March 18, 2005

Chef JoAnna's Rule of Eating Abroad

Long before I had even considered culinary school, I've had very good luck at choosing restaurants and with ordering food from strange places. I came up with a rather obvious philisophy after a trip to France. I will share the stories below, but first, I offer this rule, and this corollary:
  • RULE: If you see people of the ethnicity of the restaurant's cuisine both eating the food (as customers) and serving the food (as cooks & waiters), you're probably in good hands
  • COROLLARY: If you're still in doubt, order appetizers or a first course, and hold out on ordering the rest of the meal until you've judged the appetizers
When Kelly and I were in Paris in the Spring of 1999, we were near the Place des Voges and it was dinnertime. Since it was a 3-week trip, and we we'd had our fill of steak frites and sandwiches au jambon (pour lui) and au camembert (pour moi) we were looking for something different. We came upon this little Chinese restaurant, and even though I'm fluent in French, I was a bit anxious about eating food I didn't understand. My big fear on vacation is that I eat something that makes me sick, and causes me to spend vacation time in the hotel instead of at the places I'd rather be visiting.

We looked in the window and saw Chinese people animatedly enjoying their dinner, served by a middle-aged Chinese w. "That's a good sign," is said, but I was still anxious. I suggested, "Let's just order appetizers and see if we want to order real food after." Kelly agreed. Once we opened the door, and smelled the savory air, i knew we'd be happy. The appetizers were excellent, and we ended up having one of the most enjoyable and memorable meals of the vacation.

This rule was NOT followed when we went to an allegedly Mexican restaurant on Rue de Mouffetard. Before we even placed our order, the ubiquitous chips and salsa were offered by a skinny French waitress who looked very out of place. The chips were greasy and the salsa was little more than chunky ketchup with cilantro in it. We should have just paid for our beers and left, but we were tired, hungry, and it was late. We ate a comically bad replica of Mexican food (and consider, we were Chicagoans at the time!) and, uh, regretted it the next day.

We redeemed ourselves with a trip to a Greek place a bit further up Mouffetard, an spot with long tables and paper placemats with swarthy waiters and a couple of happy Greek fellows seated near the door with half-devoured plates of food. They couldn't have had a better advertisement if they had placed them as a prop. The place felt right, smelled right, looked right, and food was great.

The lesson has served me well since that trip, I hope it proves useful for you!

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