It’s a type of literacy, and there aren’t many people in my world who are better at it than my buddy Ella Quittner, who knows how to order off of restaurant menus. At the very least once a month, she spends dinner at the restaurant I Sodi in Manhattan with her husband Nate, and in an act that can only be described as crazy, she always orders fries for dessert. Following salad, spaghetti, and any kind of meat Nate wishes to receive, the towering pile of patate fritte floats over to their table like a cloud at the conclusion of a lengthy dinner — “when I feel I cannot go on,” Ella says. As a “seraphic” finish to one of her favourite dinners in the city, the potatoes are hand-cut and shallow-fried with fresh sage leaves and unpeeled garlic cloves, with their skins cracked just enough to flavour the oil. This is one of her favourite lunches in the city.
My favourite way to enjoy a meal at a restaurant is to “live life on the edge of the menu,” as shown by this order from I Sodi. The oatmeal cream pie in a crab shack, the vegan risotto at a restaurant and the quesadillas at an underground Champagne bar are all worth a try. You are free to order whatever you want in a restaurant, regardless of what the establishment is most known for serving. If it appears excellent to you, purchase it. The more you break the rules, the more often you will be rewarded for it.
For me, eating out at restaurants has always been a special occasion, but a celebration does not always have to centre on a milestone birthday. When I was a graduate student, I would lock up in my apartment before major test days, subsisting on Frosted Flakes and Cheez-Its. Afterwards, I would emerge from the shadows to reward myself to what I dubbed Brain Dinner at my local brick-oven pizza, Buca, which has since closed its doors. On the other hand, a pepperoni pie or even a Hawaiian pie is not something I would order. My choice of entree would be a salmon dish consisting of a lightly salted center-cut fillet that has been roasted until the sides are crisp but the centre remains pink and delicate. Along with a relish consisting of red onion, olives and capers, it also came with a summer vegetable trio consisting of aubergine, zucchini and squash. It was discovered that the intense heat of a brick oven not only produced excellent pizza, but also produced fish and vegetables of an even higher quality. That particular flavour, which some Koreans may refer to as bulmat, or fire taste, is difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce at home.
There are instances when the peculiar item on a menu is really the chef’s own pet project, which is all the more incentive to order it. It’s possible that first-timers to the popular Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans aren’t aware that the restaurant places a strong emphasis on veggies, but this is information you need to know in order to place an order for them. When I went to the city in January for a friend’s wedding, my attention was immediately drawn to the turnips that had been coated with citrus. On the otherwise flashy menu of raw-bar staples such as oysters varying in plumpness and brininess; a nutty, almost creamy royal red Gulf shrimp dish that stains your fingers with a crab roe sauce; and the beloved steak tartare with smoked-oyster aioli on toast, which landed on nearly every table in the dining room, they seemed so unassuming, maybe even out of place. Who would have thought that the side dish of turnips would be the highlight of my seafood lunch?
Pêche’s chef de cuisine and the dish’s originator, Nicole Cabrera Mills, shared with me that she had been experimenting with turnips for quite some time, preparing turnip purée, turnip cakes, and turnip gratin, among other turnip-based dishes. Even if they were excellent, many still chose not to eat them. She claims that the “lowly turnip” is not even close to being anyone’s favourite vegetable. You are not referring to mushrooms in your statement. However, if there were ever a dish that could make turnips more seductive, it would be this citrus-lacquered variation, which stunned even Mills and became an unexpected smash for the restaurant.
Mills was simply doing what she normally does, which is cooking seasonally and using local products. She was buying up the harvest from her favourite turnip farmer, Timmy Perilloux, who lives and farms near Montz, Louisiana. Perilloux produces turnips. She had to rapidly prepare the turnips since her kitchen was cramped and space was at a premium. It also helped that turnip season coincided with citrus season, which meant that there was an abundance of satsumas in New Orleans at that time. They were the ideal blend of sour and sweet, as well as bitter and smooth, when brought together. Turnips that have been quickly roasted may be tempered with this glaze, which is a simple reduction of satsuma juice, gochugaru, and butter. The glaze gives the turnips a beautiful mother-of-pearl shine and almost an iridescence.
One further reason why I’m happy I purchased the turnips is that Pêche ran out of stock shortly after I departed New Orleans. Mills informed me that turnip season in Louisiana often lasts until April or May, but due to the frost that occurred this year, many farmers were unable to harvest their crop. When you want to live life on the edge of the plate, you have to be willing to take risks when they present themselves.