogs. They’ve got an earthy flavor, rich and unlike anything else. The quotes around “Forestiere” generally mean it is the chef’s take on a particular sauce. The sauce in question is a French-inspired sauce that usually contains wild mushrooms.
2. Sautéed Sea Scallops with Morcilla, Chorizo, Radish, and Potato
From La Belle Vie
If you don’t know what a scallop is, you either haven’t seen Barbershop, or possibly have an aversion to seafood (and bivalve mollusks) in general. They’ve got a firm, mild texture and when sautéed should have a nice crisp crust concealing the smooth interior. Morcilla is a Latin American version of blood sausage—a sausage made by cooking blood and meat with some type of filler (like rice or oatmeal) until it is thick enough to congeal when cooled, and has a rich and spicy taste. Chorizo is another type of sausage, usually made of pork and cured. It contributes a deep, smoky flavor to a meal. You’re on your own with radish and potato—if you don’t know what they are, you probably shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.
3. Rabbit Leg Confit with Creamy Grits, Kale, and Honey Gastrique
From the Craftsman
Rabbit does not taste like chicken, and why the hell should it. If, like in this dish it served confit, it means that it has been left to cook, slowly (the operative word) in its own fat or juices. The result is a rich, flavorful bunny that you can cut without even using a knife (not recommended, we have two hands for a reason). Grits are coarsely ground corn, and kale is that bitter dark green dynamite stick of nutrition that’s so “in” with all the suburban housewives. A gastrique is a simple sweet-and-sour sauce made of sugar (or in this case honey) and vinegar, reduced and thickened to punch up the tart sweetness.
4. Brandade Fritters with Pernod Braised Leeks, and Mustard Crème Fraiche
From Café Maude
Brandade is a classic French dish consisting of salt cod, olive oil, and milk—here it is probably blended with potatoes and fried into a fritter. (Which is any food coated with a batter, then fried. Duh.) Pernod is an anise-flavored liqueur that used to be the most popular absinthe (before the French banned it in 1915). It now lacks the wormwood kick, but still packs a punch, especially when used to braise (first browned in fat, then simmered in liquid) leeks. Crème Fraîche is a rich cream that is slightly soured; this one has also been flavored with mustard (duh again).
5. Stringozzi with Lamb Sugo
From 112 Eatery
This is a classic case of mutton dressed as lamb…or is it? Stringozzi is a type of pasta, nothing more nothing less. In this case the long, thin, round noodles are served with lamb sugo—which translates into lamb sauce. Case closed.
This should help you on your journey into food-focused superiority. Nevermore shall you utter the words of Julia in Pretty Woman: “Where’s the salad…that’s the fork I know.”
Photo: La Belle Vie, from We Got Served